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The real origins of mathematics lie deep in the past before any kind of recording, and so any story
about the beginnings of counting needs to be situated in the cultural context of the time. Thinking
ourselves back into a time before counting, two crucial questions need to be addressed:
‘Why do you need to count?’
In many domestic activities today like shopping, cooking, etc., there is still no need to count. You
know when you have enough. When hunting, gathering fruits and seeds, or even herding animals,
you know if you have enough to feed the family, and you know if a wolf has taken one of the sheep,
or if you have lost a spear. Counting does not happen unless there is a need. The idea that the
shepherd had to count his sheep to know if one was missing is a myth. Every person who works with
animals develops a relationship with them and ‘knows’ if one is missing.
‘What do you need to know in order to be able to count?’
Counting is a powerful activity. So is knowing someone’s name. Remember the feeling in your
stomach when your name was called out by the class teacher ‘Oh dear! What have I done now?’ Or
when you enter a room full of strangers, and someone calls your name ‘Who is that? Somebody
knows who I am!’
Because counting people is a very powerful (even magic) thing to do, every culture has many
superstitions attached to counting and numbers. In the past, only special people (the king, the priest,
the chief) were allowed to do this. Nineteenth-century English administrators in Africa were
sometimes killed for trying to take a census because only the witch doctor was allowed to count. In
the Book of The Maccabees in the Bible, counting the army was done by soldiers each putting a stone
on a pile, so the stones were counted and not the men.
There is a theory that suggests that the reason for these superstitions was that the beginnings of
counting had nothing to do with arithmetic as we now know it, but was related to early rituals like the
rebirth of the land in the spring, or the coming of rains. ‘Counting’ therefore was originally a chant
for calling people in to the ritual area to perform the ceremony, and the words were later transferred
to counting objects.
So counting begins with a list of words. The other essential is a series of pointings which associates
the words (or symbols) with the objects to be counted. The answer to ‘How many?’ was the noise
you made when you stopped speaking, and you knew ‘seven’ was more than ‘five’ because the noise
‘seven’ came after uttering ‘five’.
Comparing two or more collections of objects in terms of their numerosity can be done in two ways.
Direct comparison puts the objects into one-to-one correspondence, like sharing a bag of sweets
between people. If there is a remainder, the collections are not equal. A next stage can be where
tokens (stones, models, or counters) represent the objects to be shared, so the comparison can be
made between the representations of the objects. These actions concern the relative size of
collections. A further step is to develop a written symbol system for the objects or for a group of
objects. So now we have number symbols and a way of comparing collections of objects indirectly
by noting the symbol when we finish ‘counting’ each collection.
Once you have a set of names for the numbers, and once you have a system for repeating them, you
can always go on. Whatever number you give me I can always add one more! This makes counting a
potentially infinite process.
(This property was later called ‘the successor property’ by Guiseppe Peano in 1889. The statement
‘every number has a successor’ is a basic principle of counting.)
Think of a list of numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . . For each of these, we can write its square: 1, 4, 9, 16,
25 . . . For every number there is a corresponding square number.
So, the list of square numbers is infinite (this was first demonstrated explicitly by Galileo Galilei in
1638), and so is the list of fractions and cubes and . . .
(Again, this is the power of the principle of one-to-one correspondence.)
Written number signs go back to about 4000 BC in Mesopotamia. We first find symbols for objects
and then for numbers emerging. Archaeologists now think that this was the very first writing – even
before any literature. In the early stages in Mesopotamia about 60 different numerical sign systems
were in use.
A wide variety of counting systems evolved, using what we today call different bases. Cows were
different from the fish caught from the river and different again from the corn harvested, and so each
collection of objects was counted in a different way. In the early twentieth century in England it was
still possible to find that the measure for a bushel of corn was different in different market towns.
Still, in certain parts of Polynesia, numbers for a feast are counted in fours, because four people sit
round the traditional palm mat where the food is placed. In Japan, five eggs are sold in neatly woven
Other cultures developed different systems independently: Egypt, Babylonia, China, India, The
Mayas, etc. These are the most outstanding, but many other systems appeared according to people’s
needs at the time. The English Imperial systems for money, weight, volume, and so on contain mixed
measures (12 pence in a shilling, 20 shillings in a pound, etc.) and are remnants of these cultural
Ancient arithmetic methods were very simple in principle. Tables of products, divisions and
fractional parts were used a lot as aids like ‘ready-reckoners’.
Multiplication and division were achieved by doubling and halving and to multiply by 5 you multiply
by 10 and halve the result. Division was achieved by successive subtractions, a method similar to
what we teach today as ‘chunking’. Many sets of tables developed by ancient people were still in use
up to Renaissance times.
The Egyptians did not calculate using the hieroglyphic numbers as this would have been a very
cumbersome process. Hieroglyphs are only found on tombs and official monuments; for calculations
written on papyrus, hieratic symbols (a kind of shorthand) were used. While notations developed in
different ways, calculating methods relied on practical tools like counters, tally sticks, counting
boards, the abacus, and so on. For a long time there were only a few people in the culture who knew
how to count and calculate (reckon) beyond very simple calculations. This put the Notaries (in Italy
and France) or Reckoning Masters (in Germany) in a very powerful position in society.
Another calculating aid developed from mediaeval times was the reckoning board which was marked
out in columns and rows according to the goods to be counted.
The board was kept in the ‘counting house’. This is where many different kinds of goods were
counted by moving tokens on the board to represent the different amounts. Counters were moved
from one column to another according to the particular table – one table for quantities of grain,
another for sacks of wool, etc. To ‘go before the board’ originally meant going to the counting house
to have your goods valued by the experts. (Remember the nursery rhyme – ‘The king was in the
counting house counting out his money . . .’)
The problem with this situation was that it was cumbersome, it could only be done in a few places
(although some portable ‘boards’ made of cloth were used), and it could only be done by specially
trained people (hence the power was in the hands of a few). Because only the result was written
down, the stages in the calculation were lost in the process and so you could not check if it was right.
However, some checking methods like ‘casting out nines’ were developed specially for this.
Leonardo Fibonacci was the son of a merchant who travelled extensively in the Mediterranean and
the Middle East, and wrote ‘The Book of the Abacus’ (Liber Abaci 1202) which was a summary of
the calculating methods that had been known to merchants for ages and in this book he introduced
the Hindu-Arabic notation to Europe. The base ten number system and Hindu-Arabic notation
eventually greatly accelerated the development of calculating methods. The town of Treviso in
northern Italy lay on the direct route from the trading city-states of Genoa and Venice into southern
Europe and there the famous Treviso Arithmetic was published in 1478.
This book contained all sorts of instructions for merchants to calculate profit and loss, rates of
exchange and the shares in investments, and here we find the first appearance of the ‘times tables’
exactly as they are familiar to us today. (Treviso Arithmetic 1478, see Swetz, F. 1987 Capitalism and
Fractions appeared very early when it became necessary to divide the group of objects or the quantity
into smaller parts. ‘I only need half that fish today’ and we have the development of ‘natural’
fractions and combinations of these: halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths, and so on. Egyptian
fractions (represented by 1/n where the numerator is always one) are known as ‘unit’ fractions and
were used mainly for sharing out resources, grain, beer, etc. All fractional representation was in
terms of unit fractions, so for example, 3/4 was written as two separate unit fractions 1/2, 1/4. It is
possible to obtain many different kinds of unit fractions by judicious use of various ‘natural’
The introduction by the Dutchman Simon Stevin in The Art of Tenths 1585 of a ‘complete’ decimal
system where he developed symbols for decimal fractions and showed how to use these for counting
and calculating, still did not persuade many people of the advantages of a unified system. Even now,
many calculations are still done by goldsmiths, apothecaries and others using the traditional fraction
systems; and astronomical measurements still use sexagesimal fractions (sixtieths).
Further reading
Joseph, G. 1991 The Crest of the Peacock: non-European roots of Mathematics London: Tauris
Katz, V.J. 1998 A History of Mathematics: an introduction Harlow: Addison-Wesley
Book Reference: Hopkins, C., Pope, S. Pepperell, S. (2004). “Understanding Primary Mathematics”,
London: David Fulton Publishers Ltd