the invention of Arabic numerals

Did you know that Arabic numerals were not invented by the Arabs? I didn’t, until I read about their history in a bestselling book of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari. Here is the relevant passage from his “Brief History of Humankind”:

As the centuries passed, bureaucratic methods of data processing grew ever more different from the way humans naturally think …. [S]ometime before the ninth century AD … a new partial script was invented, one that could store and process mathematical data with unprecedented efficiency. This partial script was composed of ten signs, representing the numbers from 0 to 9. Confusingly, these signs are known as Arabic numerals even though they were first invented by the Hindus …. But the Arabs get the credit because when they invaded India they encountered the system, understood its usefulness, refined it, and spread it though the Middle East and then to Europe.

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), p. 130. This is the English translation of a book published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir.

In June 2019, Sapiens had been on the New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller list for 53 weeks, and ranked #4 in sales. I am now on p. 144 of this 416 page book (excluding notes), and will post other passages that catch my attention. The book is brilliant, and well-written. I recommend it highly. The table of contents invites reading. The first chapter is “An animal of No Significance”. The final chapter is “The End of Homo Sapiens“.

One Response to “the invention of Arabic numerals”

  1. Larry says:

    Wikipedia, as always, has great information on this: “The Hindu–Arabic numeral system (i.e. decimal) was developed by Indian mathematicians around AD 500.[3] From India, the system was adopted by Arabic mathematicians in Baghdad and passed on to the Arabs farther west.” The footnote cites a 2010 article as a source. Harari does not cite a source.