Skip to main content Accessibility help

The prehistory of number concept

  • Karenleigh A. Overmann (a1), Thomas Wynn (a2) and Frederick L. Coolidge (a3)


Carey leaves unaddressed an important evolutionary puzzle: In the absence of a numeral list, how could a concept of natural number ever have arisen in the first place? Here we suggest that the initial development of natural number must have bootstrapped on a material culture scaffold of some sort, and illustrate how this might have occurred using strings of beads.



Hide All
Ambrose, S. H. (1998) Chronology of the Later Stone Age and food production in East Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 25:377–92.
Bar-Matthews, M., Marean, C. W., Jacobs, Z., Karkanas, P., Fisher, E. C., Herries, A. I. R., Brown, K., Williams, H. M., Bernatchez, J., Ayalon, A. & Nilssen, P. J. (2010) A high resolution and continuous isotopic speleothem record of paleoclimate and paleoenvironment from 90 to 53 ka from Pinnacle Point on the south coast of South Africa. Quaternary Science Reviews 29:2131–45.
Carey, S. (2009) The origin of concepts. Oxford University Press.
d'Errico, F. & Cacho, C. (1994) Notation versus decoration in the Upper Palaeolithic: A case study from Tossal de la Roca, Alicante, Spain. Journal of Archaeological Science 21:185200.
d'Errico, F., Henshilwood, C., Vanhaeren, M. & van Niekerk, K. (2005) Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave: Evidence for symbolic behaviour in the Middle Stone Age. Journal of Human Evolution 48:324.
Kuhn, S. L., Stiner, M. C., Güleç, E., Özer, I., Yilmaz, H., Baykara, I., Açikkol, A., Goldberg, P., Molina, K. M., Ünay, E. & Suata-Alpasian, F. (2009) The early Upper Paleolithic occupations at Üçağizli Cave (Hatay, Turkey). Journal of Human Evolution 56:87113.
Malafouris, L. (2010) Grasping the concept of number: How did the sapient mind move beyond approximation? In: The archaeology of measurement: Comprehending heaven, earth and time in ancient societies, ed. Renfrew, C. & Morley, I., pp. 3542. Cambridge University Press.
Menninger, Karl W. (1992) Number words and number symbols: A cultural history of numbers. Dover.
Schmandt-Besserat, D. (1992) How writing came about. University of Texas Press.
Wilson, R. A. & Clark, A. (2009) How to situate cognition: Letting nature take its course. In: The Cambridge handbook of situated cognition, ed. Robbins, P. & Aydede, M., pp. 5577. Cambridge University Press.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed