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The Brahmi numerals are an indigenous Indian numeral system attested from the 3rd century BCE (somewhat later in the case of most of the tens). They are the direct graphic ancestors of the modern Indian and Hindu–Arabic numerals. However, they were conceptually distinct from these later systems, as they were not used as a positional system with a zero. Rather, there were separate numerals for each of the tens (10, 20, 30, etc.). There were also symbols for 100 and 1000 which were combined in ligatures with the units to signify 200, 300, 2000, 3000, etc.

Origins

The source of the first three numerals seems clear: they are collections of 1, 2, and 3 strokes, in Ashoka's era vertical I, II, III like Roman numerals, but soon becoming horizontal like the modern Chinese numerals. In the oldest inscriptions, 4 is a +, reminiscent of the X of neighboring Kharoṣṭhī, and perhaps a representation of 4 lines or 4 directions. However, the other unit numerals appear to be arbitrary symbols in even the oldest inscriptions. It is sometimes supposed that they may also have come from collections of strokes, run together in cursive writing in a way similar to that attested in the development of Egyptian hieratic and demotic numerals, but this is not supported by any direct evidence. Likewise, the units for the tens are not obviously related to each other or to the units, although 10, 20, 80, 90 might be based on a circle.

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