Thank heavens for the silicon chip: A BRIEF history of data

You have a pair of bones in Africa to thank for Larry Ellison


Data Pair – Part 1 Data was born around 20,000 years ago, around the time the last ice age was at its peak and Cro-Magnon man was appearing in Europe.

Data was made both by those early humans' minds and these humans’ ability to store facts outside their brains.

Why the human mind? It is because data doesn’t exist outside the context of the mind. Before we evolved, there might well have been, for example, three dinosaurs on a hill, but with no one to count them, the data that there are three of them didn’t exist. For a similar analogy, consider this: what is the sound of one tree falling in a forest if there's nobody there to hear it?

In addition to the existence of the data, recording the fact is also necessary for it to become data. If a human saw three mastodons on a hill but didn’t record the fact, it is merely an observation. But as soon as a human makes three marks on a stick to represent the three mastodons, that’s data.

Marks on a stick bring us very neatly to the very early, misplaced childhood of data – the “tally stick.” A tally stick is simply a stick (bone or wood) that has notches carved or scratched across its length.

Tally sticks date back to the Upper Palaeolithic, about 20,000 years ago: to a bone called the Ishango Bone - actually two - discovered in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, and that have three columns of scratches. This makes Africa not just the birthplace of data, but arguably the cradle of mathematics and also the database.

The purpose of these marks have been variously interpreted as data about an unknown subject, a lunar calendar or a mathematical study (one of the columns of numbers contains 11, 13, 17 and 19 which happen to be all the prime numbers between 10 and 20).

The last interpretation seems fractionally fanciful to me, calling to mind an image of an infinite set of typewriters. However, the conclusion that this is data of some kind seems inescapable, and the "kind" of data recorded on this bone is, in modern parlance, "tabular", not "big".

It is tabular because it is atomic (indivisible) and has an agreed meaning. OK, so we don’t know the meaning (the marks might represent animals caught or rainy days) and it is true that the scratches could be the product of a deranged mind, but on balance it seems likely that the marks had an agreed meaning.

So you can think of the scratches as perhaps a “yes” value of a yes/no datatype in an “animal caught” column. Incidentally, there are references in the literature to earlier bones (the Lebombo bone, for example) but these have not been well documented.

Next page: Tally a while

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