The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They were one of the only ancient civilisations to use a zero. Their number system was different from what we use today.
The numerical system allowed the Maya to do the elaborate calculations needed to make precise astronomical predictions. The precision of their observations and their astronomical recordkeeping were astonishingly accurate.
The Maya only used three symbols to represent all numbers. A dot to represent 1, a line (or bar) to represent 5 and a shell to represent 0. These are thought to represent items that the Maya people might have first used to count with, such as: pebbles, sticks and shells.
Zero is represented by a shell; 1 to 4 are represented by dots. Multiples of five are represented by lines, with extra dots being added to complete the numbers as shown.
Our own number system is base 10, which means that we have 9 ‘numerals’ (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9) plus a zero. When writing numbers, once we get to ‘9’ we then have to move across to the next column. We write a ‘one’ followed by a ‘zero’ to show that we have moved across – zero is a ‘place-holder’.
The Maya number system was base 20, which means that they had 19 numerals plus a shell for zero. The Maya used a similar system using their 19 numerals and then moving to the next section and putting a zero (represented by the shell) as a placeholder. Another difference is that the Maya used rows instead of columns, starting from the bottom and working upwards. So the place values were multiples of 20s: 1s, 20s (20 x 1), 400s, (20 x 20), 8,000s (20 x 400) and so on.
- Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian– Pupils can take the Maya Maths Challenge where they are asked to calculate numbers in the Maya number system. The game has varying levels of difficulty.
- To help there is a wonderful Maya Maths video demonstration by the Jaguar Stone website that shows you how to add and subtract both simple and complex numbers.
- Maya Codices – by Gabrielle Vail and Christine Hernández. This site features a searchable translation and analysis of the four remaining Maya codices, including the Dresden Codex (screenfold books), painted by the Maya scribes before the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. The codices contain information about Maya beliefs and rituals, as well as everyday activities, all framed within an astronomical and calendrical context. Includes an excellent presentation on these codices for teachers to download and use in their class