I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the letter to a local paper from someone who thought First Nations had no astronomy or mathematics. I’ve spent years trying to understand both, and have barely scratched the surface.

The Pawnee used to sing hymns to the constellations, especially the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) which symbolized to them a band of warriors riding across the sky. The Incas and Aztecs used that constellation, which they called the Colchas or storehouse, to tell them when to begin harvesting their crops.

Archaeologists know hundreds of stone circles across North America oriented precisely toward sunrise at the summer solstice. Every teepee was oriented to the sun, and the view through the smokehole allowed stellar observations that kept the dwellers precisely aware of the time of year.

Near St. Louis, at Cahokia IL. there are mounds built on the Mississippi flood plain that are precisely oriented to the North Star. Below the largest mound was a circle of pillars that allowed the astronomer of 1000 years ago to tell, by the shadows it cast, the exact day, week and month of the year, as well as the time of day.

The ancient writings of the Mayan people of Mexico consisted of two kinds. There were quipu, a collection of different colored strings on a stick, that allowed them to keep extensive records. Mostly they were used to record transactions, but could also indicate historical records of communities. They also had huge libraries of paper books, called “Codex,” only four of which survived the fires of the Spanish Inquisition. Those four, in German museums, tell of hundreds of plants and animals and of their respective uses in medicine, foods and spiritual ceremonies.

We’ll never know what the thousands of Mayan books contained. The four that were rescued have provided hundreds of PhD research papers, and will provide at least hundreds more as they are slowly deciphered.

The number system we use has ten symbols, one through nine and a zero. It descended from a Persian system that used 60 symbols. The zero was invented in India about 500 BC, to help deal with the complication of a base-60 system. The Arabs adapted it to their 10-symbol system about 200 BC, and it.s come down to us from them.

The Mayans also invented the zero about 1200 years ago and incorporated it into the number system they had inherited from the ancient Olmec civilization. It uses only two symbols, the dot (one) and the line (five). With the fist (zero), it became a base-five number system, but essentially, with the zero, a binary system.

As the stone carvings on their observatories show, especially the Caracol at Chichen Itza which I’ve had the opportunity to study, their system was used to calculate eclipses to the hour over a time span of at least 180 thousand years, at a time our Eurasian astronomer didn’t even know Venus had phases. (Like the moon, Venus is visible as reflected sunlight. How the Mayans knew this without telescopes is unknown to science).

The Mayan calendar, unlike ours which only uses the sun for marking the year, uses the sun, the stars, and Venus, which has a 260-day cycle of phases. Their 13-day week cycles exactly into the Venus cycle, and both cycle into the sun yearly cycle every 52 years.

Our system needs to add an extra day every four years, a leap year, to catch up with the sun. Their system doesn’t, because a 13-day week has exactly 13 day’s worth of leap days every 52 years.

When our base-ten number system was inventing exponential notation to deal with very large and very small numbers, the Mayan astronomers had been using a similar system incorporated into their math for at least 500 years. When EuroAmericans started using base-two (binary) systems to design the computer chip, the Mayans had been using it in their everyday lives for over 900 years.

Ben Whorff, and anthropologist who lived among the peoples of the American Southwest, suggested the Hopi have a better understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity than most of us because their language consists almost entirely of verbs. His contention has never been refuted.

—Jim Erkiletian holds university degrees in Economics, Education, English and Anthropology

Re: Health and Wellness at VIU

I agree with Gareth Boyce’s observation that, while it is noble that the university banned bottled water, it is sugary drinks that pose a far greater health risk. In fact sugar, and the cheaper, even more dangerous GMO high fructose corn syrup, intake—annually over 100 pounds per person—is now found to be a cause of not only weight gain and diabetes, but also heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and memory loss. One medical researcher, Dr. Robert Lustig, the leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco, has concluded that sugar consumption in North America is the root cause of 2/3’s of all chronic health problems.
Fruit juice is preferable to pop because of its mineral content; but because it is composed basically of fructose and water, it is still sugar. Water is the best choice, just not out of soft plastic containers. I filter water and put it into a glass or stainless steel container. And I eat fresh fruit, especially organic and local whenever possible.
Yes, I know that universities are increasingly reliant on corporate funding, such as vending machines, as the province retreats on their subsidies. This needs to change. Simply taxing sugar would reduce its consumption, lower health-care costs, and provide more money to fund education so that universities are not depending on self-interested entities.
In the meantime, why should I help rack up the profits of large corporations who know that their products destroy health?

—Ian Gartshore

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