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.
*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