Maya Math

Adding and subtracting in the Maya system is simply a matter of juggling the dots and bars. To calculate 36 + 13, for example, you start by adding the units (i.e., 16 + 13). This gives you 29, so you leave 9 in the ones column and carry the 20 up, giving you a grand total of 2 twenties and 9 ones = 49.

Maya math was the most sophisticated counting system ever developed in the Americas. It allowed scholars, astronomers, and architects to make complex calculations, but it was simple enough to be used by market traders and illiterate farmers.

Where we use ten different symbols to represent numbers (1, 2, 3, 4 , 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0), the Maya used only three: a dot for a one, a bar for five, and a symbol (usually a shell) for zero. (The Maya were one of the first civilizations to understand the concept of zero.) Below are the Maya numbers from 0–19:

We use a decimal system, based on the number ten, but the Maya used a vigesimal system, based on the number twenty. So where we learn to count on our fingers, Maya children counted on their fingers and toes. In fact, the number twenty was very important to the Maya, so much so that the words for “human being” and “twenty” share the same root in most Mayan languages.

The Maya wrote their numbers from top to bottom rather than from left to right, but apart from that, their system was not so different from ours. For example, to write the number 34, we place a three in the tens column and a four in the ones column. The Maya put a one in the twenties column and a fourteen in the ones column.

Clever, isn’t it? When you consider that the Ancient Egyptians never cracked the concept of zero and that complex calculations with Roman numerals were way too complicated for ordinary Romans.

The easiest way to practice Maya math is to use sticks, stones and shells.  They function in a similar way to an abacus.  To see how, watch the video demonstration in the sidebar.  Or click here: math video demo.


Finally! Someone has understood that the Mayan system of mathematics is a tool that has value to every student, and especially to students who have been in some difficult places in education because of dyslexia or memory problems. However, Mayan mathematics is not just a tool for those with learning problems. It is also a tool for students at the other end of the educational spectrum, such as those who are taking physics.

With our Arabic numbers, children suffer (often miserably) with learning to draw numbers and memorize endless tables. Using the Mayan mathematics system, students learn the process and meaning of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and taking square roots, all without having to memorize anything.

Understanding mathematics is so much more important than wasting years of a child’s life trying to make them memorize a bunch of useless numbers. In fact, this program is said to be able to take two years off of the math education process at the primary level! This kind of understanding opens doors to totally new worlds, such as physics, that lead to better lives for everyone. Even if a child doesn’t go into the sciences, understanding mathematics through the use of the Mayan system helps them develop logical thinking skills that will ultimately have an impact on their own families and communities.

Mayan mathematics is coming to a school near you, in Yucatan, in the very near future and it can’t be soon enough! We wish all the best to all 71 of the teachers who are training for this important work now, and to all of the governmental departments that are supporting this bold new step forward.


71 Teachers Train in Maya Math