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Eating the Sun – Eclipses and the Maya

UT professor and world-renowned Mayanist David Stuart discusses the discovery of Maya knowledge of eclipses

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David Stuart in the Yucatan in 2019.

In the early afternoon of April 8, 2024, The University of Texas at Austin will find itself in eerie darkness as the moon begins to block the light of the sun. In Austin, “totality” will begin at 1:36 p.m. and last less than two minutes. Just as students and staff are looking forward to the event, faculty members who study and teach about ancient cultures will be taking special note of the historic eclipse as their thoughts turn to our ancestors and what must have been going through their minds on such occasions. You may read about the Mesopotamians here and Native Americans here.


In 2014, David Stuart was in Guatemala getting his hands dirty. It’s an occupational hazard for one of the world’s leading scholars of Maya civilization. (In 1978, Stuart gave his first scholarly paper at the age of 12 at an international conference of Mesoamerican researchers, and at age 18 became the youngest person ever to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.) Stuart, the David and Linda Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at UT, was excavating a chamber that had been covered by dirt and vegetation and resembled a tropical Hobbit hole. 

They were real scientists. They did the calculations, they took evidence, they derived patterns from that evidence ..."

David Stuart

The chamber wall had interesting scribbles of hieroglyphs that looked to Stuart almost like a whiteboard, like notes of a Maya scientist. “There were all these little interesting calendar intervals, column upon column of numbers — bars and dots. At first, we had no idea what the heck these things were, but a couple of them were well preserved enough to get the idea that they were counting days.” 

When he got back from Guatemala, he ran photos of the wall scribblings through Photoshop filters to better make them out. “I was sitting on my sofa here in Austin one day just crunching the numbers on a piece of paper.” There were intervals between the columns that were 177 days. “Finally I said, wait a minute. If you divide this by 29 days, you get 6 months. And it was like, whoa! A lunar table!” The table was used, among other things, to keep track of these potential eclipses.

A Mayan mural that is an astronomical table from the north wall of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun, Guatemala. Composite image by William Saturno; drawing by David Stuart.

The find sent Stuart into the study of Maya astronomy, and the discovery pushed back by centuries the date at which we know the Maya understood the lunar calendar. “We have records in this calendar that go back to the 4th century A.D. The Maya are well known for being good astronomers. Other cultures were too — we just happened to have the records that they wrote down,” says Stuart. “They were accumulating data over generations and generations in order to calculate the eclipse intervals. They couldn’t necessarily predict exactly when they would occur but they could predict when they could occur. That takes generations of observation to see patterns in the movement of the moon.” The time scale was hundreds of years at least, says Stuart.

The unit of time they were very well aware of was the eclipse season, which lasts just more than 173 days. This is the period between “eclipse nodes.” The nodes are the two points where the moon’s orbit crosses the Earth’s orbit around the sun. They were able to tell when the moon potentially could align with the sun. “They wrote down particular eclipses when they happened, and then we have the astronomical tables that the priests and the guys who were keeping the almanacs would consult and be able to tell when they could occur,” Stuart says. “They had a lunar calendar that was pretty sophisticated, and they kept track of that in addition to all of these other calendars,” Stuart says.

One of the ways they described it was as “the eating of the sun.” “There’s a bite being taken out of it that’s bigger and bigger,” explains Stuart. Whether they believed the sun was being eaten or whether it was merely a descriptive figure of speech we don’t know. “They didn’t have a concept that the moon was an astronomical body relative to the earth,” says Stuart. “That kind of astronomical knowledge didn’t come around until much later, in Europe. But they saw the patterns. They were real scientists. They did the calculations, they took evidence, they derived patterns from that evidence and were able to see that the future conformed to that pattern during the eclipse.”

The reconstructed Xultun lunar table. Drawing by David Stuart.


The Maya were interested in and had extensive mythology around the moon, including the moon goddess, who was the consort of the sun, who was also related to the goddess of childbirth. “There’s an interesting kind of male/female duality to the sun and the moon that is very cross-cultural,” Stuart notes. “It’s tied into menstruation and other things, and there’s a logic to it.”

Stuart recalls a solar eclipse in July 1991 in Mexico City, where he was living at the time. “Unfortunately, I got called away to a conference in New Orleans, and I was like, this is ridiculous! Here I am in New Orleans, and it was a huge deal in Mexico City! There were thousands of people in the square.” So, he says, “I’m really looking forward to it here.”