10 of the most surprising numbers in history

The world of numbers and statistics is an extraordinary one, and the stories behind the figures offer incredible insights into the culture, battles, disasters and triumphs of the past...

Great Pyramid of Giza. Egypt. (Photo by Olgakostenko | Dreamstime.com)

In her book, A History of the World in Numbers, Emma Marriott brings together a wealth of fascinating and sometimes shocking facts, to tell mankind’s story through 10,000 years of numbers. Here, she reveals 10 of the most intriguing…

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1

700…  pictographic symbols: the earliest forms of written language

The first known system of writing was developed in Sumer, the earliest civilisation of southern Mesopotamia. Each Sumerian city had its own temple precinct that acted both as a place of worship and as an administrative centre from which the trade of raw materials, like tin from Afghanistan and copper from Cyprus, could be controlled.

To manage and record this system of trade, the Sumerians developed a form of writing made up of more than 700 pictographic symbols, which was probably in use well before 3,300 BC. Eventually it spread to Babylonia, Assyria and Persia, and gradually evolved into the language known today as Cuneiform.

2

2.5 million…  stone blocks of the Great Pyramid: nobody knows how they got there

Of the three pyramids built by the ancient Egyptians at Giza, the Great Pyramid stands the tallest at 146 metres. Having taken around 20 years to build, the conundrum has always been how these immensely heavy stone blocks were moved in a region where the wheel, crane and pulley were unknown.

Theories range from the transportation of rocks from hundreds of miles away using rafts, to the forming of blocks using wooden moulds. Recent investigations of the Great Pyramid have revealed that the blocks may have been hauled up ramps that spiralled up inside the pyramid. It remains an incredibly large number that puzzles even today.

3

40 per cent…  the portion of the land in Sparta owned by women: gender politics at least 500 years before Christ

Women in ancient Sparta enjoyed a power and status unrecognised in the rest of the ancient world. Aristotle tells us that women owned 40 per cent of the land – a remarkable figure.

Spartan women could inherit property and expect to receive half the share of what a son would receive. They also, in contrast to practice in most other Greek states, were allowed to walk freely about the city, drive chariots, run businesses, take an informal role in politics, and even exercise like their male counterparts by performing gymnastics in the nude!

4

AD 0…  the date that never was

The AD years of the Christian calendar are counted from the year of Jesus Christ’s birth, and, as the number zero was then unknown to the west, Dionysius began his new Christian era as AD 1, not AD 0.

While it is now the consensus that Jesus was probably born between 7 and 3 BC, Dionysius’s new calendar is now the most widely used in the world, while AD 0 is one of the most interesting numbers never to have seen the light of day.

5

29.5302 days…  the incomprehensible skill of the Mayans

One of the greatest achievements of the Mayans – members of a 2,000-year civilisation based in an area now made up of the Yucatan peninsular, Guatemala and Belize – is their amazingly complex calendar system. Using just the naked eye, Mayan astronomers reckoned the length of the lunar cycle as 29.5302 days – just a few seconds short of the 27.53059 days calculated by modern astronomers.

Remains of many Mayan buildings reflect this passion for astronomy, and their round temples, in El Caracol at Chichen Itza, are thought to have been built as an astronomical observatory.

6

1 in 200…  men: a fact to give millions of people something in common

American research has shown that 8 per cent of men in Asia in a region stretching from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea share a Y-chromosomal lineage that looks to have originated from a single male. The genetic pattern of variation suggests that it originated in Mongolia less than 1,000 years ago. This equates to about 16 million individuals, which is equivalent to 1 in 200 men living on the planet today.

Researchers have concluded that the likely progenitor was none other than Genghis Khan, who, along with his descendants, had a great many children with his wives and with other women. His male descendants continued to rule large chunks of his former empire for centuries, and they too sired many children.

7

180…  men conquer an empire of 5–10 million: how South America was won

In 1531, an obscure Spanish adventurer, Francisco Pizarro, landed on the coast of the Inca empire with around 180 men and 37 horses. He had heard stories of a large and wealthy empire in South America, which he now planned to conquer for Spain, although few believed he could actually succeed.

On marching to the Inca city of Cajamarca in 1532 with his band of ‘conquistadors’, Pizarro seized the emperor, Anthualpa. The Inca army, facing guns, cannons and horses for the first time, fled in panic. By 1537 most of the Inca empire and its population of between 5 and 10 million had been subdued by Spain.

8

18.5… years: average life expectancy following the industrial revolution

This is a statistic that one might expect to date back to the Bronze Age, or to a society of slave labourers, but it in fact applies to the average worker in Dudley in the mid-19th century. Industrialisation had led to a significant increase in the number of work days a year, while mass urbanisation contributed to the spread of diseases like cholera and typhus. Together, this caused the average life expectancy of a worker in the West Midlands town to plummet to a figure lower than that of many African slaves.

9

2.5 per cent… of Italians spoke Italian: how a once rare language took over a country

Nationalism wasn’t immediately embraced with enthusiasm by all. Most populations maintained local or regional loyalties, and few moved far from the district in which they were born.

In Italy in 1861, only 2.5 per cent of Italians actually spoke Italian – French was spoken in the north, and various other dialects in the rest of the country. It took an alliance with Napoleon III of France and a war with Austria, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, to unite the whole of Italy under one language – and Italian, which was formerly considered as mainly a literary language, was chosen.

10

159 million million million… settings: the ever-changing Enigma

By the outbreak of the Second World War, the intricate system of wheels and three to five rotors that made up the Enigma machine was being reset by the Germans at least once a day, creating a possible 159 million million million new combination settings. This was the level of detail with which the mathematicians at Bletchley Park had to contend in order to break the Enigma system and decipher encoded messages.

Their success in this task was crucial to the accomplishments of the Allied forces in the Battle of the Atlantic, as well as to their victories in north Africa, Italy and on the beaches of Normandy.

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A History of the World in Numbers by Emma Marriott is published by Michael O’Mara Books. To find out more, click here.