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Sumerian, Babylonian Mathematics

Sumer (a region of Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq) was the birthplace of writing, the wheel, agriculture, the arch, the plow, irrigation and many other innovations, and is often referred to as the Cradle of Civilization. The Sumerians developed the earliest known writing system – a pictographic writing system known as cuneiform script, using wedge-shaped characters inscribed on baked clay tablets – and this has meant that we actually have more knowledge of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian mathematics than of early Egyptian mathematics. Indeed, we even have what appear to school exercises in arithmetic and geometric problems.

As in Egypt, Sumerian mathematics initially developed largely as a response to bureaucratic needs when their civilization settled and developed agriculture (possibly as early as the 6th millennium BCE) for the measurement of plots of land, the taxation of individuals, etc. In addition, the Sumerians and Babylonians needed to describe quite large numbers as they attempted to chart the course of the night sky and develop their sophisticated lunar calendar.

They were perhaps the first people to assign symbols to groups of objects in an attempt to make the description of larger numbers easier. They moved from using separate tokens or symbols to represent sheaves of wheat, jars of oil, etc, to the more abstract use of a symbol for specific numbers of anything.