History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Prime numbers are those whole numbers greater than 1 which cannot be written as a product of numbers greater than 1. I'm curious about their very early history, say 200 BC and earlier. What I know:

  • Apparently Thymaridas (Θυμαρίδας) of Paros knew of prime numbers, around 350 BC
  • About 50 years later, Euclid (Εὐκλείδης) of Alexandria proved that there were infinitely many primes
  • Eratosthenes (Ἐρατοσθένης) of Cyrene discovered a fast method for finding primes about 100 years after Euclid

But this is only a skeleton, and looks only to the Greeks. What other cultures knew of these numbers? (Many people seem to think -- without good evidence -- that the Ishango bone means that primes were understood in the Paleolithic.) What did Thymaridas know? What is the first mention of prime numbers in a historical source?

Of course I would be happy for a pointer to sources covering this information.

share|improve this question
Created the tag, hope you like it:) – Russell Jul 18 '12 at 17:07
Hmmm. Since everything here should (by definition) be history, should it just be something like "math"? I do highly approve of you making a new tag though. – T.E.D. Jul 18 '12 at 22:00
@T.E.D.: I've always heard the field called "history of mathematics" or HOM. I have no strong opinion of what the tag should be called. – Charles Jul 18 '12 at 22:05
E.g. homsigmaa.org – Charles Jul 18 '12 at 22:10
up vote 5 down vote accepted

This paper (in .pdf) argues against ancient Chinese mathematics being aware of prime numbers.

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, dating to the 15-16th century BCE, indicates an Egyptian knowledge of primes evidenced in their fractional system, but it's not definitive proof.

It looks like the Greeks were indeed the first.

share|improve this answer
The paper was especially useful, thanks! – Charles Jul 22 '12 at 4:22

I was a student learning Vedic mathematics a couple of years ago. I remember they talked about prime numbers also being mentioned in the vedas(probably Rig Veda). I tried to find links that mention it. I was only able to find a few references (might be because Vedic maths is not used outside India ?)

here. Also this link and this for some general info on what vedic math is! Also I don't know how old they are(although Vedas are considered to be one of the oldest known texts) but I just wanted to share this!

share|improve this answer
Your second and third links are about Venkatraman's 20th-century book Vedic Mathematics which is several thousand years too new. The first link does mention prime numbers but unfortunately does not actually have information on where they appear in Vedic mathematics. – Charles Aug 30 '12 at 17:48
Well the book might be toooo new, but the sanskrit sutras/phrases they were talking about are deduced from vedas! – Jayaram Aug 30 '12 at 18:18
That's a common misconception. Your second link deals with it explicitly: – Charles Aug 30 '12 at 18:56
"From what has been said above it is evident that the sixteen siitras of Swamiji's Vedic Mathematics are his own compositions, and have nothing to do with the mathematics of the Vedic period. Although there is nothing Vedic in his book, Swlimiji designates his preface to the book as A Descriptive Prefactory Note on the Astounding Wonders of Ancient Indian Mathematics [...] The deceptive title of Swiimiji' s book and the attribution of the sixteen siitras to the Parisistas of the Atharvaveda etc., have confused and baffled the readers who have failed to recognize the real nature of the book" – Charles Aug 30 '12 at 18:57

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.