Issue 12 - January 2005
If you’ve ever wondered when and where numbers were invented, you may have considered the possibility of their origins in either ancient Greece or Egypt.
However, the controversy as to who invented them and what became our modern alpha numeric system may be at an end. New research suggests the Greeks borrowed their system known as alphabetic numerals from the Egyptians, and did not develop it themselves, as was previously believed.
Dr Stephen Chrisomalis of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, through his analysis of historical evidence, has found strong similarities between Greek alphabetic numerals and Egyptian demotic numerals, used in Egypt from the late 8th Century BC until around AD 450.
"We know there was an enormous amount of contact between the Greeks and Egyptians at this time" Dr Chrisomalis says. He proposes that trade between Greece and Egypt after 600 BC led to the system being copied by the Greeks. Greek merchants may have come across the demotic system in Egypt and adapted it for their own purposes.
Professor David Joyce, a mathematician at Clark University in Worcester, US, tends to agree with him.
"Egyptians used hieratic and later, demotic script where the multiple symbols looked more like single symbols. Instead of seven vertical strokes, a particular squiggle was used. That's the same scheme used in the Greek alphabetic numerals."
The system is thought to have been adopted and further developed by the Greeks in western Asia Minor, which is now modern Turkey. It’s use continued until the fall of the Byzantine empire in the 15th century.
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