Nowadays, using just a pen and a simple piece of paper we can write down each and every number imaginable. But this has not always been the case. It is impossible to determine when or how we first started counting. We can 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. However, as people started to gather and form 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. For more than 40,000 years humans used the tallying system. Weather by using your fingers, small stones or making notches on a piece of bone or wood, you could make some sort of record of how many items were in your possession. But as societies grew more complex, so too developed the need to document ever greater numbers and perform more complex 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 by keeping track with the fingers of the other go all the way to 60. This method 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. They were instrumental in spreading them to other parts of the world, although it wasn’t until the 15th century that they became popular in the Western world.
The Ishango Bone 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 is believed to be one of the oldest counting tools in existence. 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.