The Early History of Counting

Essay by Keith Houston: “Figuring out when humans began to count systematically, with purpose, is not easy. Our first real clues are a handful of curious, carved bones dating from the final few millennia of the three-​million-​year expanse of the Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic era. Those bones are humanity’s first pocket calculators: For the prehistoric humans who carved them, they were mathematical notebooks and counting aids rolled into one. For the anthropologists who unearthed them thousands of years later, they were proof that our ability to count had manifested itself no later than 40,000 years ago.

In 1973, while excavating a cave in the Lebombo Mountains, near South Africa’s border with Swaziland, Peter Beaumont found a small, broken bone with twenty-​nine notches carved across it. The so-​called Border Cave had been known to archaeologists since 1934, but the discovery during World War II of skeletal remains dating to the Middle Stone Age heralded a site of rare importance. It was not until Beaumont’s dig in the 1970s, however, that the cave gave up its most significant treasure: the earliest known tally stick, in the form of a notched, three-​inch long baboon fibula.

On the face of it, the numerical instrument known as the tally stick is exceedingly mundane. Used since before recorded history—​still used, in fact, by some cultures—​to mark the passing days, or to account for goods or monies given or received, most tally sticks are no more than wooden rods incised with notches along their length. They help their users to count, to remember, and to transfer ownership. All of which is reminiscent of writing, except that writing did not arrive until a scant 5,000 years ago—​and so, when the Lebombo bone was determined to be some 42,000 years old, it instantly became one of the most intriguing archaeological artifacts ever found. Not only does it put a date on when Homo sapiens started counting, it also marks the point at which we began to delegate our memories to external devices, thereby unburdening our minds so that they might be used for something else instead. Writing in 1776, the German historian Justus Möser knew nothing of the Lebombo bone, but his musings on tally sticks in general are strikingly apposite:

The notched tally stick itself testifies to the intelligence of our ancestors. No invention is simpler and yet more significant than this…(More)”.

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