If you
found a book full of lines, dots, and mysterious-looking pictures, how
would you begin to figure out what they meant? That was the problem
facing archeologists who discovered written records left by the Maya.
Not many
Mayan writings still exist, as many of them were destroyed by Spanish
conquistadores. The writings that do exist represent a number of different
languages and a writing system that used glyphs, or pictures, to represent
words and syllables.
The Maya
developed a sophisticated number system that they used to record possessions,
dates, and astronomical observations. In this activity, you'll begin
to decode the number system as it's written in a document known as the
"Dresden Codex."
Grade
Level
Grade 5 and up
National Standards Addressed
Grades
5–8
History and Nature of Science: History of Science
Grades 9–12
History and Nature of Science: Historical Perspectives
• Principles and Standards for School Mathematics
http://illuminations.nctm.org/info/standards.asp
Grades 6–8
Problem Solving
Communication
Grades 9–12
Numbers and Operations
Key
Concepts
Numerical bases, number systems
Background Science
Learn about number bases
From NRICH, University of Cambridge
http://nrich.maths.org/public/viewer.php?
obj_id=1368&part=index&refpage=monthindex.php
Mayan
Numerals
From the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Univeristy of Regina
http://mathcentral.uregina.ca/RR/database/RR.09.00/hubbard1/
Mayan
Arithmetic
From Mathforum.org
http://mathforum.org/k12/mayan.math/
Ideas
for Discussion
• Ask someone who speaks a different language from your own to
write something down for you. How different is her or his language from
your own? Does it have a different alphabet or special marks around
letters or words? What direction do you read it in? What other similarities
and differences do you see?
• Many
ancient writings, including Mayan ones, use glyphs, or pictures, that
stand for words. If you were to invent such a writing system, what picture
would you use for "hand"? How about "apple"? What
kind of picture would you use for "color" or "sour"
or "comfortable"? What is different about representing words
like these last three?
•
What systems do we use in the modern world to convey numerical ideas?
If a Mayan person were to look at a checkbook ledger, what clues might
they see to help them figure out our number system?
Going
Further
• Computers operate on a base 2 number system, rather than on
the base 10 system we use for most other things. You can learn more
about the base 2, or binary, number system from this website from Grinnell
College:
http://www.math.grin.edu/~rebelsky/Courses/152/97F/Readings/student-binary.html
and from
this posting on MathForum.org:
http://mathforum.org/library/drmath/view/54311.html