exupero's blog

The Palenque Code

I have a passing interest in steganography and encoding simple information in unexpected ways, so despite it arguing for ancient astronauts I enjoyed reading "The Palenque Code", which posits that certain symbols on a Mayan sarcophagus lid encode the origin of extraterrestrial visitors. The data, however, felt a little massaged, and after reading, I wondered what the "decoding" transformations would do to something closer to original data.

In particular, the author is interested in two complex icons and the vertical trios of dots that appear in the upper half of the lid's engraving, which I've highlighted red in this image from Wikipedia:

The author excludes the two triplets I've highlighted blue, as he has an alternate explanation for what they mean, and he considers the green figure to be a triplet, though in an addendum he admits that its inclusion "has no real relevance." Additionally, he adjusts the positions of the red symbols to correct for supposed carelessness on the part of the engraver(s).

Given all these adjustments, I'm curious to see what happens if we use something closer to the original engraving.

The first transformation is to rotate a copy of the image such that the purple dots on the top right align with the purple dots on the middle right. Let's find a point around which to rotate. Since the two X's are aligned with perpendicular edges, we need a 90° rotation. To find the point around which to rotate, consider a right triangle whose hypotenuse connects the centers of the X's:

The easiest way to find the right-angle corner is to measure the length of the hypotenuse and divide by the square root of 2, which supplies the length of each leg of the triangle; then, around the center of each X, draw a circle whose radius is that length. The intersection of the circles is our point of rotation. I used that process to construct the triangle above.

Reducing the trace of the engraving to the red and purple outlines shown above, let's rotate them 90° around the point we found (shown as a gray dot):

While the purple X's in the lower-right corner match up, the red triplets disagree with the corresponding illustration in The Palenque Code. The difference is not due merely to my refusal to adjust the triplets' starting positions. There also seems to be some sleight of hand going on. After The Palenque Code illustrates how the X's match up under rotation, it switches to a simpler illustration to show the triplets under repeated rotation, and the simpler illustration excludes the X's. If it included the X's, we would see that a different point of rotation is being used (the gray square, instead of the gray dot):

Not a big move, but the purple X's on the lower right clearly no longer line up. Here's the different on the trace of the engraving:

The square pivot point is reasonably close to the coordinate system origin chosen here.

Using the round pivot point to complete the three rotations and one horizontal reflection, we get a very different image than The Palenque Code shows:

Using the adjusted center, however, we do get an image that, in the middle at least, looks similar to The Palenque Code's result:

There are some differences, however. The triplets in the corners don't match The Palenque Code's illustrations, but since the author eventually discards those triplets, misalignment there shouldn't impact the result. Also, the four rectangular blocks near the center are only two-by-four instead of two-by-five. That feels a little like an improvement, since when the sliding step moves the interposing shapes together it has to leave a one-unit gap to leave room for the five-unit blocks to fit in between; with four-unit blocks, no gap is necessary. Despite the differences, though, the dots in the middle do align surprisingly well, which may suggest the inner triplets are indeed arranged on a grid.

Sliding octants together produces this image:

At this point, my curiosity is satisfied. I don't find the folding operations that follow to be especially compelling, not only because they feel quite arbitrary, but also because we began with 12 coordinate pairs, rotated and reflected them into 96 pairs, and the folding operations seem to be an elaborate exercise in reducing those 96 pairs to just two scalar values: a two and a three, interpreted as indicating a binary star system three celestial units away.

Regarding that eventual conclusion, the distance to the nearest star may be a reasonable celestial unit, but it seems unlikely that an extraterrestrial's point of origin would be close enough to an integer multiple of that distance. Perhaps the expectation of greater accuracy is modern bias or, given the sparseness of stars in the galaxy, integer approximations are good enough. In the latter case, the range of stars to investigate should be expanded to anything between 2.5 and 3.5 Earth-to-Proxima-Centauri distances away (10.6 and 14.9 light-years).

The prevailing interpretation of the engraving is that it illustrates the sarcophagus's occupant suspended between heaven and the underworld. I know nothing of Mayan religion, astronomy, and iconography, and very little about modern astronomy, but if the upper half of the engraving denotes the heavens, it seems reasonable to me for the triplets to indicate stars, shown tripled to evoke rising or setting. If so, other symbols noted in The Palenque Code could easily be other objects in the sky.

In particular, the large faces circled in red could represent the sun and moon, the smaller icons circled in blue planets, and the bird in the green box the Milky Way. If so, and the positions of these objects were carved accurately, some archaeoastronomy may be able to pin down a specific date when the sky bore some resemblance to the above configuration.

Though ultimately disappointing, I appreciated "The Palenque Code" for its attempt. What felt like tenuous reasoning also felt like alien reasoning, and I've occasionally wondered how self-interpreting codes might work, especially those for communicating between vastly different kinds of intelligences. "The Palenque Code" made that a little more concrete. To make it more rigorous, it does need better justification for the transformations after the first rotations, preferably justifications derived from the engraving itself. I also appreciated that, as a piece of ancient astronaut literature, it went beyond mere speculation and actually offered testable hypotheses.

If you have suggestions for where to learn more about self-interpreting codes, or other comments, please email me.