We won’t reinvent the wheel saying that mathematics is one of the most ancient areas of scientific thought. The fact is proved by various pieces of archeological evidence; therefore, scientists agree that our prehistoric ancestors were familiar with the notion of number. At least, they realized the difference between “one” and “two.” However, for a long time this concept existed only on the subconscious level. The path from the vague idea about numbers to concrete symbols and words took ages!

Analysis of the development of the numeral system

At start, the mere distinction between “one” and “many” was sufficient for prehistoric people. Since the evolution of human intelligence never stops, the first number to be represented in positional numeral systems – except “one,” which is obvious – was “two.” Thus, we arrive at a “one-two-many” system. The system was sufficient for hunter-gatherer societies; however; the development of trade and agriculture gave an impetus to the intensive evolution of the numeral system. The influence of trade and agriculture is easily proved by the example of small isolated or uncontacted hunter-gatherer Amazonian tribes that haven’t developed trade or agriculture due to their nomadic way of life; consequently, those tribes still preserve the “one-two-many” system or the “one-two-three-four-five-many” system at best. In 1960, Belgian geologist Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt discovered a prehistoric artifact dated to the Upper Paleolithic. The bone tool known as the Ishango bone is covered with multiple scratches that are thought to be tally marks. Consequently, the bone is generally regarded as the earliest example of counting and can be viewed as the rudiments of mathematical knowledge.


Stages of the “number” concept evolution in the prehistoric era

  • Subconscious understanding of quantity: one mammoth – two mammoths – many mammoths
  • Symbols and words for “one” and “many”
  • Symbols and words for “two”
  • Appearance and use of other numerals.

Therefore, we can draw the following conclusion: the rudiments of mathematics first appeared in the prehistoric era. Although it is mere counting, it marks a milestone on the pathway to algebra and geometry.

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