Math History Mysteries Part 1: Counting using Tally Sticks

Okay, so adding up the grocery bill using the calculator function of our smart phones is definitely something new. But keeping track of stuff–how many animals did you kill today, or, gee, how many hours has it been since half the tribe left to get firewood– is not new at all. In fact, ever since, well, pretty much forever, people have needed to count things. The first calculators were very handy. That is, people could count and compare using fingers and toes. How convenient that there were ten of each! (Ever wonder why our number system is based on ten?). But, to actually record the passage of time or the amount of something, ancient peoples often used tallies (up and down marks on bone or wood) to keep track. Here’s a picture of a very old tally stick called the Ishango Bone (named this because it was found in the village of Ishango in the heart of Africa).

This bone, over 20,000 years old, shows how ancient peoples used tally marks instead of numbers to keep track. Scientists believe that these notches were used to mark off a calendar system. As old as the Ishango Bone is, it is not the oldest known tally stick. The Lebombo Bone is approximately 35,000 years old.

How do we use tallies today? Think of when you would a tally instead of a number.

(Hint: keeping track of points in a game? taking a survey?)

Make Your Own ‘Ancient’ Tally Stick

What you need

a clean chicken bone

a butter knife (or black marker)

What to do

1. Ask for adult assistance to thoroughly clean the chicken bone.

2. Plan what you want to keep track of. (the number of items in one of your collections, a point system for doing chores, how much allowance you’ve saved up, how many birds you see in a certain period of time, or maybe the number of books you’ve read. Choose something that you will add tallies to)

3. Use the example of the Ishango Bone to cut tally notches in the bone (alternatively, you can make tally marks using a fine, black marker)

4. Use the internet or another source to see how people continued to use tally sticks to help keep track!

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