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Mayan Scientific Achievements

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The ancient Maya are the indigenous people who lived in parts of the present day Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Mayan civilization spread throughout the Central America from the 300 AD until the 16th Century when this civilization began to gradually decline following the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the Mayan territories. It is not surprising however, that despite the earlier historical accounts given by the Spanish colonizers and other Europeans; who report that the Mayans were barbaric people; independent historians digging into the Mayan Civilization have proved that this information was falsified1. According to Ifrah, Mayans were very intelligent people. The Mayan civilization was one of the most sophisticated and complex civilizations in the Western Hemisphere between 300 and 900 AD. The Mayans are credited for making remarkable scientific achievements in agriculture, engineering, and communications. The vast mathematical knowledge in mathematics that had been gathered throughout this civilization played a crucial role in facilitating the realization of all these important achievements2.

            In the Mayan civilization, the priests were the custodians of science and mathematical knowledge. They were the scientists and mathematician while at the same time serving as the sky watchers, and also experts in numeration. To ensure that the knowledge they had would not go down with them when their time on earth expire, they passed their knowledge from one


            Piecing together the current known historical information about the Mayan civilization was not easy. The scholars had to tirelessly study the Dresden Codex in order to learn about the ancient Mayas numerical systems as well as their astronomical and astrological findings and other scientific knowledge. It is only this way that credible information about the scientific achievements of this civilization has been obtained and eventually documented. There is no doubt that there is much that is reflected in the modern science from the scientific achievements of this ancient civilization4.


            It is evident that Mayans appreciated the role of mathematics in making advances in science and technology. The priests who were charged with the duty of providing knowledge in science as well as mathematics worked around the clock to meet and even transcend the expectations of the people as far as mathematical knowledge was concerned during this civilization. Vigesimal system for arithmetic purposes was used in calculation of the passage of time. This system, which at first involved the use of two symbols only as the mathematical numerical, unlike the modern system which has 10 symbols, i.e., 0 to 9. The two symbols that were employed here were a dot and a bar. These two symbols were as useful as are the modern ten symbols.

            It was in the 500AD that the most crucial discovery in mathematics was made during the Mayan civilization; the discovery of zero. Although some historians credit the discovery of zero with the Indians, the Mayans independently discovered zero due to its significance in mathematics.

At this time, the symbol for zero was the eye5. Zero was put into mathematical use in counting as a placeholder.

The discovery of zero led to the discovery of positional arithmetic system involving the use of zero. This discovery remains to be one of the most brilliant intellectual achievements of all time5. The zero facilitated the representation of numbers that did not comply or were not a factor of 20 which was taken as the base unit6. This discovery went along way in enabling mathematical operations like addition and subtraction. It should be understood that the arrangement of the mathematical symbols during counting encouraged development of the practice of a number of mathematical operations.


            Astronomers during the Mayan civilization were able to measure the lunar cycle and using the knowledge they had in mathematics accurately discovered that the lunar cycle lasted 29.5386 days. This proves that these astronomers were indeed ahead of their time. There was no any other civilization of the time that had had attempted to provide such accurate astronomical data on the same; even those civilizations that followed later. This knowledge took center stage in the realization of the current knowledge in this field6.

            A modern study on the occurrence of the summer solstice is founded on the discoveries made by the Mayan astronomers. Maya cities were strategically located in the Tropics; this enabled astronomers to make important scientific observations.

They learnt the sun traveled annually to its summer solstice point or the latitude 231/3 degrees north. They reported that this happened twice a year, evenly spaced around the day of solstice. As a confirmation of this scientific achievement, the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Mayan cities in the 16th century had no knowledge regarding zenial passage observations7.

            The invention of one of the best calendars was an important scientific achievement. The calculation and tabulation of the solar calendar year was marvelous. Despite lack of technology at this historical time, the Mayans were still able to accurately come with a calendar year that consisted of 365 days. The precision in this calculation remains to be admired; considering their actual calculation of the calendar year, 365.242 days which compares to the modern scientific figure, 365.242198 days. This was a great scientific achievement, bearing in mind that they used gnomon as the instrument for measuring the passage of time and not digital chronometers8.


            Vulcanization, combining rubber with other materials to make it more durable for a long time was thought to have been discovered by the American Charles Goodyear in the 19th century. However, historians believe that this was a scientific achievement of the Mayan civilization8. This discovery is historically said to have been accidentally born from a Mayan religious ritual which involved combined rubber tree and the morning-glory plant.

Upon the realization of the strength of the versatile product, they began to use it in binding materials and also making 

            The Mayans built complicated looms for weaving cloth and devised a rainbow of glittery paints made from mica, a mineral that still has technological use today. The discovery of paints was a crucial discovery that has been modified over time to meet the requirements of the contemporary society.

            The Maya are famous for their great architectural designs. They built temples, palaces and brilliant pyramids. Researchers are usually left mouth open when they look at the complex transport. They went against all odds and built beautiful cities9.


            The Mayan civilization developed a well formed, highly communicative writing system that was the most advanced in the entire America. This was boosted by their earlier interactions with other civilizations, for instance the Olmec civilization.  This communication system did not use the modern alphabets; instead, it used symbols to represent ideas and sounds. The symbols were written phonetically and followed principles of grammar. Scholars of the time wrote manuscripts on bark paper painted with quill feathers and then folded and wrapped them in jaguar skin. It is quite unfortunate that the Catholic missionaries did not find favor with the manuscripts and burnt all that they found. Today, only four of such manuscripts exist9.


            The Mayan civilization had crucial scientific achievements in a variety of science disciplines. The modern day scientists and scholars have a lot to emulate from this civilization. It is one civilization that will always be remembered due to the contribution it made to science. The development of the solar calendar is one of the amazing scientific achievements that will forever be treasured. The intelligence of the scientists during this civilization was amazing. They did not have the present day sophisticated technology but this did not deter them from carrying out complex mathematical operations. They had their own way of explaining and solving scientific problems. It is so unfortunate that this civilization beginning from the 12th century was eventually subdued by the Spanish in the 16th century.



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