Introduction to 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 Outcomes

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


  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.