The History of Counting

Mathematics began with counting and numbering. To understand the roots of Mathematics, we must go back to the time when numbers were first used which is the most difficult task.

The first motivation for people to create numbers was the human desire for the manyness of a set of objects. In other words, to know how many duck’s eggs are to be divided amongst family members or even how many days until the tribe reaches the next watering hole, how many days wills it be until the days grow longer and the nights shorter, how many arrowheads do one trade for a canoe? Knowing how to determine the manyness of a collection of objects must surely have been a great aid in all areas of human endeavor.

The earliest direct evidence of counting is two animal bones which show clear group marks. One is a 35,000-year-old baboon’s thigh bone from the Lebombo Mountains of Africa and the other is a 33,000-year-old wolf bone from Czechoslovakia. The wolf bone found at the ancient human campsite is especially intriguing. It was notched with fifty-five marks, grouped in eleven sets of five marks each.

Could counting be even older? Those humanoids living in Europe and the Middle East before humans, going back as far as 130,000 years, were the “NEANDERTHALS”. They were definitely not modern humans but brains larger than “Homosapiens” or modern humans. They were intelligent enough to build shelters, use fire, and make sophisticated tools and bury their dead with flowers. They probably participated in religious rituals. In April 1996 Osear Todkoph of Hindenburg University discovered a 50,000-year-old Mastodon tusk which had sixteen aligned holes in the surfaces. He believes it was a musical instrument which proves that Neanderthals participated in music – a very human characteristic. Could they count? We don’t how, so we must wait to see if some lucky archaeologist discovers direct evidence.

If the Neanderthals could count, it could push back counting 130,000 years. It is possible that counting is older. A hominoid considerably older than Neanderthals was “Homo erectus” who flourished from 1.5 million years ago until approximately 300,000 years ago. They did not have the brainpower of either modern humans or the Neanderthals. But did they count? Again, we don’t know and place ourselves in the hands of the archaeologists for modern evidence. However, in 1994, Hartmuf Thieme of the institute for Historical Preservation in Hannover, Germany, discovered a cache of 400,000 years old spears in a coal pit east of Hannover. These well-crafted, weighted spears were probably made by a late “Homo-erectus”.

If counting stretches back many hundreds of thousands of years and is in some way hard wired into our brains, then counting and numbers are parts of our very natures. To be human is to count and know numbers. Many of our games use numbers; we incorporate numbers into our music. We use them to identify our house and phone numbers. People study all kinds of complex number indices to watch the stock market. The use of numbers, counting and simple arithmetic is everywhere. If human can be described as the tool making or fire using ape, then another appropriate description for us to is the counting ape.


Author: Parama Dutta,

Integrated M.Sc.(Mathematics) 2nd Semester,

Dept. of Mathematical Sciences, Tezpur University.