Who Invented Numbers?

There is No Year ‘zero’ in history. Because Zero was not invented back then. The counting starts from one.

Presently, the earliest known archaeological evidence of any form of writing or counting are scratch marks on a bone from 150,000 years ago. But the first really solid evidence of counting, in the form of the number one, is from a mere twenty-thousand years ago. An ishango bone was found in the Congo with two identical markings of sixty scratches each and equally numbered groups on the back.

Egyptians loved all big things, such as big buildings, big statues, and big armies. They developed numbers of drudgery for everyday labor and large numbers for aristocrats, such as a thousand, ten thousand and even a million. The Egyptians transformation of using “one” from counting things to measuring things was of great significance.

Their enthusiasm for building required accurate measurements so they defined their own version of “one.” A cubit was defined as the length of a man’s arm from elbow to fingertips plus the width of his palm. Using this standardized measure of “one” the Egyptians completed vast construction projects, such as their great pyramids, with astonishing accuracy.

Two and a half thousand years ago, in 520 BCE, Pythagoras founded his vegetarian school of math in Greece. Pythagoras was intrigued by whole numbers, noticing that pleasing harmonies are combinations of whole numbers. Convinced that the number one was the basis of the universe, he tried to make all three sides of a triangle an exact number of units, a feat which he was not able to accomplish. He was thus defeated by his own favorite geometrical shape, one for which he would be forever famous.

His Pythagorean theorem has been credited to him, even though ancient Indian texts, the Sulva Sutras (800 BCE) and the Shatapatha Brahmana (8th to 6th centuries BCE) prove that this theorem was known in India some two thousand years before his birth.

Later in the third century BCE, Archimedes, the renowned Greek scientist, who loved to play games with numbers, entered the realm of the unimaginable, trying to calculate such things as how many grains of sand would fill the entire universe. Some of these intellectual exercises proved to be useful, such as turning a sphere into a cylinder. His formula was later used to take a globe and turn it into a flat map.

Indians, as early as 500 BCE, devised a system of different symbols for every number from one to nine, a system that came to be called Arabic numerals, because they spread first to Islamic countries before reaching Europe centuries later.


What is historically known goes back to the days of the Harappan civilization (2,600-3,000 BCE). Since this Indian civilization delved into commerce and cultural activities, it was only natural that they devise systems of weights and measurements. For example, a bronze rod marked in units of 0.367 inches was discovered and points to the degree of accuracy they demanded. Evidently, such accuracy was required for town planning and construction projects. Weights corresponding to units of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 have been discovered and they obviously played important parts in the development of trade and commerce.

It seems clear from the early Sanskrit works on mathematics that the insistent demand of the times was there, for these books are full of problems of trade and social relationships involving complicated calculations. There are problems dealing with taxation, debt and interest, problems of partnership, barter, and exchange, and the calculation of the fineness of gold. The complexities of society, government operations, and extensive trade required simpler methods of calculation.

The concept of zero as a number and not merely a symbol for separation is attributed to India whereby the 9th century CE practical calculations were carried out using zero, which was treated like any other number, even in the case of division.

The story of zero is actually a story of two zeroes: zero as a symbol to represent nothing and zero as a number that can be used in calculations and has its own mathematical properties.

It has been commented that in India, the concept of nothing is important in its early religion and philosophy and so it was much more natural to have a symbol for it than for the Latin (Roman) and Greek systems. The rules for the use of zero were written down first by Brahmagupta, in his book “Brahmasphutha Siddhanta” (The Opening of the Universe) in the year 628 CE. Here Brahmagupta considers not only zero, but negative numbers, and the algebraic rules for the elementary operations of arithmetic with such numbers.

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Safiya Akhtar

Safiya Akhtar is Android Application Developer in India. She is currently working as a public consultant for career and education too, besides blogging and freelancing. She believes that it is never too late or too early to start what you have always dreamed of.

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