New research suggests that ancient Greeks got their number system from Egypt

October 6, 2003

Brussels, 03 Oct 2003

The counting system used by Ancient Greece's greatest thinkers to carry out their calculations was probably invented by their key trading partner, Egypt, new research suggests.

Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes and many more classical thinkers favoured Greek alphabetic numerals - which were in continuous use in the Greek-speaking world from ancient times until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century - to make their complex and pioneering calculations. However, despite the system's widespread use by Greece's brightest mathematicians and physicists, new research suggests that the Greeks borrowed the alphabetic numerals named after them from the Ancient Egyptians.

The study uncovers striking similarities between the Greek numbering system - that uses more than different symbols for numbers plus a couple of other symbols for meaning - and Egyptian demotic numerals which were created in the late 8th century BC and were in use until about 450AD.

Both systems operated with a decimal base but lacked a zero and were non-positional, i.e. the relative position of a numeral does not bear a relation to its value. These features made the system somewhat cumbersome to use, but humanity would have to wait until medieval times for the streamlining innovations of the zero and positional values to be invented by Muslim scholars.

Trade figures

The author of the comparative analysis, Stephen Chrisomalis of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, argues that an explosion in trade after 600BC between Greece and Egypt - two of the classical world's trading giants - prompted Greek merchants to take the popular Egyptian system back home, where it was adapted for local use.

"We know that there was an enormous amount of contact between the Greeks and Egyptians at this time," Chrisomalis told the BBC. If the Canadian academic is correct, then traditional thinking that the versatile, if awkward, number system was developed by Greeks in western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) will have to be revised.

The research, which was described as plausible by some mathematicians, will appear in the journal Antiquity.

DG Research
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