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The material origin of numbers


Insights from the archaeology of the Ancient Near East


The Material Origin of Numbers examines how number concepts are realized, represented, manipulated, and elaborated. Utilizing the cognitive archaeological framework of Material Engagement Theory and culling data from disciplines including neuroscience, ethnography, linguistics, and archaeology, Overmann offers a methodologically rich study of numbers and number concepts in the ancient Near East from the late Upper Paleolithic Period through the Bronze Age.
Publisher: Gorgias Press LLC
Availability: In stock
SKU (ISBN): 978-1-4632-0743-4
  • *
Publication Status: In Print

Publication Date: Nov 11,2019
Interior Color: Black
Trim Size: 7 x 10
Page Count: 327
Language: English
ISBN: 978-1-4632-0743-4
$128.00
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What are numbers, and where do they come from? These questions have perplexed us for centuries, if not millennia. A novel answer is suggested by cognitive archaeologist Karenleigh A. Overmann, based on her groundbreaking study of material devices used for counting in the Ancient Near East—fingers, tallies, tokens, and numerical notations—interpreted through the latest neuropsychological insights into human numeracy and literacy. The result is a unique synthesis of data from archaeology, Assyriology, neuroscience, ethnography, linguistics, philosophy of mind, and the history of mathematics. It outlines how number concepts were realized and elaborated through the use of material forms during a period spanning the late Upper Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, from the first realization of number in a pristine original condition to their elaboration as one of the ancient world’s greatest mathematical traditions, a foundation for mathematical thinking today. In this view, numbers are abstract from their inception and materially bound at their most elaborated. The research updates historical work on Neolithic tokens and interpretations of Mesopotamian numbers, challenging several longstanding assumptions about numbers in the process. The insights generated are also applied to the role of materiality in human cognition more generally, including how concepts become distributed across and independent of the material forms used for their representation and manipulation; how societies comprised of average individuals use material structures to create elaborated systems of numeracy and literacy; and the differences between thinking through and thinking about materiality.

What are numbers, and where do they come from? These questions have perplexed us for centuries, if not millennia. A novel answer is suggested by cognitive archaeologist Karenleigh A. Overmann, based on her groundbreaking study of material devices used for counting in the Ancient Near East—fingers, tallies, tokens, and numerical notations—interpreted through the latest neuropsychological insights into human numeracy and literacy. The result is a unique synthesis of data from archaeology, Assyriology, neuroscience, ethnography, linguistics, philosophy of mind, and the history of mathematics. It outlines how number concepts were realized and elaborated through the use of material forms during a period spanning the late Upper Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, from the first realization of number in a pristine original condition to their elaboration as one of the ancient world’s greatest mathematical traditions, a foundation for mathematical thinking today. In this view, numbers are abstract from their inception and materially bound at their most elaborated. The research updates historical work on Neolithic tokens and interpretations of Mesopotamian numbers, challenging several longstanding assumptions about numbers in the process. The insights generated are also applied to the role of materiality in human cognition more generally, including how concepts become distributed across and independent of the material forms used for their representation and manipulation; how societies comprised of average individuals use material structures to create elaborated systems of numeracy and literacy; and the differences between thinking through and thinking about materiality.

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Contributor Biography

Karenleigh Overmann

Karenleigh A. Overmann is a research fellow at the University of Bergen, Norway, funded by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions grant from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program. She earned a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Oxford as a Clarendon Scholar. She has a master’s degree in psychology and a bachelor’s in anthropology, philosophy, and English from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she was a founding member of the Center for Cognitive Archaeology. Drawing on Malafouris’ Material Engagement Theory as her theoretical framework, she views cognition as embodied, embedded, extended, enacted, and evolving (5E). She investigates how societies become numerate and literate by using and modifying material forms over generations of collaborative effort, the effect this elaborational mechanism has on conceptual content, how material forms become increasingly refined to elicit specific behavioral and psychological responses, and what this might augur about the future of human cognition. She has also written on human cognitive evolution, how Neandertal cognition differed from that of our ancestors, and the literary works of Jane Austen.

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