The Mayan civilization’s mathematics were one of the most advanced of the ancient Americas. Rather than using a base 10 system as we use (1, 10, 100, 1,000, etc.) they used a base 20 system (1, 20, 400, 8,000, etc.) One of the most fascinating facts about their mathematical system was that their counting system used only 3 symbols – a “shell”, dot, and line. The shell represented 0, the dot represented 1, and the line represented 5.
Also of note is that they were one of the earliest civilizations anywhere in the world to have the concept of zero. While other civilizations had this concept, since none of them interacted with the Mayans it can be said that they Mayans came up with this idea independently (as did the other societies).
The numbers themselves were written vertically – the number 17 would be written with 2 dots side by side and 3 lines arranged vertically underneath. Addition and subtraction was done by writing similar symbols next to one another and then “condensing” them into a new number. This let uneducated tradesmen easily add and subtract.
Certain numbers were considered to be special, or sacred. 20 (the number of human digits), 5 (digits on a hand/foot), 13 (original number of Mayan Gods), and 52 (a concept similar to what we call a century).
Mathematics is also thought to have been an important discipline amongst the ancient society. It appears in Maya art such as wall paintings where mathematic scribes and scholars are recognized by the number scrolls that trail from their arms.