Maya Mathematics

The Ancient Maya used a base number 20 in their counting, instead of a base number 10 like the Western cultures did. They used a system of dots and bars to write down a number. A dot stood for one and a bar stood for five.

In the following table you can see how numbers were written:

Because the Maya used a base number 20, larger numbers were written down in powers of 20. This principle works the same as in our system, but we write larger numbers in powers of 10, for example: 52 is in our system 5 x 10 + 2, but  in the Maya system 52 was made out of 2 x 20 + 12. 

The numbers were written from bottom to top. The number written on the bottom line had the value of the written unit, the line above that the value of the written unit times 20, the line above that the written unit times 400 (20 x 20) and so on.

If a Maya wanted to write down the number 1952 (which was made up from 4 x 400 + 17 x 20 + 12 x 1) he had to write the number four on the line for 400, the number 17 on the line for 20 and the number 12 on the line for the value of the written unit. 

This system was a practical system to use. To add and substract was very easy using this system. Fractions were not used by the Maya's as far as we know. The system of the Maya's was necassery in order to create the calendrical systems written op another page of this website.

The Mayans also created headvariants of the numbers 0 to 19. These were used purely for esthetics on the many monuments that still can be found in their Ancient cities. The following links will show you the different viriants of the numbers used by the Mayans:

Numbers 0 to 6
Numbers 7 to 13
Numbers 14 to 19 (Images by Nancy McNelly)