The material origin of numbers: Insights from the archaeology of the Ancient Near East

Piscataway, NJ 08854, USA: Gorgias Press (2019)
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What are numbers, and where do they come from? A novel answer to these timeless questions is proposed by cognitive archaeologist Karenleigh A. Overmann, based on her groundbreaking study of material devices used for counting in the Ancient Near East—fingers, tallies, tokens, and numerical notations—as interpreted through the latest neuropsychological insights into human numeracy and literacy. The result, a unique synthesis of interdisciplinary data, outlines how number concepts would have been realized in a pristine original condition to develop into one of the ancient world’s greatest mathematical traditions, a foundation for mathematical thinking today. In this view, numbers are abstract from their inception and materially bound at their most elaborated. The research updates historical work on Neolithic tokens and interpretations of Mesopotamian numbers, challenging several longstanding assumptions about numbers in the process. The insights generated are also applied to the role of materiality in human cognition more generally, including how concepts become distributed across and independent of the material forms used for their representation and manipulation; how societies comprised of average individuals use material structures to create elaborated systems of numeracy and literacy; and the differences between thinking through and thinking about materiality.
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