Carl Zimmer in Discover:
Numbers make modern life possible. “In a world without numbers,” University of Rochester neuroscientist Jessica Cantlon and her colleagues recently observed in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, “we would be unable to build a skyscraper, hold a national election, plan a wedding, or pay for a chicken at the market.”
The central role of numbers in our world testifies to the brain’s uncanny ability to recognize and understand them—and Cantlon is among the researchers trying to find out exactly how that skill works. Traditionally, scientists have thought that we learn to use numbers the same way we learn how to drive a car or to text with two thumbs. In this view, numbers are a kind of technology, a man-made invention to which our all-purpose brains can adapt. History provides some support. The oldest evidence of people using numbers dates back about 30,000 years: bones and antlers scored with notches that are considered by archaeologists to be tallying marks. More sophisticated uses of numbers arose only much later, coincident with the rise of other simple technologies. The Mesopotamians developed basic arithmetic about 5,000 years ago. Zero made its debut in A.D. 876. Arab scholars laid the foundations of algebra in the ninth century; calculus did not emerge in full flower until the late 1600s.
Despite the late appearance of higher mathematics, there is growing evidence that numbers are not really a recent invention—not even remotely. Cantlon and others are showing that our species seems to have an innate skill for math, a skill that may have been shared by our ancestors going back least 30 million years.