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Presentation #336.03 in the session “Collaboration with Integrity: Partnerships with Indigenous Communities in the Americas and Polynesia”.

The Maya zero, as both a philosophical and a mathematical concept, implies the beginning and the end, the absence of quantity, and a bridge between the past and the future. From a philosophical perspective, the zero is understood through a Maya worldview, and from a mathematical perspective, the zero is a well-defined concept and symbol within the Maya vigesimal system. In various expressions—including stone sculpture, painted codices, and decorated pottery, among other media—the Maya zero is represented as a flower, a seed, a human head in profile, or a conch shell. The seed is typically used in arithmetic calculations while the flower appears most often in representations of the Long Count Maya calendar. The oldest representation of the Mesoamerican zero, dating from the year 31 BCE, is found in Stela C in the ancestral Olmec site of Tres Zapotes in Veracruz, Mexico. This presentation will share cultural and calendric connections of the Maya zero, as represented in the written and artistic record as well as the oral tradition of the living cultures of the Maya people in Guatemala.

Today, more than seven million Maya live in our original homelands of Mesoamerica and globally. Our communities continue to generate new knowledge, uninterrupted despite the legacy of colonization and the pressures of globalization. Two thousand years ago, my Maya ancestors built monumental cities, developed a written language of hieroglyphs,and invented the mathematical concept of zero, or “Nik.” The source of knowledge for this study emerges from Maya epigraphy — the study and interpretation of ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions (Coe and van Stone 2005). The Maya writing system contains knowledge revealing the unique and original understanding that our ancestors had about science and mathematics. In 1880, Ernst Forestmann, while studying the pre-Columbian Maya Codex housed in Dresden, Germany, was the first to identify the Maya symbols for the number one (a dot), the number five (a bar) and the Maya zero (a conch shell). Additional symbols representing the Maya zero include Nik, a flower, discovered in Maya stelae, the carved stone columns found in many ancestral Maya cities, in the 1960s. Archaeological research reveals the antiquity of such symbols. The oldest stelae with number symbols are found in Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico, with a date of 36 BCE and in Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, Mexico, with a date of 31 BCE.

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