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Numbers and Numerals in Ancient Civilizations Revisited

R. M. Shreshtha
1. Early Days
Man in the early days of human civilization lived almost like other animals by hunting animals
and collecting food. Gradually, he learnt to live in caves, make tools. Discovery of fire and tilling of land
made him more secure. Experiences of various kinds got accumulated. Accumulation of experiences made
him think and act accordingly.
2. A Great Beginning
A great beginning occurred some 40,000 years or a little more ago. It is during this time man
emerged out of the animal kingdom. Man began to think and form ideas out of his experiences. Ideas were
communicated through speech or some kind of drawings or signs or symbols. Sorting and matching objects
or drawings or signs or symbols of the same or different kind became quite common. This naturally
involved some kind of matching process or correspondence. Some such correspondence was one-to-one,
while others were one-to-many and many-to-one. In the course of time, this matching process or putting
into correspondence became the fundamental basis for quantification of objects around him or ideas
generated during the process of human development.
Quantification through some kind of matching or correspondence or representation or construction
got manifested in the form of notches cut on sticks, etching bones, carving and paintings on stones or
walls, cuneiforms etched on clay tablets, symbols and pictures marked on cubical clay tablets, similarity
and symmetry in ancient constructions of courtyards, platforms, temples, pyramids etc. and writing on
papyrus or palm leaf sheets like our Bhojpatra/Tadpatra papers. All such ancient tokens or artifacts are
being used to find some kind of satisfactory answer to questions like
“Who?”, “When?”, and “Where?”
about mathematics. Some pictures of such ancient artifacts are:
Many more evidences of this kind are being discovered in various parts of the world. They show
how early mathematics, originated and spread in lands that are thousands of miles away, possessed a
common quantitative characteristic. Study and research on such materials have provided enough clues in
clarifying many doubts and wrong impressions created by the obstinately misleading Euro-centric or Indo-
centric attitude:
“ Everything mathematics is of European/ Indian origin.”
3. Origin of Numbers and Numerals
Many myths, legends and stories about the creation or origin of man are known. Some believe that
the Lord created man, while others argue that man evolved out of simple living being. Once we accept that
the Lord created the man, everything becomes simple. The origin and development of everything can then
be left to the wish of the Lord. This applies to what we call number and numerals also. No question about
their origin and development should worry us.
On the other hand, if we believe in the theory of human, we shall not be allowed to do so. We
cannot avoid answering questions like “Who?”, “When?”, and “Where?” about numbers and numerals.
Before answering such questions, we must, at least, have some intuitive idea about what we mean by
numbers and numerals. First of all, we must agree without any question that numbers and numerals are just
nothing but the creation or invention of the fertile human brain that makes man feel or comprehend
something quantitative. A thinking man is therefore the basic actor behind the creation of numbers and
numerals. Since man emerged as a thinking being some 40,000 years ago or so, we must agree that
numbers and numerals came into existence or created or invented for the first time sometime around this
period. More concrete development of numbers and numerals took place with the gradual development of
civilizations in various parts of the globe.
History of ancient civilizations however consisted of a collection of distinct stories of
simultaneous and successive achievements and downfalls. We find the effects of such changes or ups and
downs well reflected as carving and etching on clay tokens, stone slabs, metals sheets, painting on walls, or
writing on silk or paper made from leaves and other artifacts found in regions where ancient civilizations
grew up. Pictures of a few of samples of ancient tokens and artifacts shown earlier clearly give us a very
good idea about how numbers and numerals originated and developed in some of the best known
civilizations of ancient times.
The six regions where early civilizations developed are:

As far as history of origin and development of numbers and numerals in ancient times is
concerned, most mathematicians have confined themselves to the study of the contributions made by the
six civilizations
a) Babylonian civilization, b) Chinese civilization
c) Egyptian civilization d) Greek civilization
e) Indus or Indo-Gangetic civilization f) Mayan civilization,

No study has so far been able to provide any evidence that could prove the existence of numbers and
numerals before the emergence of man as a thinking animal some 40,000 years ago or so.
4 Numbers and Numerals in Ancient Civilizations
In the early years of civilizations, one of the most natural activities of the early man like a cave
dweller could have been to communicate about what he had. But, lack of spoken words could have
prevented him from doing so. Most likely alternatives he might have chosen for it could have been the use
of sign language or fingers or collections of pebbles or stick or shells or notches on a stick or the like.
Several thousands of years might have elapsed before he learnt to use spoken words or speech. Number
word like “One” or “Uno” or ” Ps ” could have come up while setting aside one pebble for one sheep
(matching), “Two” or “Due” or ” b'O{ ” while dealing with pair of eyes or ears, “Five” or “Cinque” or “
kfFr ” while putting together fingers of one hand with fingers of another. Other number words might have
appeared similarly. The single word “Number” or “Numero” or “ ;+Vof” or the like then got used to mean
any one of them; and the process itself being named as counting, “Numero” or “u0fgf jf lulGt”. Thousands
of years seem to have passed this way without the ideas contained in the words “number” and “counting
numbers” being explained. During the course of the development of civilizations, some men started to keep
records of their counts by carving signs and symbols on stone-slabs or wooden sheets.
One interesting ancient practice of doing so is to tie knots on ropes or use “quipo”. Writing on
bamboo strips or leaves like Bhojpatra appeared very late in the history of civilization. The Egyptians wrote
on papyrus, a special paper made from reeds. The Chinese wrote on silk, cloth and oracular bones. Etching
or cutting signs and symbols on clay tablets were common in ancient Babylonian and Indus civilizations.
Paintings on walls and potteries were also used in most of the ancient civilizations. One can refer back to
pictures of some such tokens or artifacts of this kind given in the beginning.
Signs, symbols or figures thus used for keeping record of the count gave rise to what is known as
number symbols or numerals. Different types of number symbols or numerals were created or invented in
different civilizations at different times. Some used few symbols, while others used unlimited number of
symbols. This subsequently gave birth to different kinds of numeration systems. In many civilizations, the
property of “ONENESS” is usually exhibited by a single stroke (vertical │or horizontal ). It looks like a
stick. In some other civilizations, a dot () symbolizing a pebble is also used for this purpose. As far as the
next few numbers are concerned, a common practice is to repeat the symbol for “ONE”.
As a concrete example, let us see how this is done in the case of the number ‘THREE’:

In the above table, each numeral or number symbol represents the number “THREE”. The number
words corresponding to this number in six different languages but written in Roman script are:

These number words show some kind of resemblance. When read aloud they sound almost alike.
This threefold coincidence can be observed in the case of a number of other number words also. This
coincidence is often interpreted as the result of the Indo-European origin of the number names and
numeral; and also as a unification of a number of Indian and European cultures and languages. Indo-
European alliance of this kind has failed to appropriately appreciate the development of numbers and
numerals in several other civilizations. We therefore feel it our duty to revisit early numbers and numerals
developed, at least, in some major civilizations of the world
a) Arabic numbers and numerals.
The name Arabic mathematics often refers to mathematics developed with Muhammad Musa al–
Khawarazmi who, in the ninth century is credited for introducing the Hindu numerals including the concept
of zero into the Arab world. Khawarazmi is believed to have invented algebra. According to Professor
Sarton, Khawarazmi influenced mathematical thought to a greater extent than any other medieval writer.
The term Algebra (al-jabr) was coined by him. Apart from mathematics, Khawarazmi also did pioneering
work in the fields of astronomy, geography and the theory of music. The subject algebra made an enormous
leap forward under Omar Khayyam(1040 - 1123 C.E.).
Unfortunately, the contributions of Caliph Ma’mun (813 – 833), Battani (858 – 929) and Biruni
(973 – 1048) in laying foundations of modern astronomy are rarely mentioned under Arab mathematics.
More surprising is the fact that those who talk about Arab mathematics quite often are unwilling to tell
even a little bit about the Arab world which include the vast area of land stretching from Africa to Asia
1. where primitive people organized into a settled form of society, cultivating grain and raising
livestock, establishing cities and promoting diverse skills and occupations,
2. where many ancient civilizations such as Assyrian civilization, Sumerian civilization,
Babylonian civilization and Egyptian civilization grew up, and
3. where three great religion – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, originated.

More important to notice is that this was also the region where ancient sets of numerals such as the
Babylonian cuneiform numerals, the Egyptian Heiroglyphic and Heirartic numerals originated. Very little
is known about
“What numerals were used by the people in the Arab world before the Hindu Arabic numerals
came into use?”
Equally important is the questions –
“What happened to the Babylonian numerals and Egyptian Numerals?”
“Why they are not being considered while narrating the history of the Arabic numerals?”
Since Babylonia and Egypt of the ancient times belong to the Arab world, it would be very unfair
if we exclude the history of Babylonian and Egyptian numerals from the history of Arabic numerals. By
this we however do not mean that we should disown the fact that the Hindu-Arabic numerals spread in the

Arab World as two apparently distinct numerals - the Western Arabic numerals and the Eastern Arabic
The two variants are shown below:

Each of these two systems is a positional base 10 numeral system, with ten distinct symbols representing
the 10 numerical digits. Each digit has a value which is multiplied by a power of ten according to its
position in the number; the left-most digit of a number has the greatest value. The arithmetic of these new
systems is almost the same as that of the Hindu-numerals. The two ways of writing the Arabic numerals:
one from left to right and the other from right to left do not make any significant difference.
b) Babylonian numbers and numerals
Babylon, the capital city of ancient Mesopotamia; is known as the land between the rivers - the
Tigris and the Euphrates. It represented the region that is now known as Iraq and also some parts of the
present day Syria and Turkey. In other words, ancient Mesopotamia represents a small portion of what is
now known as the Arab World. It is in this region two famous ancient civilizations – Sumerian civilization
and Akkadian civilization flourished. These civilizations were later replaced by the Babylonian civilization
(2000 BCE – 600 B.C.E). The Babylonians not only adopted the Sumerian ways of writing based on
cuneiform (wedge-shaped) symbols etched or inscribed or pressed on soft clay tablets, but also inherited
their sexagesimal (i.e. base 60) number system. This is how most of their texts have come down to us. The
wedge-shaped symbols or cuneiforms look somewhat like
a down pointed wedge for 1
and a left pointed wedge for 10
Here is a complete list of 59 Babylonian numerals made from these two symbols:

Babylonian numerals
This is a sexagesimal place-value numeral system. In the Babylonian system there is nothing like ‘0’. A
noticeable gap is often interpreted somewhat in the sense of decimal zero.
Babylonian numbers are etched on clay tablets. Many thousands of such tablets have survived to this day.
Two cuneiform tablets are shown below:

Cuneiforms tablets contain writings that are either scattered as individual symbol or as groups of
symbols. Some of them denote simple numerals, while others denote larger numbers and fractions. Below
we have a few examples.

The Babylonian number system looks fairly simple, because it used just two symbols. But, in
practice, it is not so. Many ambiguities still exist. One such problem is the problem of the space gap
between two Babylonian numerals. There is no way of separating the 'columns' except by a gap between
two numerals. For instance, two unit symbols may be attached together or separated by a gap as shown

and .
When written separately, cases are reported where small and big gaps are found to make significant
difference. A similar problem exists with the space after a single numeral. Sometimes a small gap and no
gap make no difference. In most cases, this is not so.
Being unable to provide a concrete solution of the problem of space-gap-ambiguity, investigators in
this field seem to have adopted an unhealthy practice of being guided by the philosophy of “The context
would make the situation clear” and/or the hypothesis of “Big and Small Gaps”. One principle followed in
this connection is:
Given two Babylonian numerals placed side by side with a noticeable gap, the numeral on the left
should be assigned a decimal value that is sixty times its actual ( or unit ) value; and the numeral on the
right the same decimal value as its actual ( or unit ) value.
For instance,
a) stands for 2,
stands for 1,1 = 1 60 + 1 = 61;
b) stands for 2  10 = 20,
stands for 10,10 = 10  60 + 1  10 = 70
In case, there are three Babylonian numerals forming a bigger number, then the principle is to assign
each numeral on the extreme left a decimal value 602 times it actual value, the middle one a decimal value
that is 60 times its value and the numeral on the extreme right the same decimal value as the actual value of
the numeral. This procedure is continued if there are four, five or more distinct numerals forming a bigger

For instances,
a) stands for 1,1 = 1  60 + 1 = 61,
stands for 1,2 = 1 60 + 2 = 62,
stands for 1,1,1 = 1  602 + 1 60 + 1 = 3600 + 60 + 1 = 3661.
b) stands for 10,10 = 10 60 + 1  10 = 600 + 10 = 610
stands for 10,10,2 = 10602 + 10  60 + 2
= 36000 + 610 + 2 = 36612
c) stands for 3  10 = 30,
stands for 10, 20 = 10  60 + 20 = 620
stands for 20,10 = 20  60 + 10 = 1210,
stands for 10,10,10 = 10602+1060 +10 = 36610,
d) stands for 1,2,30 = 1602 + 260 + 3 10
= 3600+120 +30 = 3750,
If this process is reversed, we shall have to represent
3661 by (gap) (gap) (no gap), or, ,
3660 by (gap) (big gap),or, ,
3600 by (bigger gap), ,
and so on.

This illustrates what is known as 60th numeral problem in the Babylonian cuneiform number system. In
other words, the representation of the sixtieth Babylonian numeral or its integral multiple representing the
decimal number 1 or 60 or 3600 or the like is problematic.

If the unit symbol , when not attached to another, is to be interpreted as the decimal 60 or 3600 or
the like, one question that always arise is “How small or how big is the space after it?” In such a case, the
practice of interpreting an empty space of unspecified size as “zero” does not tell us how many zeroes
should be taken for a gap of unspecified length.
Babylonian numbers and numeral system, in spite of such inconsistencies, are found to play
extremely important role in the development of mathematics in Babylonian civilization and also in the
Greek civilization.
c) Chinese numbers and numerals
China, the country of the longest surviving culture and civilization, remained isolated from the
outside world at a time when crossing of its natural boundaries (mountains and seas) was extremely
difficult. Whatever development in numbers and numerals that did take place in those ancient days of China
remained almost within its own boundary.
As far as the history of the origin and development of numbers and numeral system in China is
concerned, one may safely begin with numbers etched or carved on the 14 th century oracle bones and then
focus more on the Han dynasty counting rod numerals (2nd century BCE – 4th century CE)

i) The Shan Dynasty numerals
Concrete evidence of the existence of the Shan dynasty numerals can be found on 14 th century
B.C.E. oracle bones - tortoise shells and flat animal bones discovered in China. San dynasty numerals and
numbers consist of both tally and code symbols, based on a decimal positional value system. The usual
practice was to use one symbol for each of the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 100, 1000, and 10000.
The Chinese decimal number system is found to be both additive and multiplicative. The following table
shows the ancient Shan Dynastic Chinese numerals and one large number exhibiting the decimal,
positional, additive and multiplicative properties:

ii) The Chinese rod numerals (Counting rods numerals)

The Shan numerals got well developed into a system by the time of Han Dynasty (2nd Century BCE
- 4th Century CE.). They invented a wide variety of counting boards, a kind mechanical aid. A counting
board consisted of a checker board with rows and columns indicated by vertical rods known as counting
rods or chousuan.
Numbers were represented by little rods made from bamboo or ivory. A number was formed in a
row with the units placed in the right most column, the tens in the next column to the left, the hundreds in

the next column to the left etc. Two types of rods - red to indicate positive and black to indicate negative
numbers were also used. Zero was indicated by a blank space or empty column on the counting board. The
most significant property of representing numbers this way on the counting board was that it was a natural
place valued system. Here, we have some pictures of ancient Chinese rod numerals engraved in earthen

Two representations of the new Chinese numerals look like:

Because of the additive nature of the system a symbol like ||| could be 3, or 21, or 12, or even 111.
To avoid such confusion, both forms of the numbers given in the above table were simultaneously used. In
the units column they used the form in the lower row, while in the tens column they used the form in the
upper row, and this procedure was continued alternately. For examples,
10 is represented by

11 is represented by

50 is represented by

1234 is represented on the counting board by

and 45698 is represented by

d) Egyptian numbers and numerals
Egypt, situated in the Nile Valley, enjoyed a very long period of peace and tranquility in its early
history. Ancient pyramids, tombs and temples and other monuments found here are being taken as the
evidences of the fact that Egypt had made remarkable achievements a long time ago. The Egyptians used
picture writings to represent ideas and sounds. The picture writings are known as Hieroglyphics, These
pictures or hieroglyphics were later used to represent numerals sometime around 3000 B.C.E. Another type
of numerals came into existence around 2000 B.C.E in Egypt. The new numerals are known as Hieratic
numerals. A third type of Egyptian numerals is known as the demotic numerals.
i) Hieroglyphics numerals

The Egyptians hieroglyphic numeral system consisted of separate symbols for one
unit, one ten, one hundred, one thousand and so on. They are considered to be basic
symbols and are found on temples rocks etc. Early hieroglyphic numerals can be found on
temples, stone monuments and vases, the later ones on papyrus. The numerals look
something like

The following examples show how the Egyptian numbers were written in ancient times:

Obviously, this is a decimal but non-positional system. In this system, neither the zero (cipher)
symbol nor the principle of place value was used. Larger numbers were formed by putting basic symbols
together. The order of occurrence of the symbols did not matter in this system.
The Hieroglyphic numbers are written and read from right to left and also from left to right. Below
we have a table of some large hieroglyphic numbers:

ii) Hieratic numerals

A second system of numerals consists of a new ciphered one number-to-one symbol system, i.e., a
kind of digital system completely different from the hieroglyphic system. This new system is called the
Hieratic number system.
The hieratic numbers look like

With hieratic numerals, numbers could be formed only with a few symbols. For instance, we need
36 hieroglyphs to write the number 9999, but it can be done so with just 4 hieratic symbols. One major
difference between the hieratic numerals and our common number system is that the hieratic numerals do
not form a positional system so the particular numerals could be written in any order. Two ways of writing
hieratic numbers are:

Here, the order of the numerals in the second case is reversed

Hieratic numerals are often found written on flattened sheets of the dried papyrus reed as "paper"
with the help of the tip of a reed as a "pen". These numerals allowed other numbers to be written in a far
more compact form. To do so, basic numerals were put side by side. Such compounded numbers were
written either by writing basic numerals from left to right or from right to left as shown above
In this system also one, two, three strokes are used to denote the first three numerals and different
numerals for the numerals 4 to 9. One thing remarkable in this system is that the tenth numeral is formed by
attaching one slanting ligature to the unit symbol, 20 is represented by unit symbol with two ligatures and
so on. Similar procedure is adopted for 100th,…, 900th, …, 1000th ,…., 9000th , etc.
j) Greek numbers and numerals
Ancient Greece, known as the birthplace of European civilization, consisted of a number of small
self-governing island or city states. Although many historians are found to have tried to extend the history
of Greece back to distant past, they could not trace a satisfactory history of Greece beyond 7 th or 8th century
B.C.E. This is one of the main reasons why nothing is known about the origin and development of
numbers and numerals in Greek before the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.
One story tells that the Greeks inherited the Babylonian principles of mathematics. Thales (600
B.C.E.), the so-called first Greek mathematicians, is believed to have some knowledge of Babylonian
astronomy. Many say that he brought knowledge of mathematics from Egypt into the Greek world. After
Thales came Pythagoras. Pythagorus is being credited for making many contributions to the science of
numbers. Very little is said about what kind of numbers and numerals were used by the great Thales and
Pythagoras. It is however definite that Thales and Pythagoras did not use the two ancient number system -
Herodian or Attic (2nd century B.C.E.) and Alphabetical number systems ( ), used in ancient Greece.
i) Herodian acrophonic system
The earliest Greek numerals are known either as Herodian numbers (after the writer from the 2nd
century who described them) or as Attic numbers (after the Attic inscriptions in which they occur). This

system uses the initial letters of the number words to represent the numbers; and is therefore known as the
acrophonic numeral system.

Two examples of larger Greek acrophonic numbers are:

ii) Greek alphabetical system

The second Greek number system used the letters of the Greek alphabet for numeral notation; and
hence the name alphabetic numerals, This system is sometimes known as the “learned system” as the name
'alphabetical' suggests the numerals are based on giving values to the letters of the alphabet. They used the
24 letters in their classical alphabet plus three ancient letters digamma (as 6), koppa (as 90), and sampi (as
900). Sometimes when these letters are written to represent numbers, a bar was put over the symbol to
distinguish it from the corresponding letter. The Greek alphabetic numbers are:

New numbers were formed by the additive principle. For examples, the numbers 11, 12, ... , 19 are
respectively written as
ια, ιβ, …, ιθ
and, the numbers 101, 102, …, etc. as
ρα, ρβ, …, ρθ .
The numbers between 1000 and 9000 were formed by adding a subscript or superscript iota to the
symbols for 1 to 9.

k) Hindu-Arabic numbers and numerals

Hindu-Arabic number system, also known as the Arabic number system, is essentially the decimal
number system that is currently used in almost all parts of the world. This system is believed to owe much
for its origin to the number system developed and used in the Indus Valley civilization or Mohenjo-
daro/Harappan civilization, that reached its peak during the period between 2700 B.C.E. to 1900 B.C.E.

Archeological excavations of various sites near and around the ancient urban areas of the Indus
valley have led to the discovery of nearly 5000 years old tools, and tablets, seals and stamps, pillars and
platforms and art-works in the ancient side-streets, brick dwellings, apartment houses that contained
various kinds of so far undeciphered scripts, symbols and signs plus a large number of geometrical figures
and beautifully carved pictures of animals like, fish, bull, unicorn etc.
As students of mathematics, we find the vertical strokes arranged in groups of 1, 2, 3 up to 13
strokes or placed side by side with Egyptian Hieroglyphic / demotic like figures and other kinds of signs
and symbols are of more importance than any other things.

A quick look at all such findings reveals that the ancient people of the Indus civilization not only
had a good sense of numbers but also of various ways of ordering and arranging them in beautiful patterns.
Unfortunately, the Mohenjo-daro / Harappan scripts found in the tokens and tablets or seals and stamps are
not yet well deciphered. This made our knowledge of Mohenjo-daro / Harappan numbers and numerals
very limited. Below we have a typical example showing a possible decipherment of Mohenjo-daro /
Harappan script:

This stands for “fish + 6 “ and also for “ stars + 6”. Even more problematic is our ignorance about what
has happened to the Mohenjo-daro/Harappan numerals just before the beginning of what we call the Vedic
During the early years of the Vedic Era (ca 800 B.C.E. to ca 200 B.C.E.) number-words or
number-names began to appear in verses. As knowledge was communicated or transmitted orally from one
generation to another, the need for written number-word or number-symbol was not felt so seriously in
those days. Many believe that written forms of the number words or numerals first appeared in the Brahmi
script .
As far as the origin of the Brahmi scripts is concerned, various kinds of stories were and are being
told. Some say that it evolved from the Indus script, while others assume that it was borrowed and
developed from some non-Indian script. The third and less possible one thinks that it was invented at one

stroke possibly by one individual. We, however, do not have any intention of entering into debate and
discussion of this kind.
Available records show that Brahmi number-words and Brahmi numerals did appear in groups or
installments in the edicts or inscriptions left by Ashoka from around the middle of the 3rd century B.C.E. or
towards the end period of the Vedic Sulvasutra Era. ). Ashoka pillar inscriptions found scattered in
different parts of India are found to contain Brahmi numerals in groups of three and more numerals.
Here is one of the oldest Ashoka pillar inscriptions:

Ashoka Pillar inscript (249 BCE) , Lumbini, Nepal

In the Ashoka pillar inscription, we find two number-words written in Brahmi script. There is no
written number or number-symbol or numeral.
The two number words in the Ashoka Pillar inscriptions are

the first one stands for 20 ( bis , jL; ), and the next one for 1/8 (athabhagiye, c7efluo] ). Here is a sample
set of Brahmi numerals used around the first century C.E. 

The Brahmi numeral system was obviously not a place value system. During the course of time, the
Brahmi numerals got split into three main families: the West Arabic numerals, the Eastern Arabic numerals,
and the Indian numerals.
The Brahmi numeral system underwent multitude of changes and transfomations as shown below:

The genealogy of modern numerals ( Menninger, Zohlwort and Ziffer)

Later on, around 6th century C.E., Bramhagupta is said to have introduced the zero symbol. The
inclusion of zero or "nothing" as a numeral transformed the ancient counting system into one that allowed
numbers to expand without end. Aryabhat turned it into a positional numeral system before it got stabilized
in the form
0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,9
This set is now popularly known as the Hindu-Arabic numerals and is used most widely. This system is
sometimes wrongly named as the Arabic numerals and also as European numerals. It is a positional decimal
system. Here the term decimal refers to ten distinct values (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9) used to represent
numbers; and positional means each numeral in a particular position is related to the next by a constant
multiplier, a common ratio, called the base or radix.
l) Lichhavian numbers and numerals
Nepal is known to have many ancient stone inscriptions written in Brahmi script. One of them is the
Ashoka Pillar (249 B.C.E.) inscription. We find two Brahmi number-words in that inscription. Almost at
the same time, there existed a well organized set of decimal based numeral system in Nepal. This system is
now known as the Lichhavian numeral system. Here is one stone sculpture containing such numerals:

Inscription on the pedestal of the Jaya Varma-sculpture

Maligaon, Kathmandu, Nepal,

Photograph by Thomas Schrom
The reading of this inscription was made by various epigraphists. We find some difference of
opinion. In what follows, we present two such readings:

Translated version:

A study of ancient inscriptions reveals that there exists some kind of variation in notation of the
Licchavian numerals possibly due to problems arising out of etching or carving or writing on stone slabs,
wooden blocks or palm-leaves or the like. Epigraphists have however agreed to adopt a set of symbols as
the standard set of Lichhavian numerals and numbers. The Lichhavian numeral system looks partly similar
to the 3rd century B.C.E. Brahmi numerals and partly to the 14th century B.C.E. Shan dynasty numerals. The
number system was both additive and multiplicative in nature.
The following table gives a selection of the Lichhavian numerals:

Each unit (1, 2, ..., 9) was assigned a separate letter, each tens (10, 20, ..., 90) a separate letter, and
the hundreds (100, 200, ..., 900) a separate letter with the unit symbols for 1, 2, …, 9 attached with or
without a small ligature to the new symbol for hundred.
m) Mayan numbers and numerals
Mayan civilization, believed to have existed in Central America, is found to have made remarkable
progress during the Mayan Classic Period 250 C.E. and 900CE. The ancient Maya also had a glyph system
of writing on stone, ceramics and paper. The Mayan used glyphs to denote numbers. The origin of Mayan
numerals is obscure and much disputed. They used a dot for 1 and a horizontal line for 5. It is reported that
Mayans belonged to those people who, from ancient times, used a symbol for what is understood as zero.
Mayan numbers are constructed from the following three symbols:

Mayan numbers are shown in the following table:

Obviously, this is a vigesimal (base twenty) positional number system with a sub-base of five. In
other words, this system, like the Babylonian system, does not have separate digits up to their base figure.
The Mayan's wrote their numbers vertically with the lowest denomination on the bottom. The place values
from bottom are: 1 (200), 20 (201), 400 (202), 8000 (203), 160,000 (204), … . .
Here is how Mayan numbers are formed and written

405 ≡ 1  400 + 0  20 + 0  20 + 5  1
Below we have some more examples:

(30,414 ≡ 3  8000 + 16  400 + 0  20 + 14  1)
n) Roman Numerals
Roman numerals constitute a decimal numeral system originating in ancient Rome and adapted
from the Etruscan numerals. The Roman numeral system is based on seven symbols (alphabets) that are
given the numerical values 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, and 1000 as shown in the following table:
I or i for one,
V or v for five,
X or x for ten,
L or l for fifty,
C or c for one hundred (centum),
D or d for five hundred,
M or m for one thousand
The number zero did not have its own Roman equivalent. The following pictures show some
examples of Roman numerals:

Coin of Tiberius (ca 24 C.E.) Clock in Easton Maudit.

This system differs from the Egyptian system only in that a smaller unit standing to the left of a
larger one must be subtracted from the later. By 1300 C.E., Roman numerals were replaced throughout
most of Europe with the more effective Hindu-Arabic system used today. Their uses today are restricted to
certain special purposes, such as numbering appendices in books, denoting dates in the credits of films and
television programmes, and on watches and clocks.

5. Something More
In what follows, we first present two tables showing the different number systems so that we can
have a glimpse at various number systems and numerals used in ancient times. We then briefly touch upon
numeral system in general.

Table 1

Table 2

Looking at the above tables, one can easily conclude that there exists a unique commonality in the
representation of the idea or notion contained in the then spoken word or oral number ‘ONE’. In many
civilizations, a single stroke (vertical or horizontal) like a stick or a dot like a pebble was used to denote the
number ‘ONE’. Besides this, there existed a common practice of repeating the symbol for ONE in order to
represent the next few numbers. In the early civilization like the Egyptian, Harappan and Phoenician
civilizations as many as nine vertical strokes were used to represent what is known as the number nine.

A number system that uses the unit symbol (vertical or horizontal stroke) repeatedly to represent
other numbers is a unary numeral system. It is also known as a base-1 system as it uses only one symbol or
(glyph). It is a non-standard positional numeral system. The first known use of tally marks or strokes for this
purpose dates back to around 30,000 BC; and this was done by stone-age people. One example of this kind
is the set of tally marks

used to represent the number three .

The following tables show how unary notation (vertical and horizontal strokes) is used in various
numeral systems:
First Three Numerals (Vertical strokes)

First Three Numerals (Horizontal strokes)

First Nine Numerals (c)

Number systems (actually numeral systems) that use one – two, …, 10,… number symbols (or
bases) are respectively known as unary, binary,…, decimal, … number or numeral systems. In such a
system a new symbol is used for each of the numbers 10, 20, 30, … 100, 1000 and so on. Most of them
juxtapose the symbols for 1 to 9 without ligature to denote numbers 11, 12, …, 21, 22, …, 31, 32, …, 101,
102, … , etc. To represent numbers like 100, 200, 300, the same technique was use but with a ligature or
by direct attaching the symbols for 1 to 9 to the hundred symbol. There are instances in which the hundred
symbol for 100 is used without the unit symbol also. Such numeral systems may be positional or place-
valued. Below we list of a few place-value decimal numeral systems:
a) Deva Nagari

b) Tibetan

c) Parsee

d) Thai

e) Burmese

f) Vietnamese

g) Khmer

h) Javanese

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 A.A.Castro - An Inscribed Statue of the Year 207 from Maligaon, Kathmandu,
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 B. Casselman - The Babylonian Tablet Plimpton 322 ;
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 C.Obretenov - History of Math Notes ;
 D. Allen - The Origin of Greek Mathematics
- http://www. Math.tamu.educ/~d allen/hist.html
● D. J. Melville: - Token- The Origin of Mathematics
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 J. Kellermeier - Egyptian Hieroglyphic Numerals
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 J. Kellermeier: - Babylonian Numerals (2007)
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 J. J. O'Connor and E.F. Roberson:
- Mayan Mathematics
- Egyptian Numerals (2000)
- Chinese Numerals (2004)
- The Arabic Numerals (2004)
- Brahmi Numerals
- Babylonian Numerals
- numerals .html
- Greek Numerals
- Greeknumerals.htm
- Roman Numerals
- An Overview of History of Mathematics
- Overview of Chinese Mathematics
- The Indian Sulbasutras
- An Overview of Indian Mathematics
- Greek number system
- Greek_numbers.html
- How do we know about Greek mathematicians?
- How do we know about Greek mathematics?
- The teaching of mathematics in The Dark Ages.
 J. M Kenoyar - Around the Indus in 90 Slides
● K. Tamot and I. Asloph:
- A Kushan-period Sculpture
- index _12.html
● L. O. Coulter : - What is mathematics? Towards a Global View
 M. I. Woodcock - The Development of Counting Numbers and Notations
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- Sumerian and Babylonian Numerals
● M. Tomczak - The Indian number system, Europe discovers “Arabic Numbers”,
- Science, Society and Civilization. Htm
● P. E. Field - Finger counting
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● R.M.Shreshtha - Greek Mathematics Revisited,
- Mathematics Education Forum, 12, Vol1, No.23, pp.12-16, (2008)
● S. Agor: - Numerals in many different Writing Systems
● T. Smith : - Hieroglyphics: Egyptian, Mayan, and Chinese Characters
Further sites:
● African Mathematics - History for Kids!
● Africa the Home of human Civilization
- www.Africa birthplace of humanity and civilization.html
● A Little Counting
- E:\African Math\counting.htm
● A Mathematics in Antiquity
● Ancient Egyptian mathematics
-E:\Egyptian math08\Ancient Egyptian mathematics.htm
● Ancient Egyptian Number System
-E:\Egyptian math08\The Ancient Egyptian Number System.htm
● Ancient Greek civilization
● Ancient Greek Mathematics
- www.
● Ancient History of Numbers
- www. Ancient History of Math.htmlAncient Greek Mathematics
- www.
● Ancient History of Numbers
- E:\African Math\Ancient history of numbers.html
● Ancient History of Numbers
- www. Ancient History of Math.html
● Ancient Indus Unicorn Seal, Mohenodaro
-E:\Indian Math08\Ancient Indus Unicorn Seal, Mohenjo-daro.htm
● Ancient Indus Civilizatiom, Slide Tour
● A Possiblie Indian script dictionary
-E:\Indian Math08\A Possible Indus Script Dictionary.htm
● Arab Civilization

-Arab Information Centre,
1100-17th St., N.W., Suite 602, Washington, D.C. 2003
● Arabic numerals
- free encyclopadea.html
● Babylonian Cultures and Tablets
- bab.html
● Babylonian Mathematics
-E:\Babylonian Mathematics\21Babylonian Mathematics.htm
● Babylonian Clay tablets
-E:\Babylonian Mathematics\Babylonian Clay Tablets.htm
● Chinese mathematics
- E:\Chinese math\Chinese Mathematics.htm
● Chinese numerals
E:\Chinese math\Chinese numerals - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.htm
● Counting and Aritmetic – basics
- E:\Egyptian math08\Counting and Aritmetic -- basics.htm
● Counting rods
● Counting Rods
● Cuneiform tablets in Staley Library
- E:\Babylonian Mathematics\Cuneiform Tablets Millikin University
Archives, Staley L (1).htm
● Cuneiform numbers
-E:\Babylonian Mathematics\Cuneiform numbers.htm
● Development of Mathematics in Ancient China
- E:\Chinese math\Included China\Development of Math in China2.htm
● Definition of Roman Numerals
- E:\Roman Math\Definition of Roman numerals.htm
● Development of Mathematics
- numerals
● Egyptian Numerals
- E:\Egyptian math08\Colour Egyptian Numerals.htm
● Egypt, ancient: number system
-E:\Egyptian math08\Egypt, ancient number system -- Britannica
Online Encyclopedia.htm
● Greek Numerals
- numerals
● Greek number system
● Greek numerals
● Egyptian Mathematics
-E:\Egyptian math08\Egytpian mathematics.-encyclopedia article
● Egyptian Writing
-E:\Egyptian math08\Egytpian writing.htm

● Greek mathematics
- E:\Egyptian math08\Greek mathematics – Wikipedia
● Greeks 'borrowed Egyptian numbers'
-E:\Egyptian math08\Greeks borrowed Egyptian numbers.htm
● hieratic numeral
-E:\Egyptian math08\hieratic numeral -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia.htm
● Hindu-Arabic Numerals,
● History of Greece: Hellenistic
● Hindu-Arabic Numerals,
● History of counting system and numerals
● History Of Mathematics In India. Part 4
-E:\Indian Math08\Vedic math\Alumbo Article - Part_4.htm
● History of mathematics
-E:\Gen Hist Math\History of mathematics - Wikipedia, htm
● How Roman Numerals Work
-E:\Roman Math\LURNC How Roman Numerals Work.htm
● History of Hindu-Arabic numeral system
- free encyclopadea.html
● Indian numerals
-E:\Indian Math08\Numbers and numerals\Indian Numerals.htm
● Ishango Bones
- www.
- www.
● Lebombo Bones
- E:\African Math\Lebombo bone.html
- www.
● Mathematics Evolution of Roma Numerals from India
● Mathematics
● Mayan numerals
● Mayan hieroglyphic writing: vigesimal number system
- Encyclopædia Britannica - the Online Encyclopedia
-E:\Mayanmath\ Mayan hieroglyphic writing: vigesimal number
systemEncyclopædia Britannica - the Online Encyclopedia
● Numerals from all Corners of the Earth
- bab.html
● Numeral systems
- of mathematics
● Numerals Systems

● Origins of the Numerals
- E:\Hist Math 2008a\Numbers' history.htm
● Plimpton 322
-E:\Babylonian Mathematics\Plimpton 322 Tablet.htm
● Quipu
● Rhynd and Moscow papyri
-E:\Egyptian math08\rhynd papyrus.htm
● Roman Numerals
● Roman_numerals -
- E:\Roman Math\Roman_numerals.htm
● The Ancient Egyptian Number System
-E:\Egyptian math08\The Ancient Egyptian Number System.htm
● The Babylonian tablet Plimpton 322
-E:\Babylonian Mathematics\Plimpton 322.htm
● The Chinese Rod Numerals (Counting Rods)
- http://www. time line
● The Lichhavian Numerals and the Changu Narayan inscription,
-Council for Mathematics education ( Special Issue on 21 st Century
Mathematics Education,) Vol I & II Jan 2006, pp 9 – 23
● The origin of numbers – Cover story from UNESCO Couries in News & Society