Where Were Numbers First Used?
The earliest written numbers we know of were used in Egypt and Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago. At first men reckoned by chipping notches on wood or stone to record the passing of the days. Later the Egyptians wrote on papyrus made from reeds, and the Mesopotamian’s wrote on soft clay.
They used strokes for ones and other marks for tens and up. Three thousand years later the Romans still made strokes for one to four, but they used new signs in the form of letters for tens, fifties and so on.
About the same time, the Chinese used a different sign for every number up to ten, but still used strokes for the first three numbers. The Mayas in Central America invented the most remarkable system. They used only three signs—a dot, a stroke and an oval. With these they could write down any number, however large.
Bones and other artifacts have been discovered with marks cut into them that many believe are tally marks. These tally marks may have been used for counting elapsed time, such as numbers of days, lunar cycles or keeping records of quantities, such as of animals.
A tallying system has no concept of place value (as in modern decimal notation), which limits its representation of large numbers. Nonetheless tallying systems are considered the first kind of abstract numeral system. The first known system with place value was the Mesopotamian base 60 system (ca. 3400 BC) and the earliest known base 10 system dates to 3100 BC in Egypt.