Mayan Science

Although an ancient civilization, Mayans were able to make remarkable scientific progress in different fields. This was necessitated by the adverse circumstances in which Mayans lived which ultimately led them to craft innovative solutions by use of indigenous scientific and technological solutions.

Among the most notable scientific accomplishments of the Mayans were those made in the fields of astronomy, architecture and agriculture. Mayans were unique among the ancient civilisations to be able to trace the movements of celestial bodies with exceptional accuracy, using their own mathematics and writing system.

Mayan Science and Agriculture

The Mayans were highly dependent on agriculture for their annual produce. Since the populations of many Mayan cities exceeded 100,000, providing food for all inhabitants was a serious and cumbersome problem. Mayans resolved this by adopting different innovative agricultural techniques. A popular method used by the Mayans was to use slash-and-burn farming methods in order to enrich the top layer of a field and then cultivate that field.

Mayans also built terraces along hillsides in order to have access to more land for cultivation. This helped them make more effective use of the rainwater which was often little during periods of low rainfall.


Mayan Observatory in Chichén Itzá

Mayan Astronomy

Astronomy was among the earliest sciences that emerged in the Mayan society. Initially, astronomy in the Mayan society was directly linked with agriculture. Priests with knowledge of celestial bodies would predict the movements of Sun, Moon, Venus and other astral bodies. This helped them predict the expected rainfall in a given year and other climactic conditions.

Astronomy was also an integral part of Maya mythology. In time, Mayans were able to trace the heavenly movements with exceptional accuracy using rudimentary tools. They even built elaborate observatories to monitor these movements. It was thanks to this brilliance in astronomy that Mayans eventually created one of the most accurate calendars in the entire human history.

Mayan Mathematics

Next to astronomy, mathematics also played a very significant role in the agrarian Mayan society. It is believed that mathematics in the Mayan civilisation probably grew out of astronomy. When priests accurately traced the movement of celestial bodies, they needed a written system to pen down these calculations. Accordingly, mathematics was developed and Mayans also had a concept of zero which allowed them to undertake elaborate computations. Zero was denoted by shell symbols while dots and lines were the basic Mayan mathematical representations. Longer figures were penned down using a unique base-20 numerical system.

Mayan Architecture

Mayans were excellent builders and it was because of their scientific understanding of the building process and its constituent materials which enabled them to erect structures that stand to this day. Typically, Mayans used huge stones for monumental buildings. A large number of craftsmen would carve the stones to make them suitable before they were used.

The stones were then joined with the help of a sort of cement which Mayans created and developed on their own. This cement, together with other mortar material that Mayans used, proved exceptionally strong. And it was precisely because of this material that most Mayan monumental architecture is extant to this day, having suffered little damage over the course of millennia. It was using such architectural engineering that Mayans built lofty pyramid-temples, elaborate royal palaces, astronomical observatories and other structures.

Mayan Writing System

Mayans also excelled in lingual sciences and were able to develop an advanced language of their own, which is the mark of a complex civilisation. The Mayan written language was unique in that it made use of both phonetic and symbolic alphabets, later called glyphs. The phonetic glyphs, called syllabograms, strung together different phonetic voices to build a single word.

Logograms, or the symbolic glyphs, were used to depict a word with the help of a single image. Mayans had nearly 800 of these glyphs and by mixing both types of glyphs, Mayans had a very flexible language which was used for effective communication, for penning down books and writing inscriptions on stone slabs.


One of the most notable scientific achievements of the ancient Mayans was the development of a calendar as shown Zodiac Circle

Mayan Calendrics

One of the most notable scientific achievements of the ancient Mayans was the development of a calendar. Since the development of calendar was linked to astronomy, the calendar itself was of religious significance in Mayan society. The Mayan calendar comprised of three separate cycles. One of these was the lunar cycle, comprising of 260 days in a year and used to mark different religious rituals.

Another was the solar cycle, comprising of 365 days and used for daily computations of dates. The third cycle was the Long Count which spanned over more than 5000 years and was used to compute dates a long way in the past or the future. Mayan Long Count calendar dates as far back as 236 B.C.

Mayan Water Management System

Among the architectural feats of the Mayans was a highly effective water management system. Mayans lived in a region where regular access to water was unpredictable. Mayans had to rely on rainfall for most of their agricultural needs but it wasn’t a dependable source given the uncertain nature of average annual rainfall.

Mayans devised a solution to this by constructing an elaborate water management system. For this purpose, underground reservoirs were constructed where rainwater was collected during the rainy season. The reservoirs were lined with lime to mitigate any water seepage. Mayans then used this water at time of scarce rains, supplying it to the city and also using it for agricultural purposes.

Mayan Science Summary

Mayan civilization was highly advanced in many aspects, utilising scientific innovations in fields such as architecture and astronomy. They had an elaborate writing system which utilised both symbolic and phonetic representations, allowing Mayans to use a very advanced written language. Mayans also had a very well-developed mathematical system which used the notion of zero and had a base-20 numerical system to represent larger numbers.

The achievements of Mayans in astronomy were no less magnificent. Using their extensive astronomical knowledge, Mayans were able to create an elaborate and highly accurate calendar with multiple cycles. Larger dates of this calendar were penned down using the mathematical system.