Mayan Numerals

I've been learning a little bit about the Mayan numeral system from Alfredo, a Math major who is slowly but surely becoming the ejido union's GIS guy. At first I figured it was like Roman Numerals (cumbersome and primitive), but when I learned that they had the concept of Zero, I really started paying attention. Our current number system owes its succes in large part to the fact that it contains a symbol for zero. The idea that "nothing" is a measurable quantity helped it spread from India through Arab traders to Europe, which then spread it across the globe.

The other reason for the success of the Indo-Arabic system is that its decimal, meaning you can combine the same ten symbols to form any number you want. Turns out the ancient Mayans had this concept down too, although their system has twenty digits rather than ten. My guess is the Indians only counted their fingers while the Mayans included their toes. Had history and geography played out a little differently, we could easily be using the Mayan's system rather than the Indian's.

The coolest thing about the Mayan system is that its really intuititve and easy to learn. All you need to know is four rules:


  • The little conch shell is a zero

  • The dot is a one

  • The line is a five

  • Mayans count in groups of 20, not 10!

Oh yeah, and Mayans write up the page, not down it.

The tricky part is that when you get to 20, you use the symbols for one and zero, not for two and zero. Then you start all over under the dot until you get to 40, which is two dots over a zero. And that's it! Three symbols, twenty digits, and you too can count like an ancient Mayan.
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*Check out a web app that converts "normal" numbers to Maya numerals here: http://www.michielb.nl/maya/math.html

**Image comes straight out of the good ol' wikimedia commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maya.png

3 comments:

Ron said...

Do you remember the Lakh & Crore system in India? Fascinating observation on fingers + toes. The symbols look like 'Heaven' to me (as in Ch'ien (heaven/yang) in the I Ching

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Ron said...

Do you remember the Lakh & Crore system in India? Fascinating observation on fingers + toes. The symbols look like 'Heaven' to me (as in Ch'ien (heaven/yang) in the I Ching

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ANDON said...

I don't remember that system, but lets read the Wikipedia on it!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_numbering_system

Very cool, its interesting how hard it is for me to imagine counting in Lakhs and Crores, coming from my euro-mathematical background. I remember too when I first moved to the US how hard it was for me to think about the number 1,500 as "fifteen hundred" rather than "one thousand five hundred."

Since I was only 9 when we were in India, I don't remember the Lakhs and Crores. I bet you ran into them a lot though.

Thanks for the comment dad!
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