The Mayan culture is a Mexican culture from the pre-Columbus period which took place between 300 and 1460 AD, and whose territory took up a large part of the south east of the current territories of Mexico (Yucatan, Quintana Roo, etc.), Belize and part of Guatemala and Honduras. It was a very rich, developed civilisation in various ways, such as architecture, astronomy, and especially in mathematics.
We have all heard of the great Mayan pyramids and cities, such as Chichen Itza and Tulum, in which astronomical observatories were constructed for priests. They created diagrams representing the movements of the moon and other planets. They even created a solar calendar, the Haab, with a cycle of 365 days. This is the same number as the total number of steps of the four staircases of the Chichen Itza pyramid. Indeed, for the Mayans, time was the most important thing. However, how were they able to make these calculations in that period? Developing a rather complex numerical system, it was one of the first civilisations to use the zero and to take the position of numbers into account.
The Mayans used only three symbols to represent numbers. The point represented the unit; the line represented five; and the snail represented zero (although they could also use another representation). This was an additive, positional system, in which the values were added to obtain the exact number, using a vigesimal system. To write a number larger than twenty, the vertical position of the number came into play. The second level multiplied the quantity by twenty; the third level multiplied it by four hundred (202), etc. In this way, they were able to make calculations which were complicated for the time and make such advances in geometry and astrology.
The Mayans also had the only full writing system in pre-Columbus Mesoamerica. Like the Egyptians, the Mayans wrote on ceramic, stones, walls, codices, utensils, steps, lintels, etc. Thus, numerous remains of texts and mathematical calculations can be found in their cities.
Mayan writing shows contrasts with other Mesoamerican writings, due to its high degree of abstraction and complexity. It was characterised by its use of phonograms, ideograms and pictograms, a hieroglyphic system which allows a word to be written in different ways. This wide range of possibilities has complicated its deciphering, as some drawings represent words while others represent syllables.
Despite all their advances, this great civilisation fell into decline for reasons which remain unknown. Likewise, the origin of the civilisation’s name is still not clear. What other secrets are the Mayans still keeping?
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