What does zero mean to you, “nothing”? Or is it just something you learned at school? Let’s solve the mystery of what it meant to the Maya.

The zero, the numeric system based on positions, the precision of the astronomy calendars based on the observation of the sun and the moon, the prediction of natural phenomena such as eclipses: these and other legacies in mathematics and astronomy show us the knowledge that the Maya developed. Let’s focus on the numerical system and the keys to understanding it.

As opposed to what we were taught in school about the decimal system, where we count from 0 to 9 and from there we combine the same nine digits into an infinite number of forms, the numerical system developed by the Maya is based on groups of 20 elements, possibly the result of seeing that we have 20 fingers and toes.

The Maya were the first to include the number zero in all the Americas, but to them it did not mean something of no value; rather, it had a value that symbolized plenitude. The zero, represented by a glyph that can be interpreted as a closed fist or as a shell, symbolized the ending of a cycle and the beginning of another.

You might ask yourself how the Maya numbers are represented. They use three symbols: the dot with a value of 1, that cannot be repeated more than four times; the horizontal bar with a value of 5; and the snail (or shell) with a value of 0. The Maya numerical system is additive, meaning that each dot accumulates value, and when it gets to 5 the bar is used, the number 6 is a bar and one dot, and so on, until reaching 20, symbolized with a 0 in the lower level and a dot in the level above.

The Maya numbers are written from bottom to top, grouped by levels: first the units (from 1 to 19); then the twenties, in other words every number that is written on the second level must be multiplied by 20; in the third level by 400 (20 x 20), and so on. This allowed them to create a board with different levels to be able to do larger calculations. Also, each number had a Maya word associated with it, similar to how the Egyptians used a graphic and a phonetic representation.

As you can see, the Maya numerology is complex but very precise, and extremely advanced for their time. Now, with everything you learned today, we challenge you to write your birthday with Maya numbers!

By Violeta H. Cantarell

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