What Maths and Astronomy Were Like in Ancient Mayan Mexico


Everyone has heard about the Maya civilization, one of the most developed and advanced for its time. The Maya civilization is known for its architecture; they have built pyramids (Chichen Itza), palaces, temples, and entire cities. They are known for their art, including wood sculptures, paintings on walls, stone sculptures, and ceramics. But they are mostly known for their astronomical system and mathematics. So, what were math and astronomy like in ancient Mayan Mexico? Find out below. 

Mayan Math

Math, as we know it today, is way more advanced than the one used by this civilization in Mesoamerica.  As early as 1500 BCE, they established villages and started practicing agriculture and building their civilization. 

Students who are getting an education in college and are studying math, know that sometimes you need help understanding complex math problems. There are a lot of resources you can access and calculus problems and solutions to solve. Students who are in school already have basic math knowledge. But some of the ancient Mayan civilizations didn’t have any. So, they built an easy-to-understand and use math system that allowed all of them to trade. 

Image source: https://images.unsplash.com/photo

So, what did the Mayan math look like? Well, their system was pretty different from what we know today. The numbers as we use them today are coined by Arabs. And we are using a system based on 10: 1, 10, 100, 1000, 10000, and so on. But their math system was based on 20, as this is the maximum number of fingers and toes a human could have. Something easy to relate to when you do not know any math concepts but you want to trade. So, their system looked like 1, 20, 400, 8000.

What’s interesting about their system is that they are the first civilization to have understood the value of zero and to use it. They had symbols for just 3 numbers: 0, 1, and 5. 0 was represented by a shell, 1 by a dot, and 5 by a bar. Combining these symbols will result in higher numbers. For example, 16 would be written with 3 bars (3 x 5) and 1 dot above them. 

But what’s fascinating about the Mayan math numerical system is that they used glyphs too as numbers. And sometimes, they would use both these systems interchangeably. On top of this, they had sets of glyphs that symbolized deities, so this made modern people even more confused when trying to decipher them. Even more curious is the fact that they combined these glyphs when they wanted to represent compound numbers. For example, 1 is symbolized by an earth goddess, while 2 by the god of sacrifice and so on. But if you would want to write 14 for example, you would combine the glyph of 10 with the one of 4. 

Of course, some numbers even held sacred value. Among these are 5, 13, 20, 52, or 400. 5 – the number of fingers in one hand, 13 – the number of original Mayan gods, 20 – the total number of fingers and toes, 52 – the number of years in a “century”, and 400 – the number of gods of the night. 

Mayan Astronomy

Even though nowadays their numerical system doesn’t seem so complex, it was exactly what they needed to note their astronomical observations. Even though they had only a shell, a dot, and a bar to express numbers, they were indeed pretty accurate at it. 

They built the Mayan calendar, which was way more complex and accurate than the first European calendar. One month had 20 days and they had two calendars that coincided every 52 years. This is why these numbers held a sacred value. 52 years was called a bundle and it’s the correspondent of what we know today as the century. 

Their calendar is a solar one and has 365 days and 18 months. However, there are still 5 days remaining at the end of the year, as every month has 20 days. These 5 days were considered very dangerous ones and the Maya civilization would not leave their homes during these times. They were called “the nameless days”. 

pyramid surrounded by trees
Image source: https://images.unsplash.com/photo

Final Thoughts 

We all have heard about the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica. But the Maya civilization seems to be one of the most fascinating ones. They have built all their temples, pyramids, cities, villages, and so on according to the movement of the Sun or the Moon. This means that their math and astronomical systems were pretty advanced for those times. Which makes you appreciate the value these ancient civilizations have created for the future even more. 

Bio lines: Kathy Mercado is a content writer and blogger. She is passionate about history and ancient civilizations. You can find her reading a book about them every evening.

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