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Numeracy in prehistoric art and artefacts
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Rare examples of evidence of numeration: 1 - 'churinga' from Lalinde, final Magdalenian (slightly reduced, after Sonneville Bordes 1967); 2, 3 - engraved bones from Remouchamps (after Dewez 1974). First-order numeracy only is proven.
Photo, and text below from: the Revolution of the Bowmen in Europe, J-G Rozoy, in The Mesolithic in Europe, 1985, edited by Clive Bonsall
Abstract thought is also seen in the ability to count. In the Upper Palaeolithic there is evidence of this in the form of sets of signs engraved on bone ('marques de chasse' or 'hunting tallies'), but very few of these convey a system which we can comprehend or even perceive. In this context, reference can be made to the 'churinga' from the grotte de la Roche at Lalinde, dated to the very end of the Palaeolithic (fig shown), on which there are alternating series of five horizontal and five vertical marks. There are five groups of each, but the last vertical group contains only four marks, and the aesthetic character of the whole, surrounded by other marks, casts doubt on the view that its primary purpose was for calculation. The engraver at least,would have known how to count to five on his. fingers. The common use of abstract numbers up to five is thus assured.
In the Ahrensburgian assemblage from Remouchamps (microlithic and 'Mesolithic', it must be stressed) there is a bone which is very similar to the hunting tallies, but the subtle organization of this piece is beyond our understanding, in spite of the bold hypothesis put forward by its finder, Dewez. It was accompanied by another example with more systematic markings - groups of five cupmarks, arranged like the number 'five' on dominoes (fig shown). This piece seems therefore, and even more clearly than at Lalinde, to involve first order notation, which was in itself a considerable advance, occurring around 11 000 BP. Nevertheless, there are no groups of 5x5 or 10x5. Therefore, second-order notation (i.e. groups of 5 or 10, counted as second-order units) is not attested, but it is possible that it was reached later. This cannot be taken further for lack of other evidence, but it does show continuity from the Magdalenian and the extent of progress in the capacity for abstract thought. There is little need to emphasize the importance of a system of numeration for the transition to food production.
At the same time we see the disappearance of female figurines centred upon maternity, or rather potential maternity - for Magdalenian outline drawings and statuettes, and even Gravettian statuettes, do not portray pregnancy, merely those parts of the female anatomy connected with reproduction and childbirth. The Epipalaeolithic statuette from Gaban, for instance, is already realistic and complete. It is possible that this corresponds to an understanding of the process of procreation. Such an advance is clearly important in facilitating the transition to food production - to sow to obtain a harvest, to put the cow to the bull to obtain calves.