Our number system is based on 10. Ancient Mayans, like the Welsh, had a number system based on 20 (known as the vigesimal system). Here’s a look at the difference between the two systems:
Where we have 10, the ancient Maya had 20.
Where we have 100 (10 times 10) the ancient Maya had 400 (20 times 20).
Where we have 1,000 (100 times 10), the ancient Maya had 8,000 (400 times 20).
Where we have 10,000 (1,000 times 10), the ancient Maya had 160,000 (8,000 times 20).
This continues on for as long as there are numbers that can be counted to.
The Glyph for Zero
Different kinds of glyphs were used for 0 during the Classic period. This changed to the stylized shell in the Postclassic period.
Glyphs for Numbers One through Four
The glyph for number 1 is a dot, the glyph for 2 is represented by 2 dots, 3 is written with 3 dots and 4 dots represents the number 4.
The Glyph for Number Five
The glyph for number 5 is a bar. 10 is represented through a pair of bars, and 15 is a group of 3 bars.
Combining Dots and Bars
Dots and bars can be used to represent numbers 1 through 19. For example, 6 is represented by a bar and a dot. For larger numbers, the ancient Maya used a place notation system.
Ancient Mayan Place Notation System
Imagine a column divided horizontally at regular intervals. The lowest section is the 1s space, the second place is the 20s space, the third place is the 400s space, the fourth place is the 8,000s place, the fifth one is the 160,000s place. This is how the Maya wrote large numbers, instead of horizontally like we do.
Here is an example of how it works: envision the 8,000s space having a horizontal bar. That placement makes 40,000 because 8,000 times 5 equals 40,000.
For another example, envision the 1s space has a bar and the 20s space has a dot. That makes the number 25 because 1 x 5 + 20 x 1 = 25.
A third example: imagine the 1s space has 4 dots, the 20s space has two bars and a dot and the 400s space has 4 dots. This makes 1,824 because
400 x 4 = 1,600
20 x 11 = 220
1 x 4 = 4
Add these numbers together and you get 1,824.
"The Ancient Maya"; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006
University of Nevada, Las Vegas: Marjorie Barrick Museum: Mayan Math