New theory emerges about how humans learned to count

A 60,000-year-old hyena bone fragment has offered possible insight into the ancient origins of numbers, and has led to a theory that Neanderthals possessed the cognitive abilities for numeracy.

The ability of anatomically modern humans to count and to perform numerical calculations enabled advances in record keeping and the preservation of knowledge and quantities, which eventually led to the rise of the earliest civilisations.

Yet, a new theory has now emerged concerning the development of numeracy, which suggests that Neanderthals may also have possessed a knowledge of numbers.

Francesco d’Errico, an archaeologist from the University of Bordeaux, carried out an investigation into a 60,000-year-old hyena femur fragment, found in the 1970s at the site of Les Pradelles in western France, which displays evidence of having been worked by a Neanderthal.

According to the report published in Nature, the femur bone bears nine notches which are ‘strikingly similar and approximately parallel, as if they were meant to signify something’.

Under a microscope, the notches’ depths, shape, and details are so alike that it seems they were made using the same stone tool and in one single session. D’Errico interprets the notches as functional, and argues that they might encode numerical information.

Markings made on a hyena bone by a Neanderthal might have recorded numerical information. Photo: © F. D’Errico.

As the ancient roots of numbers are still poorly understood, a new research project, ‘The Evolution of Cognitive Tools for Quantification’ (QUANTA), has been launched to shed new light on what social needs might have driven the development of numerical systems. Scientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists will explore modern contemporary cultures that use relatively simple numbers as case studies.

D’Errico, one of the leaders of the QUANTA project, hypothesises that numeracy ‘all started by accident’, with early hominins unintentionally marking bones during butchery processes. At some point, hominins made a cognitive leap and realised they could deliberately mark bones to produce designs, and in a second leap saw that marks could take on meaning.

Other theories surrounding the origin of numbers include the hypothesis that numerical abilities are innate within anatomically modern humans, as they were passed on by natural selection.

However, it has also been argued that modern human perception of numbers is more advanced as a result of cultural evolution – where individuals learn through imitation and teaching to adopt a new skill.

Another possible prehistoric example of tallying is a 42,000-year-old baboon fibula with 29 notches that was unearthed in the Border Cave in South Africa. However, the Les Pradelles hyena bone is ‘potentially the earliest known example of this type of mark-making’, and suggests Neanderthals may have possessed the cognitive abilities for numeracy.