50 years ago, a search for proof that the Maya tracked comets came up short

Excerpt from the June 30, 1973 issue of Science News

A photo of the pages of a book called the Dresden Codex.

Ancient Maya people tracked eclipses and other astronomical phenomena in a book called the Dresden Codex (several pages shown). Researchers suspect the Maya also may have tracked comets and meteorite showers, but evidence is sparse.

SLUB Poster/Wikimedia Commons

The cover of Science News from June 30, 1973.

Comets, novas and the Mayans Science News, June 30, 1973

Did the Mayans record novas and comets? … Comparing dates of known historic novas and comets with [20] Mayan dates, [a researcher] found no acceptable correlation. Nevertheless, [the researcher] believes that the Mayans probably did record such events and that a record will eventually be found.


Solid evidence that ancient Maya people marked dying stars or passing comets continues to elude archaeologists. Several early codices and stones may have recorded hieroglyphs that together mean “comet.” But Spanish conquistadores destroyed many of the originals, and only copies made well after the Maya empire’s collapse clearly depict comets.

In 2017, an analysis of Maya records and astronomical data hinted that the Maya indirectly marked at least one comet by predicting when meteor showers would dazzle the sky. Between the years 250 and 909, six royal coronations happened within days of the annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower, researchers found, which occurs when Earth passes through the tail of Halley’s comet.

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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