H.erectus invention of counting leads to numerals and writing

Glenn Morton (grmorton@psyberlink.net)
Sat, 28 Jun 1997 21:16:48 -0500

After Burgy's comment about counting, I did some more looking at the entire
history of numbers and the numbering system.(for the evolution reflector I
am posting this because of the overlapping interest). I will start with the
numbering system of North American Indians. Modern technologically primitive
people used tally sticks to count time or objects.

"A small notched message-stick of the Seneca, with a hole at
one end for a knotted string, looks exactly like certain Upper
Paleolithic notched bones and some Australian message-sticks. It
contains a marking of days, calling chiefs to a particular
ceremony at a certain time. A small tally-stick of the Onondaga
with twenty-seven notches was a 'condolence' record, listing
twenty-seven chiefs who had died. A tribe of the Sioux at the
end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries
had a 'slender pole about six feet in length, the surface of
which was covered with small notches, and the old Inidan who had
it assured him [Clark] that it had been handed down from father
to son for many generations and that those notches represented
the history of his tribe for more than a thousand years back to
the time when they lived near the ocean.'"~Alexander Marshack,
The Roots of Civilization,(New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972),
p. 139

Going back to the begining, the earliest possible tally sticks we have in
the fossil record are those left on bone by Homo erectus. Bednarik writes:

"In 1969, Bordes reported a rib fragment from the Acheulian of Pech de l'Aze
as the earliest engraved object. It was thought to be in the order of 300,000
years old. More recently, several other Lower Palaeolithic engravings have
been found: more than four on bone artefacts from Bilzingsleben, Germany, one
on a small quartzite slabe from the same site, and a set of engraved lines on
an elephantine vertebra from Stranska skala, Czech Republic. At both these
sites, the finds come from strata containing skeletal fragments of Homo
erectus."~Robert G. Bednarik, "Art Origins", Anthropos, 89(1994):169-180, p.

Bilzingsleben dates between 300 and 400 thousand years ago and the object
with parallel lines found there, looks much like the parallel lined tally
sticks of Upper Paleolithic man. Of course, most prefer not to attribute
these types of abilities to Homo erectus. Bednarik explains

"For instance, a set of parallel cut marks found in an Upper Palaeolithic
context are inevitably seen as intentional, if not notational, while similar
cut marks in a Lower Palaeolithic context are usually explained as incidental
marks, attributable to some ultimately utilitarian process. A haematite
pebble from an Upper Palaeolithic occupation stratum will always be accepted
as evidence of pigment use, while its status will be questioned by many if it
comes from a Lower Palaeolithic layer. Archaeologists apply these filters in
a manner suggesting that they already know what the cognitive or intellecutal
capacities of hominids were. The truth is that no archaeologists possesses
such insight , therefore the application of different standards to the
evidence according to its age is clearly an unscientific practice."~Robert G.
Bednarik, "Art Origins", Anthropos, 89(1994):169-180, p. 170

Neanderthal continued the tradition of making tally sticks. At the 90-100
kyr site of Prolom II,Crimea, contains horse teeth with up to five lines
engraved on them. Admittedly, it is uncertain whether these are objects of
art or tally sticks, but they do raise the possibility. Other Neanderthal
sites which contain bones with incised parallel lines include Dzhuruchula
cave in the Caucasus, Molodova and Pronyatin in the Western Ukraine, La
Ferrassie, Le Moustier and L'Ermitage in France. (Vadim N. Stepanchuk,
"Prolom II, A Middle Palaeolithic Cave Site in the Eastern Crimea with
Non-Utilitarian Bone Artefacts," Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 59,
1993, pp 17-37, p. 35-36)

A little later is a better example of a tally stick which I mentioned last
night on the ASA reflector. This is the one studies by Marshack. He writes:

"Even more significant, in a Neanderthal level at La Ferrassie in
the Dordogne, a bit of stone in the grave of a child was
intentionally engraved with linear sequences comparable to those
in the Upper Paleolithic and to this one [Teviec--GRM] found in
the Mesolithic."~Alexander Marshack, The Roots of
Civilization,(New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972), p. 349

Since the Ferrassie burial was around 70,000 years ago, the similarity of
these objects appears to show that if Homo erectus did not invent counting
then Neanderthal did.

There are other notationally marked Neanderthalian objects. L. G. Strauss

"When all is said and done, however, there remains a residue of surprising
objects-limited in number for no doubt both behavioral and preservational
reasons. I have recently been struck, for example, by the discovery of a
'notationally' engraved bone and a perforated (fox?) canine apparently in a
late Mousterian level at Cova Beneito (Alicante, Spain) and by the spiral-
engraved flint nodule from a tuff-sealed Mousterian horizon at Quneitra on the
Golan Heights. Bednarik takes us through a litany of cases that 'won't go
away' and provides a reasonable discussion of their possible significance for
human evolution."~L.G. Straus, "Comments" Current Anthropology, 36:4(1995),
pp. 605-634, p. 623

Alicante Spain, the site of Cova Beneito is on the east coast of Spain in
the last stronghold of Neanderthal and the last place that anatomically
modern human reached. The site dates to 38,800 years or so ago. (L.G. Straus
et al, "A Review of the Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transition in Iberia",
Prehistoire Europeenne, 3(january 1993), p. 11) Quneitra dates to 53,900
years B.P. (Anhony Marks reviewing, "Quneitra" Journal of Field
Archaeology," 19, 1992, p. 85-88, p. 86)

Thus even excluding Prolom II we still have several cases of tally sticks
made by Neanderthal. Neanderthal could count.

Anatomically modern man continued the tradition of using tally sticks. This
is what the entire book written by Marshack, The Roots of Civilization, was
all about. The interested reader is referred to Marshacks 1972 book for many
many examples of Upper Paleolithic, anatomically modern man-made talley sticks.

Even up till today as noted at the start, tally sticks were used by modern
man. The common thread here is that each mark represents a single item,
either a day, a moon or something else. There was no numbering system, no
numerals. Numerals took a long time to develop.

At the earliest stages of the agricultural revolution, the need for record
keeping arose. Cities would build common storage areas for the grain. All
the farmers of a region would put their produce into the storage pit. But
that obviously lead rather quickly to the issue of who put how much in the
pit? Thus between 8000 and 7500 BC farmers were given a clay token for each
basket of grain placed in storage. (Wayne M. Senner, "Theories and Myths on
the Origins of Writing: A Historical Overview," in Wayne M. Senner, editor,
The Origins of Writing, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 23)

What follows comes from Denise Schmandt-Besserat, "Two Precursors of
Writing: Plain and Complex Tokens," in Wayne M.Senner, editor, The Origins
of Writing, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,1989), pp27-41.

The first appearance of tokens appears at the same time as a jump in the
quantity of cereal pollen in the local soils. The initial system produced
unmarked tokens each having a unique geometric form. Each shape was given
for a particular product. After a while, when a man was handed a handful of
tokens, the system became unmanageable. Thus they then would wrap the
tokens into a clay envelope prior to baking the envelope. They would
impress upon the outside of the envelope each of the interior tokens. Thus
an envelope might have five discs impressed into it prior to firing. That
would mean that the envelope contained five discs.

Later, about the 4th millenium BC complex tokens arose. These were
decorated shapes and were used to keep track of urban goods as opposed to
the simple tokens used to keep track of the farm goods.

Eventually, the number of things which required record keeping increased to
the point that the envelope system would not work. So a clay tablet was
used and the shape impressed in the wet tablet, one for each of the objects
to be kept track of. Up to this point the entire concept of NUMERAL was
foreign to all men. There were no numerals. If you wanted 15 bushels of
wheat you needed a tablet with 15 marks corresponding to wheat on it. There
was only a concept of i,i,i not a concept of "three-ness".

Taken from the shape of the tokens the new tablet system followed suit,

"Like the former tokens, the impressed signs continued to show the
number of items counted by repeating the marking in one-to-one correspondence:
one, two, or three small measures of grain were indicated by one, two, or three
small wedges, and one, two or three bushels of grain were indicated by one, two
or three cicular markings. The same is true for the impressed markings
indicating units of animal counts."~Denise Schmandt-Besserat, "Two Precursors
of Writing: Plain and Complex Tokens," in Wayne M. Senner, editor, The Origins
of Writing, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 38

Numerals are NOT innate to mankind, they are an INVENTION. Schmandt-Besserat

"The invention of zero and place notation has been heralded as a major
accomplishment of the civilized world, but the literature does not treat the
advent of abstract numerals because of the common but erroneous assumption that
abstract numbers are intuitive to humans. The token system is one piece of
artifactural evidence proving that counting, like anything else, is not
spontaneous. Instead, counting is cultural and has to be learned."~Denise
Schmandt-Besserat, "Two Precursors of Writing: Plain and Complex Tokens," in
Wayne M. Senner, editor, The Origins of Writing, (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 38

Dean Falk notes of the above analysis,

It is instructive that it took up to 7,000
years for abstract clay tokens representing animals to occur after realistic
images of a bull and deer first appeared at the entrance of Beldibi Cave in
Turkey. It took another 5,000 years for humans to make the cognitive leaps
from tokens to two-dimensional pictographs, numerals, and photmemes and another
1,500 years to establish a phonetic alphabet. Even though its domain was
visual and, therefore, easily recordable, writing had a long evolution."~Dean
Falk, Braindance,(New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1992), p. 187

Numerals are an invention of man. To expect Homo erectus, Neanderthal and
early Homo sapiens, to have used numerals or writing prior to the economic
NEED for these inventions, is to ask too much. Homo erectus and Neanderthal
treated numbers and counting in precisely the same way that anatomically
modern man did prior to the agricultural revolution. Once again, these
archaic forms behave in a fashion similar to us and theologically should be
considered similarly. In order to exclude H. erectus and Neanderthal from
humanity's family, one must logically say that counting is something that
animals are capable of. Ever since the horse, Clever Hans was exposed as a
fraud, counting has been considered a human activity. (Clever Hans was a
horse who supposedly could perform simple math and count. He was given
subtle clues by his master).


Foundation, Fall and Flood