Culture

The early signs of counting and arithmetic?

By Steve Drury First PUBLISHED ON June 9, 2021

Three earlier articles in Earth-logs originally focussed on what I supposed to be ‘ancient abstract art’.  One highlighted a clam shell that bears carefully etched V-shapes found at the type locality for Asian Homo erectus at Trinil on the Solo River, Java, dated between 430 and 540 ka. Another is about parallel lines etched on a piece of defleshed bone from China dated at 78 to 123 ka, which may be a Denisovan artefact. The most complex is a piece of ochre found in the coastal Blombos Cave 300 km east of Cape Town, South Africa in association with tools ascribed to early modern humans who lived there about 73 ka ago.

Fascinating as they seemed at the time, they may hold much greater significance about early-human cognitive powers than about mere decoration. That is thanks to recent evaluation of other simple artefacts made of lines and notches by anthropologists, cognitive scientists and psychologists. Their work is summarised in a recent Nature Feature by Colin Barras (Barras, C. 2021. How did Neanderthals and other ancient humans learn to count? Nature, v. 594, p. 22-25; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-01429-6). The European Research Council recently allocated a €10 million grant to foster research into ‘when, why and how number systems appeared and spread’.

Examples of ancient ‘abstract’ art. Top – V-shaped features inscribed on 430-540 ka freshwater clam from Java; Middle – parallel lines etched through red ochre to show white bone, from a possible Denisovan site in China; Bottom – complex inscription on a tablet of iron-rich silcrete from South Africa

Straight lines and patterns made from them are definitely deliberate, whatever their antiquity. In recent times, such devices have been used by artists to render mental images, moods and thoughts as simplified abstractions: hence ‘abstract’ art, such as that of Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. The term also applies to the dribbles and drabbles of Jackson Pollock and many more styles. But these works are a very recent evolutionary development out of earlier schools of art. So deliberate geometric shapes and arrangements of lines that are many millennia old cannot simply be termed ‘abstract art’. It is certainly not easy to see how they evolved into the magnificence of Palaeolithic figurative cave art that started at least 40 thousand years ago; Yet they are not ‘doodles’. Being so deliberate suggests that they represented something to their makers. The question is, ‘What?’

The research summarised by Barras is mainly that of Francisco d’Errico of The University of Bordeaux, France and colleagues from Canada and Italy (d’Errico, F. et al. 2018. From number sense to number symbols. An archaeological perspectivePhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, v. 373, article 2160518; DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0518). They focused their work on two remarkable artefacts. The oldest (72 to 60 ka), from a cave near Angoulême in France, is a fragment of a hyena’s thigh bone that carries nine notches. It is associated with stone tools almost certainly made by Neanderthals. The other, from the Border Cave rock shelter in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, is a 44 to 42 ka old baboon’s shin bone, which carries a row of 29 prominent notches, and a number of less distinct, roughly parallel scratches. The rock shelter contains remains of anatomically modern humans and a very diverse set of other artefacts that closely resemble some used by modern San people.

Top: notched hyena femur bone fragment associated with Neanderthal tools from SW France. Bottom: notched baboon shin bone from Border Cave, South Africa. Scale bars(Credit: F. d’Errica and L. Backwell)

Microscopic examination of the notches made by a Neanderthal suggest that all 9 notches were cut at the same time, using the same stone blade. Those on the Border Cave shin bone suggest that they were made using four distinctly different tools on four separate occasions. Are both objects analogous to tally sticks; i.e. to count or keep a record of things as an extension to memory? There are other known examples, such as a 30 ka-old  wolf’s radial bone from the Czech Republic having notches in groups of five, suggesting a record of counting on fingers. Yet very similar devices, made in recent times by the original people of Australia, were not used for keeping count, but to help travellers commit a verbal message to memory enabling them to recount it later.

Do read Barras’s summary and the original paper by d’Errico et al. to get an expanded notion of the arguments being debated. They emerge from the truly novel idea that just because the makers of such objects lived tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago that doesn’t make them intellectually lacking. Imagining in the manner of Victorian scientists that ancient beings such as Neanderthals and H. erectus must have been pretty dim is akin to the prejudice of European colonialists that people of colour or with non-European cultures were somehow inferior, even non-human. To me it is admirable that the European Research Council has generously funded further research in this field at a time when research funding in the UK, especially for the disciplines involved, has been decimated by those who demanded an exit from the EU.

The older Trinil and Blombos patterns appear yet more sophisticated. The pattern on the latter looks very like the kind of thing that someone in a prison cell might draw to keep track of time. It also incorporates the zig-zag element engraved on the Trinil clam shell. Remember that the word ‘Exchequer’ is derived from a tax audit during the reign of Henry I of England that was conducted on a counting board whose surface had a checked pattern

If you’d like to read more of Steve’s blog…….https://earthlogs.org/homepage/

Many thanks to Steve Drury for permission to republish his article and to Bernie Bell for sending it into The Orkney News

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