The History Of Mayan Math – Term Paper Example

Mayans used a sophisticated number system known as Vigesimal. Mayans developed this complex form of mathematics due to the importance of both the calendar and astronomy in their culture. This Mayan system is to base 20 presumably from counting of toes and fingers. This is a bit complex compared to our system as we rely on a system that is only to base 10. The Mayans were able to work with very large numbers using 3 symbols only: a shell shape (representing a zero), a dot- representing one and a bar (representing 5). Just like the system we use today, they also used the place value system to express very large numbers; however they arranged the place values vertically.
In the Vigesimal system, the second number is 20 times the numeral while the third place is 400 times the numeral. In our system today, the second number has a value 20 times the numeral. For instance, in the value 22- the first 2 is ten times the second 2. Another important fact to note is borrowing and carrying forward is only done when 20 is reached and not 10, as is practiced today. This system did not require too much literacy and was therefore extensively used in marketplaces by the illiterate. Combinations of items like pebbles, cacao beans, sticks and small bones could be used to express the numbers and simple arithmetic operations computed. Despite not knowing the concept of fractions, the Mayans discovered the importance of zero in mathematics at a time when Europe was still suffering with the Roman system that did not have a zero.
Mayans put this complex mathematical system into use in astronomy and calendar. Through observations, they studied the stars and sky, keeping track of the movements of stars, planets and the sun. Once they recorded and mastered the movements of the sun and the weather changes that they experienced in each location of the sun, they came up with their seasons. They used this concept in agriculture. They discovered that decrease in the distance between the equator and the sun, symbolized the growing season and the end of a season represented harvesting period.
There were two calendars in the Mayan civilization: Tzolkin and Haab. The former comprised 260 days while the latter comprised 365 days. Both calendars comprised of months with 20 days, therefore Tzolkin had 13 months while Haab had 18 months. The moths were numbered from 0 to 19. In the Tzolkin calendar, months were named after their 13 gods while in Haab calendar, months were named after religious and agricultural events. It is speculated that Mayans may have lived in the tropics and may have experienced overhead sun twice each year. They therefore may have measured 260 days and an additional 105 days for them to experience overhead sun.