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Maya Geometry in the Classroom: The Maya

John C. D. Diamantopoulos (Northeastern State University) and Cynthia J. (Woodburn) Huffman (Pittsburg State University)


The classic Maya period ran roughly from 250 to 900 CE (or AD) [Coe, p. 26] during which time the Maya constructed hundreds of cities in a contiguous area from what is now southern Mexico across the Yucatan Peninsula to western Honduras and El Salvador, including what is now Guatemala and Belize.  Maps of the Maya world can be seen at Latin American Studies: The Maya.  The Maya Exploration Center also has maps of several Maya cities.  Currently there are about 10 million modern Maya [Coe, p. 11].

The classic Maya made extensive use of geometry in their architecture.  There is also evidence that they used geometry in their art.  However, efforts to find a measurement system used by the Maya have been mostly unsuccessful.  It does appear that they used body parts as units of measure, e.g. a uinic, which is a person’s height or “wingspan” from fingertip to fingertip.  There are also several references to the use of a measuring cord in religious ceremonies and when buildings were being laid out.  A measuring cord is even mentioned at the beginning of the Maya religious text Popol Vuh in the description of the creation of the universe.  Powell, who conducted ethnography interviews of modern Maya shaman priests and master builders, discovered that measuring cords are still in use today.

Figure 3. Maya stela in Copan, Honduras (Photo by Cynthia (Woodburn) Huffman, 2011)

John C. D. Diamantopoulos (Northeastern State University) and Cynthia J. (Woodburn) Huffman (Pittsburg State University), "Maya Geometry in the Classroom: The Maya," Convergence (August 2013), DOI:10.4169/convergence20130801