Number Systems Part 4 – Maya Numerals

Before the widespread usage of the Arabic number system, there were other ways to represent numbers. Let’s look at the Maya Numerals.

The Mayans were a civilization that occupied what is today Central America. The fascinating trait about this number system is that they only had three symbols, one for 0, 1 and 5 and used base 20 (powers of 20) rather then base 10.

0 = mayan 0     1 = mayan 1     5 =mayan 5

The combination of the symbol for 1 and 5 allows for the creation of 19 different numbers, from 1 to 19.

mayan numbers
Mayan numbers from 0 to 19, all of which are formed from the symbols for 0, 1 and 5

For numbers larger then 19, the Mayan number system works the same way as the Arabic number system with a few exceptions, the Mayan number system works on powers of twenty not ten, the larger power of twenty is put on top while the smallest goes on the bottom. The digits are arranged vertically not horizontally. Let’s look at the numbers 20, 30 and 40.

mayan 20The top number represents 1 x 20 and the bottom number represents 0 thus 1 x 20 + 0 = 20

mayan 30The top number represents 1 x 20 and the bottom number represents 10 x 1 thus 1 x 20 + 10 x 1 = 30

mayan 40The top number represents 2 x 20 and the bottom number represents 0 thus 2 x 20+0 = 40

Here are a few examples with larger numbers:

183 = mayan 183    7855 =   mayan 7855    5122 = mayan 5122

Fun fact, the Mayans were one few cultures that not only had a notion for zero but a symbol for it as well.