When did we first learn the idea of a number? Or that something is bigger or smaller, and by how much? Research has not zoomed in on a specific date, but it has revealed the startling human evolution of mathematical thought.
Early counting tools
Researchers says sticks made of bark, or animal bones were among the very first objects humans used as a measurement tool. Such sticks have been found in multiple locations around the world, and although some say they are not solid evidence of numerical record keeping, they hint at a sense of measurement literacy.
For example, ancient Mesopotamia had an astonishingly simple numerical system. Just two symbols: a vertical wedge, (v) to represent 1, and a horizontal wedge (<) to represent 10. That means <<v could represent 21.
Probably the most well-recognised numerical system are the ancient Egyptians Hieroglyphical system. They used different hieroglyphs for each power of 10. Surprisingly, the number 1 was represented as a vertical stroke, much like ours today. But others were more visually arresting. For example, 10 was a heel bone, 100 a scroll or rope, 1000 a lotus flower, 10,000 a finger, 100,000 a tadpole.
Other societies used object-number matching, which differed greatly from environment to environment. For example, the Aztecs would count using stones, that is, one stone, two stone and so so on. In a native tribe in Java, counting started with a single rice grain. Yet another tribe in the South Pacific used fruit as their scale of measurement.
One, two, many…?
But some don’t find it important to keep count. Anthropologists have studied the Piraha Amazonian tribe of Brazil for decades, to find out why is it that they do not count. Their counting system only consists of “1,2… many”. Intrigued by their ability to survive without using precise measurement, researchers conducted simple number-object matching experiments to try and understand how their community worked.
Their findings revealed an extremely primitive grasp of measurement, almost at the level of chimpanzees and children of age 4. Crucially, they found that the community attaches no significance to counting beyond 2, so a basket of fish would not need to be weighed or counted, but would simply suffice to be described as “many”.
Thankfully, our number system today is has given precision to the descriptor of “many”. Counting itself is made more efficient by the use of electronic counting processes, such as a calculator, or a formula in Excel.
But there are some who prefer the use of older tools, such as the abacus. Users of the simple Bablylonian-originated apparatus swear by its elegance, efficiency and brain-building abilities.
Take Japan for example. In the past, the abacus was used as a popular calculating tool, and as a type of skill parents would encourage their kids to take up, like sport or music lessons. But its popularity waned as more high-tech tools such as the calculator, became a commonplace item on every school desk. In 2000 though, math abilities of undergraduates started to decline and once again, schools started using the abacus to ingrain basic arithmetic skills.
Today, learning of the abacus is one of Japan top ten hobbies.
Do you remember using the abacus? How was your experience like? Tell us!