Archaeologists from Cambridge University found the clay tokens on a dig at Ziyaret Tepe – the site of the ancient city Tušhan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire – in southeast Turkey.
The rudimentary bookkeeping system was thought to have vanished around 3,000 BC when people began to use early writing – known as ‘cuneiform’ – on clay tablets using pointed reeds.
But these tokens date to the first millennium BC – about two thousand years later.
Dr John MacGinnis from Cambridge’s MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, who led the research said: “Complex writing didn’t stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn’t wiped out pencils and pens.
“In fact, in a literate society there are multiple channels of recording information that can be complementary to each other. In this case both prehistoric clay tokens and cuneiform writing used together.”
He added: “The inventions of recording systems are milestones in the human journey, and any finds which contribute to the understanding of how they came about makes a basic contribution to mapping the progress of mankind.”