What is it about?

Modern humans produce number systems with striking cross-cultural similarities. Understanding prehistoric numerical cognition, however, requires looking at when cognitive prerequisites emerged: morphological factors like parietal encephalization; abilities like quantity perception, language, concept formation and manipulation, categorization, and ordinality; and demographic factors suggesting societal motivations for numerical development. These establish the “probably not before” timeline for numerical emergence. The question is then approached from the earliest emergence of unambiguous numbers in Mesopotamia, clay tokens used in the late 4th millennium and subsequent numerical notations. With tokens and notations, the archaeological and textual evidence of precursor technologies like tallies and fingers form a sequence capable of elaborating the innate perceptual experience of quantity into simple counting sequences and complex mathematics. Along with the cognitive prerequisites, the sequence of material forms also provides insight into potential archaeological evidence (material forms and demographic factors) that might indicate numerical emergence in prehistoric times.

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I am interested in how societies become numerate by using and recruiting material forms into the cognitive system for numbers over generations of collaborative effort. The manuovisually engaged domain of material forms is a primary mechanism for realizing and elaborating numerical concepts. I also look at the effect this elaborational mechanism has on conceptual content, and what this might augur about the future of human cognition.

Dr. Karenleigh A. Overmann
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs

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This page is a summary of: Materiality and the Prehistory of Number, May 2019, Oxford University Press (OUP), DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190854614.003.0021.
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