Tally Sticks

Ancient people probably counted with their fingers and toes.  Many modern people still do.  Ancient Mesoamericans like the Maya saw twenty as the perfect fullness of measure because it was the total of a person’s fingers and toes.  Therefore, their counting system worked in units of twenty.

While most information was transferred orally, some occasions called for a different kind of record.  Tally sticks, actually notched animal bones, are some of the oldest recording devices known.   The Lebombo Bone, found in Swaziland, has been dated to 35,000 years ago.  It has 29 notches along one side, leading some researchers to suggest that it was developed by a woman to track her monthly cycle.  While that might be the case, probably most calendars at the time were lunar, with each month having its own name, character, and traditional activities.

More confusing is the Ishango Bone, found in the  Democratic Republic of Congo.  Estimates of its age

vary widely, but the most conservative is 20,000 years old.

The baboon fibula is inscribed with a series of marks in three columns, which some mathematicians have said indicate a series of prime numbers.  While that might be very interesting to mathematicians, it was probably not a prime concern (pardon the pun) of the people using the device.

Actually, it’s hard to know how these devices were used.  Even today, some people use a notched stick to remember specific events and their chronology.  In other cases, they might have been guides for story tellers.

A knotted string would have served the same purposes but wouldn’t have lasted as long as rock or bone.  The rosary is an example of a knotted string memory and counting device.  So was the quipu, or knotted string device the Inca used, except it was dynamic, not static.  As they marked an exchange, they would remove a knot from one section and add one to another.

All this is to say that the ancient people were interested in the same sort of information we are: accounts payable and receivable, history, important events, trade, culture, and entertainment, and they figured out ways to record and remember what mattered to them.

Interestingly, the split tally was used in Europe up until modern times for exchanges, loans, and promises of goods or services.  The person extending the credit was given the larger piece of wood, usually squared-off hazelnut, which was called the stock.  The receiver was given the smaller piece, called the foil, which fit into the larger one so the marks lined up exactly.  This practice gave us the expression “holding stock.”

In the story, a sweet, crazy man talks to Asha about how his people keep split tally sticks because they’re involved in trade.  He’s something of a disappointment to the family in that he has no interest at all in the accounting business, but he manages to do a little trading of his own with things he finds in the river.

One thought on “Tally Sticks

  1. Good afternoon!

    I was hoping to request permission to use your photograph of the Ishango bone. Any chance you could send me a personal email so I could provide you with more information on its use? I am not sure how to send personal messages via WordPress (or if it’s even possible!). My email address is mpotvin@gapc.com.

    Thanks so much!
    -Mélanie

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