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The majority of human civilizations the world has been host to have counted using base 10 numbering systems, the motivation clearly being the 10 fingers.

A few, including the Mayans and the Eskimos or Inuit, developed a base 20 counting system, fingers and toes.

The Sumerians and Babylonians used a base 60 number system. This is speculatively based on counting variations where the thumb counts off the knuckles of one hand, while the other hand tallys the knuckle count. These civilizations are the only ones to have developed the base 60, or sexagesimal system of counting, though the knuckle counting scheme given has been used historically in the middle east and indo-china.

This numbering system is responsible for the intervals of hours, minutes, seconds and degrees that we still use today.

A system of counting using a base of 60 rather than 10.

The number 60 was used as a base for counting by the ancient Sumerians and the cultures that followed them, the Assyrians and Babylonians. I have heard or read of a few theories as to why:

  • The year has about 360 days.
  • A basic unit of coinage, the mana, was divided into 60 shekels, and counting followed accounting.
  • 60 has a lot of convenient factors, and the priestly classes who did the counting adopted the system to avoid inventing fractions.
The Babylonians actually used a sexagesimal positional notation for writing numbers; there were 59 patterns of two basic cuneiform marks. This system had the unfortunate flaw of lacking a symbol for zero, meaning that certain renderings could be interpreted as several different numbers. Just think what it would be like if "37" could be interpreted as 37, 307, or 370. Around 2000 BCE they began to catch on to this and began putting spaces in numbers where we would today put zeroes. In about the 300s BCE some Babylonian scribes began using a special "zero" symbol instead of a space.

The remnants of Babylonian sexigesimal numbers are still around today:

  • Hours are divided into 60 minutes, which are divided into 60 seconds each.
  • Angles are measured in degrees, 360 of which make a full circle. Degrees are also divided into minutes and seconds.

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