Posted by: Miriclaire | June 20, 2010

Thank you, Sumer, for the Zero

No calculator? Use your fingers- and toes, if needed. Right? Well, you would be accessing the deep recesses of your genetic history to count the ways the ancients did. Because humans typically have 10 digits, most counting systems, even today, use 10 as its base. But let’s not jump ahead! There’s a long history behind counting.

Hexadecimal Counting

The development of writing and counting are very closely connected, and both evolved from the growth of agriculture as civilization flourished. Because of the blossoming of trade and other commercial transactions based on agriculture, methods of record-keeping were needed. But coming up with the notion of numerals didn’t just appear overnight.

Evidence suggests that tallying, using wooden sticks, was commonplace as far back as 30,000 years ago, but the written counting system only goes back to circa 3400 BCE in Sumer where clay tokens were used to make records of stores (stored goods).  Throughout the next 1000 years, writing and counting systems developed and spread throughout West Asia.  (China and central America have separate evolutions).

The development of these systems of recording and communicating changed the nature of human consciousness; humans began to think in the abstract which encouraged the growing ability to measure, record and consider their world.

Consider that counting and recording eventually led to coinage, calendars, weights and measures, geometry, astronomy and more, and you soon realize how vital counting and numbers are to human growth and civilization, taking us to our latest technological

breakthroughs. Technology grows from social change, need and conditions and it all began with the simple clay token! From writing came the ability for commerce, long-distance communication, codification of laws, as well as record history. But not everyone had the ability to use the tools, at first. Nor the privelage.  For instance, in Ancient Egypt, only scribes were permitted to indulge!  So don’t take your ability to wield a pen for granted.  Ah Yes! Mightier than the sword. But I digress.

Can you imagine the  difficulty translating Hebrew or Arabic?

But that aside, the really important question is “Who created the zero!”.  Ah, the lowly zero.  So many of us take for granted the zero, thinking  erroneously, that such a simple concept has existed since time began. WRONG! The concept of the zero, which is not as simple as one may think, began with India and the Maya.  (Those Mayans! Gosh darn!   Their calendars, alone, are mind-blowing!) Zero, as a concept, permitted humans to think and calculate in much larger terms.  Without the concept of zero, we would have not developed more complex processes in commerce, astronomy, physics, or chemistry.

But what about Greece?. They ought to be included in an article about the development of number words, yes?  Well, they didn’t exactly lay the early foundations for counting.  Long before the Greeks, there was counting.  Then came counting systems and complex math – which comes more directly from Islamic and Arabic heritage.  Mythology tells us the Greeks laid the foundation for mathematics.  Hindu mathematicians are largely responsible for our now famous and widely accepted “decimal” system, for instance, and much more. But, the Greeks did add that tough subject we begin teaching in kindergarten and continue until senior years:  geometry.

Euclid, a Greek living in Alexandria circa 325 BCE to 264 BCE, is considered the Father of Geometry .

Arabic scholars, already housing a vast storehouse of knowledge and invention, began the arduous and important task of translating Greek works in order to increase learning. Important scholarly essays and notions were translated, and added to the vast Arabic storehouse of knowledge at the time, which included geometry. Yes, until further notice, give credit to the Greeks for geometry. In fact, give credit to Thales (c. 624-546 BCE) who is considered to be the founder of Greek geometry. But there was a new concept developed by Arabia called “Algebra”. This was an Arabic invention, and was not related to the Greek translations of the time. And there is no need to impress upon dear reader of the importance of Algebra. If it were not for Algebra, many of us would have succeeded at high school math!

So, for geometry, give one point to the Greeks.  For Algebra,  crown the Arabs. But for getting the whole ball of wax rolling,  let’s go back to the incredible, mystical, magical Sumerians.


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