[Math Lair] Prehistoric Mathematics

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The prehistoric period of humanity's existence encompasses the period before writing was invented. During this time, humanity made several advances in mathematics. The earliest writings that survive indicate that counting and number systems, calendars, and weights and measures had already developed by this time.

Archaeological evidence also exists. A 30,000-year-old wolf bone found in Moravia in Czechoslovakia (now part of the Czech Republic) in 1937 was engraved with 55 notches, the first 25 arranged in groups of 5, followed by a long notch, followed by a new series of 30 notches. Another bone of similar age, found at Blanchard, in the Dordogne region of France, has a set of 69 engravings along a curved line that appears to represent the phases of the moon.

An illustration of three trees Three trees. While different words may have initially been used to describe three trees, three dogs, three fish etc., prehistoric people later abstracted the idea of quantity.

Initially, humanity might have used different words to represent the same number of different things, so different words might have been used to describe three fish, three dogs, and three rocks. Eventually, the idea of quantity would have been abstracted, so that all of the above would have been represented by the number "three". The similarities of smaller numbers between all Indo-European languages suggest that prehistoric people counted at least that far.

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Sources used (see bibliography page for titles corresponding to numbers): 35.