Suggested Reading: How Mathematics Happened: The First 50000 Years

Peter S. Rudman — How Mathematics Happened: The First 50000 Years — Prometheus Books, 2006, 314 pp. ISBN 978-1-59102-477-4

(Buy at

(Buy at

What first got me interested in this book is the “50000 years” part. I was preparing lectures notes for my course on discrete mathematics and I wanted my students to have an idea of what prehistoric maths might have been, say, 20000 years ago. Unfortunately, you wont learn much about this in this book

The book does hint about what mathematics might have been in hunter-gatherer times, and how it might have affected later developments. But that lasts for about a chapter or so, and the remainder is devoted to historical mathematics: Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, and Classical Greek. All kinds of numerical algorithms are covered, presented in great detail, making the book more technical than historical. Some part are speculative as the historical record is incomplete at best, but it is speculative in the best way possible, with every assumption backed by an actual historical observation.

2 Responses to Suggested Reading: How Mathematics Happened: The First 50000 Years

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    I’m sorry there doesn’t seem to be much of prehistoric mathematics. The subject seems like one that would be naturally interesting and new to me.

    • That’s what I wanted to find out. Surely, there must be some. I can’t believe we invented numbers at the same time as writing, and there are hints that we, indeed, had some knowledge about numbers WAY before (c.f. , that might or might not be “arithmetical”). I am also suspicious of 19th-century like assumption of man being the good savage with 1,2,many as a number system until (shortly before) the invention of writing.

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