#7: Mayan Math

The Mayans were a classical civilization of Mesoamerica.  Originating in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C.E., they rose to prominence around A.D.E. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize.

Mayan Math was the most sophisticated number system ever developed in the Americas.  Astronomers and architects used Mayan Math, but it was also simple enough to be used by uneducated traders and farmers.  Where we use ten different symbols to represent numbers (1, 2, 3, 4 , 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0), the Mayans used only three: a dot for a one, a bar for five, and a symbol (usually a shell) for zero. (The Maya were the first civilization to discover and understand the concept of zero.)  The chart above shows the Mayan numbers 1 – 19.

We use a decimal system, based on the number ten, but the Mayans used a vigesimal system, based on the number twenty. So, where we learn to count on our fingers, Mayan children counted on their fingers and toes. In fact, the number twenty was very important to the Mayans, so much so that the words for “human being” and “twenty” share the same root in most Mayan languages.

The Mayans wrote their numbers from top to bottom rather than from left to right, but apart from that, their system was not so different from ours. For example, to write the number 34, we place a three in the tens column and a four in the ones column. The Maya put a one in the twenties column and a fourteen in the ones column:

Adding and subtracting in the Mayan system is simply a matter of juggling the dots and bars. To calculate 36 + 13, for example, you start by adding the units (i.e., 16 + 13). This gives you 29, so you leave 9 in the ones column and carry the 20 up, giving you a grand total of 2 twenties and 9 ones = 49.

Pretty smart, right? Especially, when you consider that the Ancient Egyptians never cracked the concept of zero and that complex calculations with Roman numerals were way too complicated for ordinary Romans.

Your challenge for this week’s math minute is to use Mayan Math symbols to create 5 math problems using Explain Everything, Notability, or your Drawing Pad app – you choose!

Once you’re done creating your math problems, send them to your EY Coordinator!