In ancient times, many civilizations developed a somewhat advanced knowledge of mathematics. One of these civilizations was the Mayan.
As part of this knowledge, Mayan developed their own numeral system. It was vigesimal, that is, each unit could go from zero to nineteen, and it had two variants and three symbols:
The symbols were the shell (for zero), the dot (for one) and the bar (for five). It is impossible to write them using nowadays computers, so I am posting a graphic below.
As for why they used these symbols, and just three, historians agree it was because its similarity to our own bodies. Mayan got the dot for each finger, a bar for each of our our hands and feet, and the zero to complete the writing. It is worth noticing the discovery of zero that the Mayan used was the first in America, and it showed a really advanced mastering of mathematics.
As for its use, Mayan wrote the numbers from up to down. The bottom is used for units, the space right above it is to indicate how many times twenty, the space above that is to indicate how many times four-hundred, and so on. The exception is the calendar. When writing about dates, the Mayans did not use the third space to indicate how many times four hundred, but how many times three hundred sixty. This way, they go closer to a solar year.
Three examples to close, and in a graphic to make it very clear:
Now, if you think this is how Mayans represented the mystical date December 21st, 2012 think again: I mentioned above that they didn't use the third space from bottom up to express how many four hundreds when talking about dates. That is, that the correct way to write December 21st, 2012 in Mayan numerals would be rather like this:
Despite this, the graphic above is not how Mayans wrote the above-mentioned date either. Do not forget that Mayans did not used our twelve-month calendar at all. They used a calendar of thirteen months of twenty days each called Tzolkin.
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