Mathematics of the Greeks and the Mayans

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 10 January 2017

Mathematics of the Greeks and the Mayans

Mathematics is the study of time, space, structure, and quantity which is used to calculate almost anything in the world from the amount of atoms in an element to calculating the air pressure in a room. Although levels of math such as calculus are not taught until college, the use and study of mathematics have been around since the beginning of time and the world wouldn’t be able to function without it. The term “mathematics” comes from the Greek word mathema which means study, knowledge, or learning. Along with philosophy and astronomy, the ancient Greeks were well known for their development and contribution as brilliant mathematicians. Despite their widely spread fame as the world’s first greatest mathematicians, the Greeks had competitors. My contention is that the Mayans were one of the top mathematicians of the ancient world and were even more advanced than the Greeks.

Ancient Greek mathematics has been developed since the early seventh century B.C. which could also be called the period during the Hellenistic Mathematics. Some of the greatest Ancient Greek mathematicians were Pythagoras, Aristotle, Anaxagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Thales, and Aristarchus. These Greek mathematicians were big on the development of geometry which is a subdivision of math that focuses on shapes, size, and the relativity of space. Although their number system was based on letters of the alphabet and used units of five and ten, they therefore were not big on the processes of Algebra. However the Greeks became the masters of calculating solutions concerning volume, lengths and areas using geometric methods and theorems to solve algebraic equations. Despite contributions to modern day arithmetic such as the Pythagorean Theorem and Euclidian Geometry the Greeks were missing one essential part of math, one number that modern day civilization mathematics would not be able to function without.

The Mayans included this number in their mathematic system which in turn made them the greatest mathematicians of the ancient world, this number was zero. Along with ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome and Babylonian history did not have or use the number zero. Although the Greek number system worked fairly well for their arithmetic, they were very limited to what they could do because of their limitations of their numbers. For example, the number zero and irrational numbers did not exist and were not possible from the doubt of how nothing could count as something. It was not until 150 A.D that Greek astronomer Ptolemy was the first to put a zero at the end of a number represented by the letter O which was well over a thousand years after the Mayans. Maya civilization was established in Mesoamerica in current day Yucatan Peninsula from about 2,000 B.C to 250 A.D during the Pre-Classic era to the classic era up until the settlement of the Spanish conquistadors and its collapse.

Similar to Greece, Maya was not a unified kingdom and consisted of many smaller city states and they were also known for the uniqueness of their astronomy, original art and architecture which was all built and based by math. Contrasting from the Greeks instead of using units based on five and ten, the Mayans used a base number of twenty. In the Mayan number system, a dot represented one while a horizontal bar represented five. During the Hellenistic period in Europe, many astronomers arose when they applied their knowledge of math to astronomy. Some well-known astronomers of ancient Greece are Anaxagoras, Thales, and Ptolemy all of which who discover that the Earth was round, Earth revolved around the son and that the weather was not controlled by God.

Due to these marvelous discoveries, Ancient Greece is often referred to as the Father of astronomy however this is not quite accurate. These findings were based on grounds that were built upon by civilizations in other parts of the world such as Mesoamerica. Because of the geographical distance from the Maya civilization to the Greek civilization, they were not influenced by the Greek’s findings and instead came across almost the same discoveries but with their own methods. Not much is known about Maya history due to the destruction of Maya texts and writings by the Spanish church and government officials in the 16th century; however three books miraculously survived which are the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, and the Paris Codex. These books contain the last written information about Maya history, art, rituals, astrology, zodiac, calendar, and math. One significant item in these books was a drawing of a shell which was on the first representations of the number zero.

The codex also contained recorded meticulous observations of the sky and space. In the codex were diagrams that displayed an eclipse table that calculates times when eclipses might happen, a Venus table that calculates the times when Venus appears as morning star, and a Mars table that records the times when Mars goes into reversing motion. The Maya pursued to apprehend the repetitive sequences of motions of the moon and planets to be able to forecast when these objects in the sky would be in a certain place in the sky during a certain time. For example, they used the movement of the sun in the sky to calculate the number of days in a year.

Due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, the sun shows up at different locations in the sky depending on the time of year which causes the change in seasons. The Mayans were able to calculate the number of days in a solar tropical year from the equation, 1507 tropical years = 1508 haabs or 365 multiplied by 1508 days which equals out to be 365.242 days which is very precise and accurate to the actual modern calculations of 365.24198 days as compared to the Greeks calculations of 365.24667 days. The Mayans have proven to be at the top of the ancient world’s mathematics and astronomy from their discoveries that are established as accurate even to this day by using their own methods written on their codex stripping ancient Greece of their title of the fathers of mathematics and astronomy.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 10 January 2017

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