Were Mesa Verde’s Ancient Builders Geniuses At Geometry?

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Sun Temple
The Sun Temple overlooks the Cliff Palace dwelling at Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde National Park's ancient cliff dwellings are impressive. But there may be something more extraordinary than meets the average eye in the 800-year-old stone walls of Mesa Verde's Sun Temple.

Sherry Towers, an Arizona State University statistician with a doctorate in experimental particle physics, was visiting the southwest Colorado park several years ago as a tourist when she took note of the geometry and seeming astronomical positioning of the D-shaped temple. She came back to study it as a scientific researcher and found something unexpected: The structure contains complex geometric shapes in repeating patterns as well as a repeating unit of measurement that equates to the modern 12-inch foot.

"These findings represent the first potential quantitative evidence of knowledge of advanced geometrical constructs in a North American society," Towers wrote in a research paper published this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Towers said the findings of complex geometry in Mesa Verde construction are remarkable because the ancestral Puebloans had no written language or system of numbers.

Towers measured shapes including the Golden rectangle, the Pythagorean triple, equilateral triangles and 45-degree right triangles.

Sun Temple geometry
This shows the complex geometric shapes Sherry Towers found in the Sun Temple at Mesa Verde.

She also found repeating measurements of about a foot long that showed the builders of the Sun Temple used a measurement similar to what the ancient Greeks and Romans used when they built their temples.

"If you asked me to try to lay out a structure with this kind of precision - precision that goes to about one-eighth of an inch in a foot, basically using a cord and a stick to measure - I would have a terrible time doing that," said Towers, who spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.