The Babylonian mathematical tablet Plimpton 322, dated to 1800 BC.
The numerals used in the Bakhshali manuscript
, dated between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE.
The history of mathematics can be seen as an ever-increasing series of abstractions. The first abstraction, which is shared by many animals, was probably that of numbers: the realization that a collection of two apples and a collection of two oranges (for example) have something in common, namely quantity of their members.
As evidenced by tallies found on bone, in addition to recognizing how to count physical objects, prehistoric peoples may have also recognized how to count abstract quantities, like time – days, seasons, years.
Evidence for more complex mathematics does not appear until around 3000 BC, when the Babylonians and Egyptians began using arithmetic, algebra and geometry for taxation and other financial calculations, for building and construction, and for astronomy. The most ancient mathematical texts from Mesopotamia and Egypt are from 2000–1800 BC. Many early texts mention Pythagorean triples and so, by inference, the Pythagorean theorem seems to be the most ancient and widespread mathematical development after basic arithmetic and geometry. It is in Babylonian mathematics that elementary arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) first appear in the archaeological record. The Babylonians also possessed a place-value system, and used a sexagesimal numeral system, still in use today for measuring angles and time.
Beginning in the 6th century BC with the Pythagoreans, the Ancient Greeks began a systematic study of mathematics as a subject in its own right with Greek mathematics. Around 300 BC, Euclid introduced the axiomatic method still used in mathematics today, consisting of definition, axiom, theorem, and proof. His textbook Elements is widely considered the most successful and influential textbook of all time. The greatest mathematician of antiquity is often held to be Archimedes (c. 287–212 BC) of Syracuse. He developed formulas for calculating the surface area and volume of solids of revolution and used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, in a manner not too dissimilar from modern calculus. Other notable achievements of Greek mathematics are conic sections (Apollonius of Perga, 3rd century BC), trigonometry (Hipparchus of Nicaea (2nd century BC), and the beginnings of algebra (Diophantus, 3rd century AD).
The Hindu–Arabic numeral system and the rules for the use of its operations, in use throughout the world today, evolved over the course of the first millennium AD in India and were transmitted to the Western world via Islamic mathematics. Other notable developments of Indian mathematics include the modern definition of sine and cosine, and an early form of infinite series.
A page from al-Khwārizmī's Algebra
During the Golden Age of Islam, especially during the 9th and 10th centuries, mathematics saw many important innovations building on Greek mathematics. The most notable achievement of Islamic mathematics was the development of algebra. Other notable achievements of the Islamic period are advances in spherical trigonometry and the addition of the decimal point to the Arabic numeral system. Many notable mathematicians from this period were Persian, such as Al-Khwarismi, Omar Khayyam and Sharaf al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī.
During the early modern period, mathematics began to develop at an accelerating pace in Western Europe. The development of calculus by Newton and Leibniz in the 17th century revolutionized mathematics. Leonhard Euler was the most notable mathematician of the 18th century, contributing numerous theorems and discoveries. Perhaps the foremost mathematician of the 19th century was the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, who made numerous contributions to fields such as algebra, analysis, differential geometry, matrix theory, number theory, and statistics. In the early 20th century, Kurt Gödel transformed mathematics by publishing his incompleteness theorems, which show that any axiomatic system that is consistent will contain unprovable propositions.
Mathematics has since been greatly extended, and there has been a fruitful interaction between mathematics and science, to the benefit of both. Mathematical discoveries continue to be made today. According to Mikhail B. Sevryuk, in the January 2006 issue of the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, "The number of papers and books included in the Mathematical Reviews database since 1940 (the first year of operation of MR) is now more than 1.9 million, and more than 75 thousand items are added to the database each year. The overwhelming majority of works in this ocean contain new mathematical theorems and their proofs."
The word mathematics comes from Ancient Greek μάθημα (máthēma), meaning "that which is learnt", "what one gets to know", hence also "study" and "science". The word for "mathematics" came to have the narrower and more technical meaning "mathematical study" even in Classical times. Its adjective is μαθηματικός (mathēmatikós), meaning "related to learning" or "studious", which likewise further came to mean "mathematical". In particular, μαθηματικὴ τέχνη (mathēmatikḗ tékhnē), Latin: ars mathematica, meant "the mathematical art".
Similarly, one of the two main schools of thought in Pythagoreanism was known as the mathēmatikoi (μαθηματικοί)—which at the time meant "teachers" rather than "mathematicians" in the modern sense.
In Latin, and in English until around 1700, the term mathematics more commonly meant "astrology" (or sometimes "astronomy") rather than "mathematics"; the meaning gradually changed to its present one from about 1500 to 1800. This has resulted in several mistranslations. For example, Saint Augustine's warning that Christians should beware of mathematici, meaning astrologers, is sometimes mistranslated as a condemnation of mathematicians.
The apparent plural form in English, like the French plural form les mathématiques (and the less commonly used singular derivative la mathématique), goes back to the Latin neuter plural mathematica (Cicero), based on the Greek plural τὰ μαθηματικά (ta mathēmatiká), used by Aristotle (384–322 BC), and meaning roughly "all things mathematical"; although it is plausible that English borrowed only the adjective mathematic(al) and formed the noun mathematics anew, after the pattern of physics and metaphysics, which were inherited from Greek. In English, the noun mathematics takes a singular verb. It is often shortened to maths or, in North America, math.