The wonder of the unique Arabic numerals is so blunted by common use we forget sometimes that their sudden disappearance might cause our civilisation to grind to a halt with catastrophic consequences. The invention of the system was as a great a revolution as the invention of writing, and to both the transition from barbarism to civilisation is attributed. Indeed, both may have a single source created in a time beyond the horizon of our remotest past.
Contrary to what is generally believed, there lies the origin of the Arabic numerals - beyond the horizon of our remotest past. The history of our ancient numerals has been an intriguing mystery. For over two centuries historians of numbers have tried to trace the roots of the system. Hundreds of manuscripts have been analysed and then reanalysed, historical accounts studied, and book after book churned out but remarkably, solid leads to the origin of the numerals remained cold. Almost despairingly, Karl Menninger confessed that the “desire to hold in one's hand the key to a mystery which experts have sought for in vain remains alive in all periods of history”.
In this thoroughly researched book, historian Adel S. Bishtawi believes the mystery has been unlocked, and in the process, much more was found than expected. If his conclusions are correct, our numerals, which are miniature drawings of the hand and fingers, may be 5000-7000 years old. Moreover, it is known that numerals were invented before the letters of alphabets. It is probable that some of these numerals were employed as letters in the universal alphabet used by most nations.