Prehistoric numerals

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Counting in prehistory was first assisted by using body parts, primarily the fingers. This is reflected in the etymology of certain number names, such as in the names of ten and hundred in the Proto-Indo-European numerals, both containing the root *dḱ also seen in the word for "finger" (Latin digitus, cognate to English toe).

Early systems of counting using tally marks appear in the Upper Paleolithic. The first more complex systems develop in the Ancient Near East together with the development of early writing out of proto-writing systems.

Tally marks[edit]

Counting aids other than body parts appear in the Upper Paleolithic. The oldest tally sticks date to between 35,000 and 25,000 years ago, in the form of notched bones found in the context of the European Aurignacian to Gravettian and in Africa's Late Stone Age.

The so-called Wolf bone is a prehistoric artefact discovered in 1937 in Czechoslovakia during excavations at Vestonice, Moravia, led by Karl Absolon. Dated to the Aurignacian, approximately 30,000 years ago, the bone is marked with 55 marks which may be tally marks. The head of an ivory Venus figurine was excavated close to the bone.[1]

It has been claimed[by whom?] that the Ishango Bone, found in the Ishango region of what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo and dated to over 20,000 years old, portrays a series of prime numbers. In the book How Mathematics Happened: The First 50,000 Years, Peter Rudman argues that the development of the concept of prime numbers could only have come about after the concept of division, which he dates to after 10,000 BC, with prime numbers probably not being understood until about 500 BC. He also writes that "no attempt has been made to explain why a tally of something should exhibit multiples of two, prime numbers between 10 and 20, and some numbers that are almost multiples of 10."[2]

These counting aids become more sophisticated in the Near Eastern Neolithic, developing into various types of proto-writing. The Cuneiform script develops out of proto-writing associated with keeping track of goods during the Chalcolithic.

Old Mokshan numerals[3][4]

The Moksha people, whose existence dates to about the beginning of the 1st millennium BC, had a numeral system.[5] The numerals were tally marks carved on wood, drawn on clay or birch bark. In some places they were preserved until the beginning of 20th century mostly among small traders, bee-keepers, and village elders. These numerals still can be found on old shepherd and tax-gatherer staffs, apiaries, and pottery.[6] [7] [8] [9]

Bronze Age writing[edit]

Precolumbian Americas[edit]


Further information: Unicode numerals

Unicode's Supplementary Multilingual Plane has a number of codepoint ranges reserved for prehistoric or early historic numerals:

  • Aegean Numbers (10100–1013F)
  • Ancient Greek Numbers (10140–1018F)
  • Cuneiform Numbers and Punctuation (12400–1247F)
  • Counting Rod Numerals (1D360–1D37F)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ *Graham Flegg, Numbers: their history and meaning, Courier Dover Publications, 2002 ISBN 978-0-486-42165-0, pp. 41-42.
  2. ^ Rudman, Peter Strom (2007). How Mathematics Happened: The First 50,000 Years. Prometheus Books. p. 64. ISBN 978-1-59102-477-4. 
  3. ^ Drevnosti mordovskogo naroda. - Saransk, 1941, P.33
  4. ^ Мордва: Историко-этнографические очерки. Саранск,1981
  5. ^ Materialy po istorii mordvy VIII - IX vv. Dnevnik arkheologicheskikh raskopok P.P.Ivanova. - Morshansk, 1952
  6. ^ Martyanov V.N., Nadkin D.T. K voprosu o finno-ugorskoy sisteme schisleniya//Materialy po arkheologii i etnographii Mordovii. - Saransk, 1975
  7. ^ Drevnosti mordovskogo naroda. - Saransk, 1941, P.33
  8. ^ Kniga pisma i mery pistsov Dmitriya Yuryevicha Pushechnikova da podyachego Afanasiya Kostyayeva mordovskikh i burtasskikh zemel 132-go, 133-go i 134-go godov (GAFKE, Moscow Oruzheynaya palata fund, opis №33, d. № 3535
  9. ^ Мартьянов В. Н. Пиктографические изображения на парях — свадебных сундуках мордвы Горьковской области // Тр. НИИЯЛИЭ при Совете Министров Мордовской АССР. — Саранск, 1974. — Вып. 45


  • Arthur J. Evans, Writing in Prehistoric Greece, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (1900).

External links[edit]