A new look at old numbers, and what it reveals about numeration

Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2 (80):291-321 (2021)
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Abstract

In this study, the archaic counting systems of Mesopotamia as understood through the Neolithic tokens, numerical impressions, and proto-cuneiform notations were compared to the traditional number-words and counting methods of Polynesia as understood through contemporary and historical descriptions of vocabulary and behaviors. The comparison and associated analyses capitalized on the ability to understand well-known characteristics of Uruk-period numbers like object-specific counting, polyvalence, and context-dependence through historical observations of Polynesian counting methods and numerical language, evidence unavailable for ancient numbers. Similarities between the two number systems were then used to argue that archaic Mesopotamian numbers, like those of Polynesia, were highly elaborated and would have served as cognitively efficient tools for mental calculation. Their differences also show the importance of material technologies like tokens, impressions, and notations to developing mathematics. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 785793.

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Karenleigh Anne Overmann
University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

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