What is the number 'zero'?

What is the Mayan calendar like




How did the Mayas count?

The Mayas knew math really well. Just like us, they could add, subtract, and write big numbers. Have you noticed that we only use 10 numbers? They are: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, and we know them as a decimal system. To write really big numbers, we use the same 10 numbers in different combinations, like 36,865. This is a big number, but we always use a combination of the same 10 numbers. In this case, they're 3, 6, 8, and 5.
The system the Mayas used was very different from ours. They didn't use numbers that we do, but instead used symbols. They only had three symbols, which were: a point or dot (which represents 1 unit), a bar (which represents 5 units), and a something that looked like a shell, which represents the number 'zero'. With these three symbols, the Mayas were able to write very big numbers, all the way into the millions!

Maya Numbers

What mathematical system did the Mayas use?

Vigesimal system
The Mayas didn't use the decimal system, which means that they didn't count in units of 10, but instead in units of 20. For this reason, their system is known as a 'vigesimal'. It could be that our decimal system is based on the 10 fingers on our hands. So maybe the Mayas took into consideration the 10 toes, too! With the dots and bars, they could count up to the number 19. If we include the number 0, we can say that there were 20 numbers. After this point, they had to repeat the same numbers, but not like we do from left to right, but instead from the bottom up. This seems a little strange to us, but for them it was very normal - that's how plants grow, after all!

What is the number 'zero'?

The number 0 is something very strange, because it's nothing. To have zero hens means to not have any. But the number 0 is very important in math, because it symbolizes nothingness or emptiness.
Imagine that we didn't know the number 0. Your teacher gives you three candies, you eat two, and you give one to your friend, and all of a sudden your teacher asks you how many candies are left. How do you answer? None! In other words, zero. To add and subtract correctly, we need the number 0.
The Mayas actually discovered the concept of zero long before the idea occurred to other people. This is something very special, because the number zero is quite complicated.
Maya number zero
For the Mayas, zero didn't only represent 'nothing'. It also meant that nothing was missing! It's a little difficult to understand, but imagine that you just ate a lot - you now have zero hunger! Or in other words, you're not missing anything &

Did the Mayas study the stars?

Maya Observatory
The ancient Maya were big astronomers. They studied the stars every night and knew exactly when and where they would appear. They studied them from special buildings called observatories, which were very high and had an open door or window through which they could watch the sky and see the stars and planets well. They hung crossed sticks or poles in the window so they could situate each star in comparison with others. Every night, they noted the time and position of the stars and after doing that for many years, they could predict exactly which star would appear and at what time. Today's astronomers do the same thing, but the big difference is that the Mayas at that time didn't have the fine tools that are used today. They just used their eyes and they had a LOT of patience.
The Mayas believed that all of life was related to the planets and stars, that life on earth was a reflection of the life of the planets. They believed that a child born on a certain date was born with the characteristics of that day. Whatever the Mayas did depended on the planets. For example, they couldn't plant the fields on a certain day. No, everything depended on the planets. The Mayas considered the stars and planets as divine. Each planet was represented by its own god or goddess. Remember that the Mayas had a sun god, a moon god, one that represented the planet Venus, and many more.
Moon Glyph

What is a calendar?

A calendar is a system for measuring time. We measure time in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Calendars help us to plan our events and situate ourselves in time, both in the past and in the future. Imagine if we didn't have a calendar - it would be really difficult to say things like, "I'll see you next Tuesday", or "I really liked Christmas of 2006". Just like the Mayan calendar, ours is also related to the rotational path of the planets. For example, a month is the time it takes for the moon to go around the earth, and a year is the time it takes for the earth to go around the sun.
Day of the Tzolk'in calendar
Day of the Tzolk'in calendar
Even the days of the week in English refer to the planets:
Monday - Moon
Saturday - Saturnus
Sunday - Sun


Is the Mayan calendar different?

Two calenders united

What's interesting is that the Mayan calendar is quite similar to the one we use today. It also had a system of days, months, and years like ours that lasted 365 days. The big difference is that the Mayas didn't only have one calendar, but 3! One was a lot like ours. Another one was sacred and was used more for religious ceremonies. And they also had one known as 'The Long Calendar', which they used to refer to events far away, both into the future, and in the past.

The Mayas used three calendars at the same time, so the resulting system was quite complicated, but even farmers and workers didn't do anything without consulting the calendar. Imagine organizing a wedding for a day that was supposed to bring bad luck!


What is the Mayan calendar like?

The Mayan calendar most like our own is the 'Haab', or the solar calendar, which has 18 months of 20 days each. But 18 times 20 makes 360 days, so they were missing 5 to round out the solar year, so they added them to the end and believed that those 5 days brought bad luck.

Every day of the 20 days of the month had its own name, and own god or goddess. What a difference from our calendar! We only have 7 names for the days.

Day of the Tzolk'in calendar

Did you know that &

Complicated Maya number glyph
The Mayas also had another way to write numbers - with glyphs that showed depictions of the faces of the gods, the patron saints of numbers. They only used these glyphs for dates engraved in altars, statues, and buildings, though, because it was too much work to draw a glyph to add, for instance, how many coffee beans someone had to pay for a jaguar skin.
For the Mayas, the number 3 was very special because there were three levels of the universe - the sky (or heaven), the earth where people live, and the underworld.
Number 3
Number 9
The number 9 was also important and is related to fertility, because a pregnancy lasts 9 months and a corn seed takes 9 days to germinate.