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Ancient Maya Number System

• The Maya were advanced mathematicians. They were one of the only
ancient civilisations to use a zero.
• Their number system was different from what we use today.
• The Maya only used three symbols to represent all numbers. A dot to
represent 1, a line (or bar) to represent 5 and a shell to represent 0.
These are thought to represent items that the Maya people might have
first used to count with, such as: pebbles, sticks and shells.
Maya Number symbols 0 -19
• Zero is represented by a shell; 1 to 4 are represented by
dots.
• Multiples of five are represented by lines, with extra dots
being added to complete the numbers as shown.

Can you predict what the numeral is for 20?


Base 10
• Our own number system is base 10, which means
that we have 9 ‘numerals’ (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9) plus a
zero.
• When writing numbers, once we get to ‘9’ we then
have to move across to the next column. We write
a ‘one’ followed by a ‘zero’ to show that we have
moved across – zero is a ‘place-holder’.
Base 20
• The Maya number system was base 20, which means
that they had 19 numerals plus a shell for zero.
• The Maya used a similar system using their 19 numerals
and then moving to the next section and putting a zero
(represented by the shell) as a placeholder.
• Another difference is that the Maya used rows instead of
columns, starting from the bottom and working upwards.
• So the place values were multiples of 20s: 1s, 20s (20 x
1), 400s, (20 x 20), 8,000s (20 x 400) and so on.
Reproduction of a detail of the Dresden Codex (13th century) with several symbols of Maya numbers
Writing Bigger Numbers
• In base 10, the headings are 100, 101, 102, 103, 104 etc.
• In base 20 the headings are 200, 201, 202, 203, 204 etc.

What are these values?


1, 10, 10x10, 10x10x10, 10x10x10x10

1, 20, 20x20, 20x20x20, 20x20x20x20


Number Bases
Our base 10: Maya base 20:
The column headings The row headings are:
are: 8000

1000 100 10 1 400

20

It will help initially to see the row headings, but they would not
normally be shown… just as our young children use 1, 10 and
100 as column headings when they begin writing numbers.
Writing Ancient Maya Numbers
What numbers are shown?
8000 8000 8000 8000

400 400 400 400

20 20 20 20

1 1 1 1

Remember: is 0 is 1 and is 5

Now answer Part One on your worksheet


Write this
Write the following using Ancient Maya numbers.
Use the row headings to help you if you need to.

21 63

40 97

100 372
Writing Maya Numbers: answers

21 would be: 63 would be:

40 would be: 97 would be:

100 would be: 372 would be:

Now answer Part Two on your worksheet


Larger Maya Numbers
To write larger numbers start with the highest row that
can be subtracted from the number you are trying to
write.
Example: Writing 5124.
‘8000’ is too big, so start with as many 400s as
possible, then work down with what’s left for the 20s
and 1s.
5124 = 12 x 400 = 4800
(324 left) 16 x 20 = 320
(4 left) 4 x 1 = 4
Offerings to deities to protect the stingless bees www.mayacodices.com

Can you spot the Maya numbers being used in this codex?
Problem 1
• How would you write 1377 in Ancient Maya
numbers?

• Now try writing 2012.


Teachers Notes: short answers from slides

Slide 6: values for base 10 are 1 10 100 1000 10000


values for base 20 are 1 20 400 8000 160000

Slide 8: numbers shown are 20 410 900 551


Answers
1200 =
160 =
17 =
1377_

2000 =
000 =
12 =