Mesoamerican Achievements in Astronomy & Architecture

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  • 0:08 Achievements of Math & Science
  • 0:27 Architecture & Education
  • 2:41 Astronomy & Calendars
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the math and science of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca: three of the greatest civilizations of the ancient Americas. Then, you will be able to test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Achievements of Math and Science in Mesoamerica

In what is now Central and South America, there were three highly advanced ancient civilizations: the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca. All three of these achieved incredible feats of engineering and science because they highly valued education. Keep that in mind - education is good.

Architecture and Education

The Aztecs, Maya, and Inca all took education very seriously. Their civilizations were supported by very intelligent philosophers and engineers, so education had to be a priority. The Aztecs, for example, implemented a standardized education across the entire empire to ensure that every child received a quality education consistent with the needs of the empire. Aztec children, mainly those of nobility, who continued school after the age 14 could enroll in the military institute or the school for advanced astronomy, philosophy, statesmanship, and engineering, called the calmecac. Medicine, science, art, and philosophy were all very important to all three civilizations, but the greatest priorities were on astronomy and architecture.

The Aztecs, Maya, and Inca all developed monumental architecture, meaning buildings of immense size and scale. In Central America, the Aztecs and Maya developed pyramids with temples to their gods on the top. These temples were generally the center of the city and the tallest buildings. The Maya used pure step pyramids, made from placing a series of continuously smaller platforms on top of each other that were also physical representations of the calendar. The number of steps on each side could represent days in a month or years in a cycle. For example, the great pyramid in Chichen Itza has 365 steps on each side. The Aztecs were fond of twin pyramids, which had two temples on the top and two ramps to worship two deities. For example, the massive main temple in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán had twin temples dedicated to the god of war, Huitzilopochtli, and the god of rain, Tlaloc.

The Inca, down in South America, had slightly different architecture because they lived on the sides of high peaks in the mountains. They used huge retaining walls to build flat platforms of raised earth, called steps, on which they built massive structures. Mortar, a mixture that holds stones together in a wall, was not commonly used by any of the American civilizations, but the Inca used it the least. Without mortar, the stones have to be cut so perfectly that there was no room at all for them to budge. To this day, most Inca structures are so well-built that not even the edge of a knife blade can fit in-between stones in the wall.

Astronomy and Calendars

The Inca, Maya, and Aztecs all had advanced calendars based on astronomy, which was perhaps the most important science to the ancient people of the Americas. They devoted years of observations to it, built observatories in all major cities, and even designed their architecture to reflect different cycles of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. During the solstices and equinoxes, the sun appears directly in line with dozens of ancient buildings, cast shadows from statues onto thrones, and illuminates objects through holes in the walls.

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