The History of Mathematics

Mesopotamian Numbers and Mathematics

What was the Sumerians’ oral counting system?

The Sumerians—whose origins are debated, but who eventually settled in Mesopotamia—used base 60 in their oral counting method. Because it required the memorization of so many signs, the Sumerians also used base 10 like steps of a ladder between the various orders of magnitude. For example, the numbers followed the sequence 1, 60, 602, 603, and so on. Each one of the iterations had a specific name, making the numbering system extremely complex.

No one truly knows why the Sumerians chose such a high base number. Theories range from connections to the number of days in a year, weights and measurements— and even that it was easier to use. Today, this numbering system is still visible in the way we tell time (hours, minutes, seconds) and in our definitions of circular measurements (degrees, minutes, seconds).


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