The University Record, February 8, 1999

By Theresa Maddix

“On 8 Ahau 13 Pop he was born; on 6 Etz’nab 11 Yax he died, having lived through parts of four katuns; King Pacal, Lord of Palenque,” reads an inscription on the sarcophagus of the great Mayan king Pacal.

Robert Megginson, associate professor of mathematics and advocate for better minority mathematics education, demonstrated how to follow the Mayan calendar (a calendar that goes 52 years without repeating!) and read the inscription during his “Native American Mathematics” lecture for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Speaking to a 50-person lecture hall, Megginson gave an overview of the Mayan and Aztec base-20 systems and demonstrated a mathematical system traceable with drawings as far back as 750 CE and, at the Mayan civilization’s height, more complex than its European Roman counterpart. He also spoke of the mathematical processes’ relevance to an understanding of Native American culture today.

The Mayan symbol for zero, Megginson explained, was long thought to represent a closed clamshell. He asked audience members to symbolize “five” with an open palm. Then, four, three and so on to zero. The closed palm with a thumb across the bottom bears a strong resemblance to the Mayan zero. This zero is one of the ways to see the complexity of the Mayan system. A zero makes a positional numbering system possible.

Aztec number names came alive, too, as Megginson described their derivatives: macuilli (five) from maitl (hand), matlactli (10) from maitl connected to tlactli (torso), and the base, cempoalli (20) meaning a person as a composition of two hands and two feet.

Using the Aztec calendar, Megginson explained part of the legend of Quetzalcoátl, the legendary ruler of the Toltecs (old ones), who were precursors of the Aztecs. According to legend, Quetzalcoátl, considered to be a white god, would resume his rule in a year named 1 Acatl—Acatl is the 13th sacred day name. Cortes arrived in what is now Central America in 1519 by our calendar system, or 1 Acatl in the Aztec system.

The importance of recognizing the Mayan and Aztec system and the systems of other cultures, Megginson believes is especially important for young students. If they hear that they “lack some mathematics gene, they will know that this is absolutely wrong.”

A winner of the U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, Megginson has spent a large part of his life striving to help minority students understand the importance and cultural relevance of mathematics. He is co-chair of the Committee on Minority Participation in Mathematics, Mathematical Association of America (MAA), and was a principal investigator for the MAA American Indian Science and Engineering Society Project for Enhancing Mathematics/Science Faculty at Native American Tribal Colleges in the Use of Calculators and Technology. Megginson also designed and is the director of two summer mathematical intervention programs for middle and high school students on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa (Ojibwa) reservation in North Dakota.

Megginson encourages students to ask teachers to tell “interesting things about the material and its history.” He wants them to know “that learning is not just the road to a better job, but also can be fun.”