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Mayan Math

The history and civilization of the Mayans has always intrigued tourists to Cancun. The math of the Mayans was sophisticated, logical, and ahead of it's time.


THE MAYAN NUMBERS The Mayan' s number system is in some respects very similar to ours. They used only 3 symbols as opposed to our 10 and at the time hundreds of symbols used in Roman Numerals. These symbols are shown below.

The bar symbol represents 5, and the dots are 1's. The numbers can be written with the dots on top of horizontal lines . They may also be combined with shells for zero. The top left represents the number 6. Under this is 8. Under this is 14. Then the bottom left is 7. The top middle is 16. Can you figure the value for the middle-middle? Send us your answer and if it is correct, we will give you a special discount with your rental.
Now if you click on the Mayan number 15 you can play a neat game.

Top right is 15. Bottom right is 12.

Communicate your answer

The bottom number is 5. The position above is the twenties place so one dot is one twenty or 20. The next position up is 20x20 place or 400's. So 13 times 400=5200.

A simple dot is the number one. A shell is zero and a bar is five. They also used a head symbol representing the moon for 20. Here is a representation of the 31st day in their calendar. You will notice that the head symbol is combined with the "normal" numerical system. Each place up multiplies by 20. (In our system each place left multiplies by 10).

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Mayan Culture

The Mayan numbers shown above existed as far back as the Early Classic period (400 AD).

The Mayans were the single largest block of American Indians north of Peru and were centered in the Yucatan Peninsula.

They also had a ball game which was played with a rubber ball (you can see the ball court in Chitin Itza). In this remarkable structure, which is the length of a soccer field, there are two small structures at each end. If you position yourself at one end and your companion at the other you both can speak in a normal tone of voice and each can perfectly hear what the other is saying. It is a mystery how the Mayans understood acoustics to this degree so long ago.

The rules of the game were special. Now the ball was about the same size as the cement ring into which is was to be thrown into making it nearly impossible to score any points. Which in itself, was not a bad thing, as the winners of the game would loose their heads.

In the Popol Vuh, a great epic of the Maya (or Mayan Bible), recounts two gods, Tepeu and Gucumatz. Anxious for praise after creating the earth they decide to make the first humans. But they had some problems. The first man-like creature fashioned from mud soon melted at the first rain.
But Tepu and Gucumatz were not discouraged. They talked about it and tried again. After several other poor attempts they made the first men of maize dough.

The calendar was very important to the early Maya. Both gods and men were identified by the day they were born. So imagine the following conversation:
Hi, pleased to meet you, my name is Wednesday the fourth of August".
The Mayans were known to practice sacrifice. But come to think of it, how would one classify that episode of Abraham and Isaac in our Old Testament?
So imagine the conversation went down like this:
Gucumatz: Come here Tum Chu.
Mayan man (Tum Chu): Yes, Gumumatz, you called me?
Gucumatz: Yes my faithful servant. Tomorrow at dawn bring your son Brigido here to sacrifice him.
Mayan man (Tum Chu): No, not my son. How about the donkey?
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The Mayans were very advanced astronomically. Unlike the Greeks of the Homeric age, they knew that with the Evening and Morning Stars they were dealing with the same object. At Chichen Itza you can see the observatory they built to track the planet Venus which they knew to an accuracy of a few hours a year.

They used a figure of 584 days for the orbit of Venus while the actual value is 583.92. Now this was remarkable. Especially when you consider my drunk neighbor has no idea of how long it takes Venus to go around the sun and he lives and drinks beer today.

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