Neanderthals: The Earliest Accountants in History

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So it turns out that Neanderthal was history’s first accountant.

“Shya, right”, I can hear you say. “Big browed, primitive, cave man Neanderthal was a CPA? Pull the other leg.”

Okay, so I admit that Neanderthal was not actually an accountant per se. But the evidence is piling up indicating that Neanderthal was amongst our first professional counters. It certainly appears they using more complex math than we would have expected when first Philippe-Charles Schmerling found bones in a Belgian quarry in 1829. Norwich University even credits them as the first people to count.

The first clear evidence of any degree of advanced mathematics is distinctly a creation of modern man, Homo Sapiens Sapiens. The Ishango Bone was discovered in 1960 by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt in Congo. Dating back 20,000 years, when Homo Sapiens was the only human species present in that part of Africa, it demonstrates a clear understanding of several concepts previously thought to have been very modern concepts.

Three columns are etched into the bone. The left column contains notches that are grouped to match all of the prime numbers between ten and twenty, and totaling up to sixty. The center column is bunched in what would look familiar to most young math students, mathematical tables. Three doubles to six, four doubles to eight, and ten halves to five. The right column has addition and subtraction using a base ten calculation. Nine notches are followed by nineteen notches (9 + 10 = 19) and twenty-one notches are followed by eleven (21 – 10 = 11). Just like the left column, the right column has a total of 60 notches.

Ishango-Bone
The Ishango Bone, courtesy of Wikipedia

The Ishango bone looks for all the world like a grade school student’s math homework. It demonstrates that not only could those Homo Sapiens Sapiens ancestors of ours do math, they clearly understood that 3 x 2 = 6, 4 x 2 = 8, and 5 x 2 = 10 results from a basic concept, multiplication. Further, it gets to the advanced level of understanding prime numbers as a separate class of numbers.

But that’s Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Where does Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis come into this?

The Wolf Bone is at least 10,000 years older, and was discovered in Czechoslosvakia. This 30,000+ year old artifact has fifty –five notches, twenty-five of them grouped by fives, the other thirty as a solid string. Again, someone was working with mathematics, this time with an understanding of a base-5 system that knows that twenty five is five fives (5 x 5 = 25).

This bone was found amongst Aurignacian cultural artifacts, including Venus figures. Commonly Aurignacian culture is associated with Cro-Magnon. However, Cro-Magnon, the earliest “modern man” was still located in southern Europe and Africa (and was collocated with Neanderthal in that part of Europe) at the time. Aurignacian artifacts can be found throughout Germany and Czechoslosvakia at a time Cro-Magnon was still south of the Alps. Very few Aurignacian sites have bones from anyone, so the actual connection with Cro-Magnon hinges on the sophistication of the artifacts, and not on direct bone-artifact colocation. So was the Wolf Bone a Modern Human artifact or a Neanderthal artifact? It can be argued either way.

We do know that Neanderthal got a bum rap when it came to how we thought of them for years. Neanderthal was long thought to be too clumsy and intellectually stunted to use any but the crudest of tools, and had no culture to speak of. They were the archetypical cave-man, primitive, dull-witted, and clumsy. But more recent, critical examinations have been revealing that Neanderthal was anything but a clumsy, unimaginative creature. Neanderthal was well adapted to all of the varied climates of Europe and Asia for 250,000 years. (By comparison we’re only 150,000 years old, and spent half of that as shut-ins in Africa.) During that long reign they showed remarkable intelligence and skill that is completely at odds with the “dumb caveman” stereotype.

accountants-in-history
Geico’s Caveman

For one, Neanderthal was clearly a doctor. A Neanderthal skeleton from Turkey had at various times had his left eye socket crushed, his right arm amputated, broken his right foot, broken his right leg, and suffered crippling arthritis. Yet he died of old age, not his injuries. Clearly his fellow Neanderthal’s knew how to nurse him through injuries that were still killing people in the 19th Century.

For another, Neanderthal was also a theologian. Unlike any human species prior to Neanderthal, these people buried their dead, clearly recognizing some duties owed to their fellows post mortem. Neanderthals were buried with grave goods that held actual value. Tools have been found in numerous graves, a waste of resources should there not be some belief in an afterlife. In fact, the elderly Turkish Neanderthal was buried with five flowers that are used to this day for medicinal purposes.

Most importantly, Neanderthal was a craftsman. Neanderthal did not simply break a bit of rock into a sharp point and use that as a tool. No, a Neanderthal tool maker was using tools to make tools, manufacturing blades that met very specific needs as scrapers, axes, and spear tips. What is more, Neanderthal was creating boats that could be used in the Mediterranean. Neanderthals were living on Crete 10,000 years before Cro-Magnon had even originated in Africa.

Divje-Babe-Flute
The Divje Babe Flute

They were even musicians. The Divje Babe Flute is one of a number of artifacts dating back as much as 55,000 years that were found throughout Slovenia. There is considerable argument about both the nature of these artifacts and the species origin of them. Many archeologists and paleontologists argue that the Divje Babe Flute is the result of an animal biting holes in a cave bear’s femur. If so, it was a very mathematical animal that managed to not crush the bone, as carnivores ordinarily do. Instead, four holes are lined up along one side of the bone, with a fifth on the back side out of line from the other four. No jaws exist that resemble that pattern, but a diatonic flute certainly does. Modern musicians have used reproductions to play music with ranges as far as two and a half octaves. The melodies are haunting, and quite familiar. (Beethoven? Really?)

So was Neanderthal an accountant?

Well, I’m not suggesting he was going to school to get a degree in taxation. However I am saying that he was certainly a doctor, a theologian, and a craftsman able to build specialized tools and boats. Neanderthal certainly had the smarts to use advanced mathematics to account for things. Most tellingly of all, Neanderthal was playing music 30,000 years before the oldest known Homo Sapiens Sapiens artifact with any mathematical relations. As any good mathematician will tell you, “You cannot evade quantity. You may fly to poetry and music, and quantity and number will face you in your rhythms and your octaves.” Neanderthal counted.

James Hinton is a native of Idaho with an obsessive fascination with history but who couldn’t tell you today’s headlines are. He spends his time teaching his daughters to do math using goat bones and writing about whatever his latest obsession is. You can find his blog at http://jamiemhinton.wordpress.com/

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7 COMMENTS

  1. “The Ishango bone looks for all the world like a grade school student’s math homework.”
    I never turned in anything that looked like that. Looks more like sex-ed homework than math homework.

    • I’m thinking that there is a bit of a “chicken and egg” thing with that, Bill. On the one hand we have these examples showing that mathematics certainly precede civilization by tens of thousands of years. On the other hand, you have people like the Pirahã, for whom counting is not a cultural concept. So which came first, language or counting? Who knows.

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