A brief history of numbers

For thousands of years mankind has counted, be it notches carved into wood or markings on cave walls, much in the way we make tally marks today. At first only whole numbers, beginning with 1, 2, 3… were used. These are called the counting numbers.

Eventually, as our ideas about mathematics became more sophisticated, we needed more sophisticated ways of writing numbers. Over time different civilizations evolved different symbols and methods to represent numbers.

Cuneiform is one such example. This system was developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia over 5 thousand years ago. The name cuneiform itself means “wedge shaped” as it was made by making wedge-shaped markings on clay tablets with a reed as a pen.

Numbers 1 to 20 represented in cuneiform. Units are represented with formations of wedges with lines underneath. Tens are represented as left arrowheads.

Another example of an early written number system came from Egypt. The Egyptian Hieroglyphs used pictures to represent words. The Egyptian numeral system had separate symbols to represent different numbers, as we can see here:

Numbers 1 to 10, 100 and 1000 represented as hieroglyphics. Units are represented as vertical lines, 10 is shown as an upside down U representing a hobble for cattle, 100 is a coil of rope and 1000 is a lotus plant.

2123 is represented as two lotus plants, a coil of rope, two ‘hobbles for cattle’, and three single strokes.

Some people do not consider mathematics as a creative subject. This, however, is far from the truth. A teaching activity you may consider using is to ask students to make up their own number system based upon cuneiform or hieroglyphics. This activity enables to show their creative skills and to develop a deeper understanding of how number systems work.

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This article is from the free online course:

Maths Subject Knowledge: Understanding Numbers

National STEM Learning Centre