How did our ancient ancestors count?

Ishango Bone
Wednesday, May 11, 2022 - 10:00 to 10:45

Abstract: In this talk we look at the story of numbers and counting across hundreds of thousands of years. Our journey starts in pre-history, as we consider how early humans kept track of how much 'stuff' they had. We continue the story with the development of counting and numbers by using several different artifacts. Markings on a 70,000-year-old stone and a 20,000-year-old bone reveal much about how important counting was to our ancestors. A decorated 5000-year-old macehead suggests that numbers were being used by those in charge to demonstrate their power and wealth, and a 4000-year-old clay tablet may indicate how people used numbers to design and build large monuments. These last two objects also provide clues to the development of the counting systems we use every day, for example using 60 to count time. We finish our tale with two books from the 9th and 13th centuries which reveal how our modern decimal (base 10) counting system first came to Europe.

Who for: This online talk is suitable for pupils who are in the final two years of primary school in Ireland or the UK.

Biography: Dr. Ciarán Mac an Bhaird is a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Maynooth University, and also Director of the Mathematics Support Centre. Originally from Lough Egish in Co. Monaghan, Ciarán went to St. Oliver Plunkett's National School, Loughmourne, and then on to Our Lady's Secondary School, Castleblayney. He played GAA for Aughnamullen and soccer for St Ciara's and, in addition to working on the small family farm, he had a wide range of part-time jobs to help pay for college, including working in a furniture and a meat factory. His interest in the history of mathematics grew from another part-time job, working in the Library at Maynooth University, where Ciarán first saw the large collection of old mathematical texts. Around the same time, he also had his first experience of teaching mathematics when giving first-year tutorials. Ever since he has continued his interest in teaching and researching topics from the history of mathematics, while still trying to play some soccer and regularly going home at weekends with his young family to help his parents on the farm.

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This talk is part of the British Society for the History of Mathematics HiMEd Award

Image obtained from