An instinct for numbers? Ancient humans and even some animals evolved the ability to count

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Prehistoric accounting? Markings made on a hyena bone by a Neanderthal might have recorded numerical information. Credit: Nature
Prehistoric accounting? Markings made on a hyena bone by a Neanderthal might have recorded numerical information. Credit: Nature

Although researchers once thought that humans were the only species with a sense of quantity, studies since the mid-twentieth century have revealed that many animals share the ability. For instance, fish, bees and newborn chicks can instantly recognize quantities up to four, a skill known as subitizing.

Six-month-old human infants also show a similar appreciation of quantity, even before they have had significant exposure to human culture or language.

What all of this suggests, says Andreas Nieder, a neuroscientist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, is that humans have an innate appreciation of numbers. That arose through evolutionary processes such as natural selection, he says.

In societies with complex number systems, there were clues to how those systems developed. Significantly, [cognitive archaeologist Karenleigh] Overmann noted that it was common for these societies to use quinary (base 5), decimal or vigesimal (base 20) systems. This suggested to her that many number systems began with a finger-counting stage.

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The societies that moved beyond finger-counting did so, argues Overmann, because they developed a clearer social need for numbers. Perhaps most obviously, a society with more material possessions has a greater need to count (and to count much higher than ‘four’) to keep track of objects.

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