Nowadays, using just an ordinary pen and a blank piece of paper we can write down each and every number imaginable. However, this has not always been the case. It is impossible to determine when or how we first started counting, but we can safely assume that even early humans had some sense of what more or less is. This is something that we can observe even in some animals. But, as people evolved and started to gather together, forming the first simple societies, this skill became more significant. It was of key importance to know how many people, houses or animals yours or your enemy’s tribe had. The simplest form of counting that we know of, was in use for more than 40,000 years – tallying. Weather by using your fingers, small stones or making notches on a piece of bone or wood, you could make a record of how many items were in your possession. The oldest piece of evidence we have of this method is the Ishango Bone. It is a piece of baboon bone, found by the Belgian geologist Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt in 1960 in Congo. It dates back to the Upper Paleolithic era and along its length there are three distinct columns, composed by different groups of scratches. There are various hypotheses about how exactly it was used, but it most probably assisted in simple mathematical procedures or as a primitive numerical system.
Eventually, as societies grew more complex, so too developed the need to document ever greater numbers and perform more advanced computations. In Ancient Sumer the sexagesimal system was developed. By pointing with the thumb on the knuckles of the fingers, a person could count to 12 on one hand and keep track with the fingers of the other. This technique allowed him to count all the way to 60. It was later adopted by the Babylonians and some remnants of it have survived even to this day – our measurement of time, angles and coordinates. Other cultures, like the Romans and Incas developed complex counting boards, on which they moved chips or pebbles to add or subtract different sums of items. The Incas also used a system of cords and knots, known as quipu, to record the results of these computations, while the Romans developed the famous Roman numerals.
Our modern way of writing numbers arose in Ancient India and was later adopted by the Arabs around the 8th century. With it the world was introduced to novel idea – the concept of zero. Through trade and conquest, they spread these numerals through large parts of the Old World but were met with strong resistance in Europe in the face of the Roman Empire. The Roman citizens, most of which were unable to count themselves, distrusted something, which appeared to be made out of nothing. It took almost a thousand years, before it was finally made popular by a young mathematician from Pisa, named Fibonacci. He grew up in the Arabic countries of North Africa and when he sailed back to Italy, he brought with him the decimal system and a little, round digit, that would eventually change the entire world.