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September 18, 2003

Greeks borrowed Egyptian numbers

One of the fun things about my early civilizations course at the University of Toronto is the opportunity to convey just how clever people have been when confronted with a range of engineering, logistics and administrative challenges no matter what their local opportunities. Nineteenth-century "diffusionist" models did not give locals the credit, preferring instead to do as the ancient Greeks did and point to Egypt as the wellspring of all human science and culture. Contemporary equivalents of race-based Victorian scholarship romanticize Egypt as an African civilization aped by primitive Europeans or as beneficiaries of alien assistance who then traipsed everywhere from Easter Island to ancient Mexico putting up stone monuments.

Loony stuff, in other words. But this proposed debt of the Greeks to Egyptian mathematics looks like a reasonable supposition to me.

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.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at September 18, 2003 08:50 AM