Thanks, Math! Four Times Numbers Changed the World

About 4,000 years ago, the ancient city of Ur was one of the great capitals of Sumeria in southern Mesopotamia. The agricultural revolution had enabled settlements of unprecedented size, but it was increasingly difficult for priests and kings to keep track of grain harvests, storage and disbursements to feed both the gods and men.

What they needed, of course, was math. Nothing fancy at first, just some basic arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division). And one of the earliest champions of arithmetic, according to ancient clay tablets recovered from Ur, was a guy named King Shulgi.

“There are records of hymns that were sung about his ability to add stuff up,” says Brooks. “He made his subjects worship him for his mathematical abilities.”

Shulgi didn’t just show off his godlike math skills; he built what scholars recognize as “the first mathematical state,” says Brooks. Math was mainly put to use in bookkeeping, which allowed Shulgi and his scribes to maintain tight control of Ur’s finances and prevent people from defrauding the state.

You could argue that Shulgi and his scribes were nothing but glorified auditors, but auditing, Brooks writes in “The Art of More,” is “the true cradle of civilization.”

People attend a festive event at the Great Ziggurat temple in the ancient city of Ur in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar in 2021. King Shulgi (whose arithmetic skills were sung about) is credited with building this temple.

ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images

“Shulgi recognized that once you’ve got control of the numbers, it starts to be very financially lucrative,” says Brooks. “This math thing works.”

By putting math to work, Shulgi and Ur grew tremendously wealthy and used that wealth to develop one of the world’s earliest and greatest civilizations. Shulgi is credited with constructing the Great Ziggurat of Ur, building an extensive road network and expanding his trade empire to include Arab and Indus communities.

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