Greeks ‘borrowed Egyptian numbers’
By Paul Rincon
The astronomers, physicists and mathematicians of ancient Greece were true innovators.
But one thing it seems the ancient Greeks did not invent was the counting system on which many of their greatest thinkers based their pioneering calculations. New research suggests the Greeks borrowed their system known as alphabetic numerals from the Egyptians, and did not develop it themselves as was long believed.
Greek alphabetic numerals were favoured by the mathematician and physicist Archimedes, the scientific philosopher Aristotle and the mathematician Euclid, amongst others.
An analysis by Dr Stephen Chrisomalis of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, showed striking similarities between Greek alphabetic numerals and Egyptian demotic numerals, used in Egypt from the late 8th Century BC until around AD 450.
Both systems use nine signs in each “base” so that individual units are counted 1-9, tens are counted 10-90 and so on. Both systems also lack a symbol for zero.
Dr Chrisomalis proposes that an explosion in trade between Greece and Egypt after 600 BC led to the system being adopted by the Greeks.
Greek merchants may have seen the demotic system in use in Egypt and adapted it for their own purposes.
BBC Science: Greeks ‘borrowed Egyptian numbers’