Early Counting Systems

As we begin our journey through the history of mathematics, one question to be asked is “Where do we start?” Depending on how you view mathematics or numbers, you could choose any of a number of launching points from which to begin. Howard Eves suggests the following list of possibilities.[1]

Where to start the study of the history of mathematics…

  • At the first logical geometric “proofs” traditionally credited to Thales of Miletus (600 BCE).
  • With the formulation of methods of measurement made by the Egyptians and Mesopotamians/Babylonians.
  • Where prehistoric peoples made efforts to organize the concepts of size, shape, and number.
  • In pre-human times in the very simple number sense and pattern recognition that can be displayed by certain animals, birds, etc.
  • Even before that in the amazing relationships of numbers and shapes found in plants.
  • With the spiral nebulae, the natural course of planets, and other universe phenomena.

We can choose no starting point at all and instead agree that mathematics has always existed and has simply been waiting in the wings for humans to discover. Each of these positions can be defended to some degree and which one you adopt (if any) largely depends on your philosophical ideas about mathematics and numbers.

Nevertheless, we need a starting point. Without passing judgment on the validity of any of these particular possibilities, we will choose as our starting point the emergence of the idea of number and the process of counting as our launching pad. This is done primarily as a practical matter given the nature of this course. In the following chapter, we will try to focus on two main ideas. The first will be an examination of basic number and counting systems and the symbols that we use for numbers. We will look at our own modern (Western) number system as well those of a couple of selected civilizations to see the differences and diversity that is possible when humans start counting. The second idea we will look at will be base systems. By comparing our own base-ten (decimal) system with other bases, we will quickly become aware that the system that we are so used to, when slightly changed, will challenge our notions about numbers and what symbols for those numbers actually mean.

Recognition of More vs. Less

The idea of number and the process of counting goes back far beyond history began to be recorded. There is some archeological evidence that suggests that humans were counting as far back as 50,000 years ago.[2] However, we do not really know how this process started or developed over time. The best we can do is to make a good guess as to how things progressed. It is probably not hard to believe that even the earliest humans had some sense of more and less. Even some small animals have been shown to have such a sense. For example, one naturalist tells of how he would secretly remove one egg each day from a plover’s nest. The mother was diligent in laying an extra egg every day to make up for the missing egg. Some research has shown that hens can be trained to distinguish between even and odd numbers of pieces of food.[3] With these sorts of findings in mind, it is not hard to conceive that early humans had (at least) a similar sense of more and less. However, our conjectures about how and when these ideas emerged among humans are simply that; educated guesses based on our own assumptions of what might or could have been.

Learning Objectives

In this lesson you will:

  • Determine the number of objects being represented by pebbles placed on an Inca counting board.
  • Determine the number represented by a quipu cord
  • Identify uses other than counting for a quipu cord
  • Become familiar with the evolution of the counting system we use every day
  • Write numbers using Roman Numerals
  • Convert between Hindu-Arabic and Roman Numerals


The Evolution of Counting and The Inca Counting System

The Need for Simple Counting

As societies and humankind evolved, simply having a sense of more or less, even or odd, etc., would prove to be insufficient to meet the needs of everyday living. As tribes and groups formed, it became important to be able to know how many members were in the group, and perhaps how many were in the enemy’s camp. Certainly it was important for them to know if the flock of sheep or other possessed animals were increasing or decreasing in size. “Just how many of them do we have, anyway?” is a question that we do not have a hard time imagining them asking themselves (or each other).

In order to count items such as animals, it is often conjectured that one of the earliest methods of doing so would be with “tally sticks.” These are objects used to track the numbers of items to be counted. With this method, each “stick” (or pebble, or whatever counting device being used) represents one animal or object. This method uses the idea of one to one correspondence. In a one to one correspondence, items that are being counted are uniquely linked with some counting tool.


Figure 1.

In the picture to the right, you see each stick corresponding to one horse. By examining the collection of sticks in hand one knows how many animals should be present. You can imagine the usefulness of such a system, at least for smaller numbers of items to keep track of. If a herder wanted to “count off” his animals to make sure they were all present, he could mentally (or methodically) assign each stick to one animal and continue to do so until he was satisfied that all were accounted for.

Of course, in our modern system, we have replaced the sticks with more abstract objects. In particular, the top stick is replaced with our symbol “1,” the second stick gets replaced by a “2” and the third stick is represented by the symbol “3,” but we are getting ahead of ourselves here. These modern symbols took many centuries to emerge.

Another possible way of employing the “tally stick” counting method is by making marks or cutting notches into pieces of wood, or even tying knots in string (as we shall see later). In 1937, Karl Absolom discovered a wolf bone that goes back possibly 30,000 years. It is believed to be a counting device.[4] Another example of this kind of tool is the Ishango Bone, discovered in 1960 at Ishango, and shown below.[5] It is reported to be between six and nine thousand years old and shows what appear to be markings used to do counting of some sort.

The markings on rows (a) and (b) each add up to 60. Row (b) contains the prime numbers between 10 and 20. Row (c) seems to illustrate for the method of doubling and multiplication used by the Egyptians. It is believed that this may also represent a lunar phase counter.


Figure 2.

Spoken Words

As methods for counting developed, and as language progressed as well, it is natural to expect that spoken words for numbers would appear. Unfortunately, the developments of these words, especially those corresponding to the numbers from one through ten, are not easy to trace. Past ten, however, we do see some patterns:

  • Eleven comes from “ein lifon,” meaning “one left over.”
  • Twelve comes from “twe lif,” meaning “two left over.”
  • Thirteen comes from “Three and ten” as do fourteen through nineteen.
  • Twenty appears to come from “twe-tig” which means “two tens.”
  • Hundred probably comes from a term meaning “ten times.”

Written Numbers

When we speak of “written” numbers, we have to be careful because this could mean a variety of things. It is important to keep in mind that modern paper is only a little more than 100 years old, so “writing” in times past often took on forms that might look quite unfamiliar to us today.

As we saw earlier, some might consider wooden sticks with notches carved in them as writing as these are means of recording information on a medium that can be “read” by others. Of course, the symbols used (simple notches) certainly did not leave a lot of flexibility for communicating a wide variety of ideas or information.

Other mediums on which “writing” may have taken place include carvings in stone or clay tablets, rag paper made by hand (twelfth century in Europe, but earlier in China), papyrus (invented by the Egyptians and used up until the Greeks), and parchments from animal skins. And these are just a few of the many possibilities.

These are just a few examples of early methods of counting and simple symbols for representing numbers. Extensive books, articles and research have been done on this topic and could provide enough information to fill this entire course if we allowed it to. The range and diversity of creative thought that has been used in the past to describe numbers and to count objects and people is staggering. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to examine them all, but it is fun and interesting to look at one system in more detail to see just how ingenious people have been.

The Number and Counting System of the Inca Civilization


There is generally a lack of books and research material concerning the historical foundations of the Americas. Most of the “important” information available concentrates on the eastern hemisphere, with Europe as the central focus. The reasons for this may be twofold: first, it is thought that there was a lack of specialized mathematics in the American regions; second, many of the secrets of ancient mathematics in the Americas have been closely guarded.[6] The Peruvian system does not seem to be an exception here. Two researchers, Leland Locke and Erland Nordenskiold, have carried out research that has attempted to discover what mathematical knowledge was known by the Incas and how they used the Peruvian quipu, a counting system using cords and knots, in their mathematics. These researchers have come to certain beliefs about the quipu that we will summarize here.

Counting Boards

It should be noted that the Incas did not have a complicated system of computation. Where other peoples in the regions, such as the Mayans, were doing computations related to their rituals and calendars, the Incas seem to have been more concerned with the simpler task of record-keeping. To do this, they used what are called the “quipu” to record quantities of items. (We will describe them in more detail in a moment.) However, they first often needed to do computations whose results would be recorded on quipu. To do these computations, they would sometimes use a counting board constructed with a slab of stone. In the slab were cut rectangular and square compartments so that an octagonal (eight-sided) region was left in the middle. Two opposite corner rectangles were raised. Another two sections were mounted on the original surface of the slab so that there were actually three levels available. In the figure shown, the darkest shaded corner regions represent the highest, third level. The lighter shaded regions surrounding the corners are the second highest levels, while the clear white rectangles are the compartments cut into the stone slab.


Figure 3.

Pebbles were used to keep accounts and their positions within the various levels and compartments gave totals. For example, a pebble in a smaller (white) compartment represented one unit. Note that there are 12 such squares around the outer edge of the figure. If a pebble was put into one of the two (white) larger, rectangular compartments, its value was doubled. When a pebble was put in the octagonal region in the middle of the slab, its value was tripled. If a pebble was placed on the second (shaded) level, its value was multiplied by six. And finally, if a pebble was found on one of the two highest corner levels, its value was multiplied by twelve. Different objects could be counted at the same time by representing different objects by different colored pebbles.



Suppose you have the following counting board with two different kind of pebbles places as illustrated. Let the solid black pebble represent a dog and the striped pebble represent a cat. How many dogs are being represented?



Try it now

How many cats are represented on this board?


Watch this short video lesson about Inca counting boards. You will find that this is a review of concepts presented here about counting boards.

The Quipu


Figure 5.

This kind of board was good for doing quick computations, but it did not provide a good way to keep a permanent recording of quantities or computations. For this purpose, they used the quipu. The quipu is a collection of cords with knots in them. These cords and knots are carefully arranged so that the position and type of cord or knot gives specific information on how to decipher the cord.

A quipu is made up of a main cord which has other cords (branches) tied to it. See pictures to the right.[7]

Locke called the branches H cords. They are attached to the main cord. B cords, in turn, were attached to the H cords. Most of these cords would have knots on them. Rarely are knots found on the main cord, however, and tend to be mainly on the H and B cords. A quipu might also have a “totalizer” cord that summarizes all of the information on the cord group in one place.

Locke points out that there are three types of knots, each representing a different value, depending on the kind of knot used and its position on the cord. The Incas, like us, had a decimal (base-ten) system, so each kind of knot had a specific decimal value. The Single knot, pictured in the middle of figure 6[8] was used to denote tens, hundreds, thousands, and ten thousands. They would be on the upper levels of the H cords. The figure-eight knot on the end was used to denote the integer “one.” Every other integer from 2 to 9 was represented with a long knot, shown on the left of the figure. (Sometimes long knots were used to represents tens and hundreds.) Note that the long knot has several turns in it…the number of turns indicates which integer is being represented. The units (ones) were placed closest to the bottom of the cord, then tens right above them, then the hundreds, and so on.

Figure 6

Figure 6

In order to make reading these pictures easier, we will adopt a convention that is consistent. For the long knot with turns in it (representing the numbers 2 through 9), we will use the following notation:

The four horizontal bars represent four turns and the curved arc on the right links the four turns together. This would represent the number 4.

We will represent the single knot with a large dot ( · ) and we will represent the figure eight knot with a sideways eight ( ∞ ).



What number is represented on the cord shown in figure 7?

Figure 7.

try it now

What numbers are represented on each of the four cords hanging from the main cord? 

The colors of the cords had meaning and could distinguish one object from another. One color could represent llamas, while a different color might represent sheep, for example. When all the colors available were exhausted, they would have to be re-used. Because of this, the ability to read the quipu became a complicated task and specially trained individuals did this job. They were called Quipucamayoc, which means keeper of the quipus. They would build, guard, and decipher quipus.


Figure 9.

As you can see from this photograph of an actual quipu (figure 9), they could get quite complex.

There were various purposes for the quipu. Some believe that they were used to keep an account of their traditions and history, using knots to record history rather than some other formal system of writing. One writer has even suggested that the quipu replaced writing as it formed a role in the Incan postal system.[9] Another proposed use of the quipu is as a translation tool. After the conquest of the Incas by the Spaniards and subsequent “conversion” to Catholicism, an Inca supposedly could use the quipu to confess their sins to a priest. Yet another proposed use of the quipu was to record numbers related to magic and astronomy, although this is not a widely accepted interpretation.

The following video presents another introduction to the Inca’s use of a quipu for record keeping.

The mysteries of the quipu have not been fully explored yet. Recently, Ascher and Ascher have published a book, The Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture, which is “an extensive elaboration of the logical-numerical system of the quipu.”[10] For more information on the quipu, you may want to check out Khipus: a unique Huarochiri legacy.”

We are so used to seeing the symbols 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. that it may be somewhat surprising to see such a creative and innovative way to compute and record numbers. Unfortunately, as we proceed through our mathematical education in grade and high school, we receive very little information about the wide range of number systems that have existed and which still exist all over the world. That’s not to say our own system is not important or efficient. The fact that it has survived for hundreds of years and shows no sign of going away any time soon suggests that we may have finally found a system that works well and may not need further improvement, but only time will tell that whether or not that conjecture is valid or not. We now turn to a brief historical look at how our current system developed over history.

The Hindu—Arabic Number System and Roman Numerals

The Evolution of a System

Our own number system, composed of the ten symbols {0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9} is called the Hindu-Arabic system. This is a base-ten (decimal) system since place values increase by powers of ten. Furthermore, this system is positional, which means that the position of a symbol has bearing on the value of that symbol within the number. For example, the position of the symbol 3 in the number 435,681 gives it a value much greater than the value of the symbol 8 in that same number. We’ll explore base systems more thoroughly later. The development of these ten symbols and their use in a positional system comes to us primarily from India.[11]


Figure 10. Al-Biruni

It was not until the fifteenth century that the symbols that we are familiar with today first took form in Europe. However, the history of these numbers and their development goes back hundreds of years. One important source of information on this topic is the writer al-Biruni, whose picture is shown in figure 10.[12] Al-Biruni, who was born in modern day Uzbekistan, had visited India on several occasions and made comments on the Indian number system. When we look at the origins of the numbers that al-Biruni encountered, we have to go back to the third century BCE to explore their origins. It is then that the Brahmi numerals were being used.

The Brahmi numerals were more complicated than those used in our own modern system. They had separate symbols for the numbers 1 through 9, as well as distinct symbols for 10, 100, 1000,…, also for 20, 30, 40,…, and others for 200, 300, 400, …, 900. The Brahmi symbols for 1, 2, and 3 are shown below.[13]


These numerals were used all the way up to the fourth century CE, with variations through time and geographic location. For example, in the first century CE, one particular set of Brahmi numerals took on the following form:[14]


From the fourth century on, you can actually trace several different paths that the Brahmi numerals took to get to different points and incarnations. One of those paths led to our current numeral system, and went through what are called the Gupta numerals. The Gupta numerals were prominent during a time ruled by the Gupta dynasty and were spread throughout that empire as they conquered lands during the fourth through sixth centuries. They have the following form:[15]


How the numbers got to their Gupta form is open to considerable debate. Many possible hypotheses have been offered, most of which boil down to two basic types.[16] The first type of hypothesis states that the numerals came from the initial letters of the names of the numbers. This is not uncommon . . . the Greek numerals developed in this manner. The second type of hypothesis states that they were derived from some earlier number system. However, there are other hypotheses that are offered, one of which is by the researcher Ifrah. His theory is that there were originally nine numerals, each represented by a corresponding number of vertical lines. One possibility is this:[17]


Because these symbols would have taken a lot of time to write, they eventually evolved into cursive symbols that could be written more quickly. If we compare these to the Gupta numerals above, we can try to see how that evolutionary process might have taken place, but our imagination would be just about all we would have to depend upon since we do not know exactly how the process unfolded. 

The Gupta numerals eventually evolved into another form of numerals called the Nagari numerals, and these continued to evolve until the eleventh century, at which time they looked like this:[18]


Note that by this time, the symbol for 0 has appeared! The Mayans in the Americas had a symbol for zero long before this, however, as we shall see later in the chapter.

These numerals were adopted by the Arabs, most likely in the eighth century during Islamic incursions into the northern part of India.[19] It is believed that the Arabs were instrumental in spreading them to other parts of the world, including Spain (see below).

Other examples of variations up to the eleventh century include:[20]


Figure 11. Devangari, eighth century


Figure 12. West Arab Gobar, tenth century


Figure 13. Spain, 976 BCE

Finally, figure 14[21] shows various forms of these numerals as they developed and eventually converged to the fifteenth century in Europe.


Figure 14.

Roman Numerals

The numeric system represented by Roman numerals originated in ancient Rome (753 BC–476 AD) and remained the usual way of writing numbers throughout Europe well into the Late Middle Ages (generally comprising the 14th and 15th centuries (c. 1301–1500)). Numbers in this system are represented by combinations of letters from the Latin alphabet. Roman numerals, as used today, are based on seven symbols:

Symbol I V X L C D M
Value 1 5 10 50 100 500 1,000

The use of Roman numerals continued long after the decline of the Roman Empire. From the 14th century on, Roman numerals began to be replaced in most contexts by the more convenient Hindu-Arabic numerals; however, this process was gradual, and the use of Roman numerals persists in some minor applications to this day.

The numbers 1 to 10 are usually expressed in Roman numerals as follows:


Numbers are formed by combining symbols and adding the values, so II is two (two ones) and XIII is thirteen (a ten and three ones). Because each numeral has a fixed value rather than representing multiples of ten, one hundred and so on, according to position, there is no need for “place keeping” zeros, as in numbers like 207 or 1066; those numbers are written as CCVII (two hundreds, a five and two ones) and MLXVI (a thousand, a fifty, a ten, a five and a one).

Symbols are placed from left to right in order of value, starting with the largest. However, in a few specific cases, to avoid four characters being repeated in succession (such as IIII or XXXX), subtractive notation is used: as in this table:

Number 4 9 40 90 400 900
Roman Numeral IV IX XL XC CD CM

In summary:

  • I placed before V or X indicates one less, so four is IV (one less than five) and nine is IX (one less than ten)
  • X placed before L or C indicates ten less, so forty is XL (ten less than fifty) and ninety is XC (ten less than a hundred)
  • C placed before D or M indicates a hundred less, so four hundred is CD (a hundred less than five hundred) and nine hundred is CM (a hundred less than a thousand)


Write the Hindu-Arabic numeral for MCMIV.

try it now

Modern use

By the 11th century, Hindu–Arabic numerals had been introduced into Europe from al-Andalus, by way of Arab traders and arithmetic treatises. Roman numerals, however, proved very persistent, remaining in common use in the West well into the 14th and 15th centuries, even in accounting and other business records (where the actual calculations would have been made using an abacus). Replacement by their more convenient “Arabic” equivalents was quite gradual, and Roman numerals are still used today in certain contexts. A few examples of their current use are:

Spanish Real using “IIII” instead of IV
  • Names of monarchs and popes, e.g. Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Pope Benedict XVI. These are referred to as regnal numbers; e.g. II is pronounced “the second”. This tradition began in Europe sporadically in the Middle Ages, gaining widespread use in England only during the reign of Henry VIII. Previously, the monarch was not known by numeral but by an epithet such as Edward the Confessor. Some monarchs (e.g. Charles IV of Spain and Louis XIV of France) seem to have preferred the use of IIII instead of IV on their coinage (see illustration).
  • Generational suffixes, particularly in the US, for people sharing the same name across generations, for example William Howard Taft IV.
  • In the French Republican Calendar, initiated during the French Revolution, years were numbered by Roman numerals – from the year I (1792) when this calendar was introduced to the year XIV (1805) when it was abandoned.
  • The year of production of films, television shows and other works of art within the work itself. It has been suggested – by BBC News, perhaps facetiously – that this was originally done “in an attempt to disguise the age of films or television programmes.”[23] Outside reference to the work will use regular Hindu–Arabic numerals.
  • Hour marks on timepieces. In this context, 4 is usually written IIII.
  • The year of construction on building faces and cornerstones.
  • Page numbering of prefaces and introductions of books, and sometimes of annexes, too.
  • Book volume and chapter numbers, as well as the several acts within a play (e.g. Act iii, Scene 2).
  • Sequels of some movies, video games, and other works (as in Rocky II).
  • Outlines that use numbers to show hierarchical relationships.
  • Occurrences of a recurring grand event, for instance:
    • The Summer and Winter Olympic Games (e.g. the XXI Olympic Winter Games; the Games of the XXX Olympiad)
    • The Super Bowl, the annual championship game of the National Football League (e.g. Super Bowl XXXVII; Super Bowl 50 is a one-time exception[24])
    • WrestleMania, the annual professional wrestling event for the WWE (e.g. WrestleMania XXX). This usage has also been inconsistent.

  1. Eves, Howard; An Introduction to the History of Mathematics, p. 9.
  2. Eves, p. 9.
  3. McLeish, John; The Story of Numbers—How Mathematics Has Shaped Civilization, p. 7.
  4. Bunt, Lucas; Jones, Phillip; Bedient, Jack; The Historical Roots of Elementary Mathematics, p. 2.
  5. http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/Ancient-Africa/mad_zaire-uganda.html
  6. Diana, Lind Mae; The Peruvian Quipu in Mathematics Teacher, Issue 60 (Oct., 1967), p. 623–28.
  7. Diana, Lind Mae; The Peruvian Quipu in Mathematics Teacher, Issue 60 (Oct., 1967), p. 623–28.
  8. http://wiscinfo.doit.wisc.edu/chaysimire/titulo2/khipus/what.htm
  9. Diana, Lind Mae; The Peruvian Quipu in Mathematics Teacher, Issue 60 (Oct., 1967), p. 623–28.
  10. http://www.cs.uidaho.edu/~casey931/seminar/quipu.html
  11. http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/HistTopics/Indian_numerals.html
  12. http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Al-Biruni.html
  13. http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/HistTopics/Indian_numerals.html
  14. http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/HistTopics/Indian_numerals.html
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Katz, page 230
  20. Burton, David M., History of Mathematics, An Introduction, p. 254–255
  21. Katz, page 231.