I know that many of you are preparing to teach soon, and your students might not fully appreciate the importance of your subject matter:  accounting.  You might start by talking about accounting’s crucial role in the development of writing, and civilization itself.  Attendees of the AAA meetings from several years ago might have seen Denise Schmandt-Besserat trace her story of How Writing Came About.  From accounting, of course:

The immediate precursor of cuneiform writing was a system of tokens. These small clay objects of many shapes–cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc.–served as counters in the prehistoric Near East and can be traced to the Neolithic period, starting about 8000 B.C. They evolved to meet the needs of the economy, at first keeping track of the products of farming, then expanding in the urban age to keep track of goods manufactured in workshops. The development of tokens was tied to the rise of social structures, emerging with rank leadership and coming to a climax with state formation.

This “accounting leads to writing” meme appeared anew (to me, anyway) in a recent article on Slate.com about the khipu, a system of knotted cords used in the Inca empire.  The khipu started as a surprisingly successful accounting tool:

No one disputes that the Incas were great collectors of information. When a battalion of Spanish conquistadors, led by the ruthless Francisco Pizarro, arrived in 1532, the invaders were awed by the Inca state’s organization. Years’ worth of food and textiles were carefully stockpiled in storehouses. To keep track of all this stuff, the empire employed khipucamayocs, a specially trained caste of khipu readers. The great 16th-century Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León recalled that these men were so skilled that “not even a pair of sandals” escaped their annual tallies. The Spaniards, who were no slouches themselves in the bureaucracy department—Pizarro’s landing party included 12 notaries—observed that the Incas were remarkably skilled with numbers. For many years during the 16th century, says Frank Salomon, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Inca khipucamayocs and Spanish accountants would square off in court during lawsuits, with the khipu numbers usually deemed more accurate.

The article argues that the khipu then transformed into a form of writing:

In 1981, however, the husband-and-wife, archeologist-and-mathematician team of Robert and Marcia Ascher put the Inca Paradox [as the only advanced civilization without writing] into doubt. By closely analyzing the position, size, and color of the knots in 200 khipus, they demonstrated that about 20 percent of them showed “non-arithmetical” properties. These cords, the Aschers argued, seemed to have been encoded with numbers that might also represent other information—possibly some form of narrative.

For more western history, John Alexander has an excellent and very brief History of Accounting that traces the history of accounting from ancient days to the early 20th century.  He identifies several key advances in accounting, each driven by a demand for more complex recordkeeping, and made possible by improvements in math, literacy and technology.

From the development of cuneiform up through the medieval period, recordkeeping consisted of little more than lists of holdings, productions and transactions:

The renowned Code of Hammurabi, handed down during the first dynasty of Babylonia (2285 – 2242 B.C.), for example, required that an agent selling goods for a merchant give the merchant a price quotation under seal or face invalidation of a questioned agreement. Thus it is believed that most transactions were recorded and subscribed by the parties during this period….

Government and banking accounts in ancient Rome evolved from records traditionally kept by the heads of families, wherein daily entry of household receipts and payments were kept in an adversaria or daybook, and monthly postings were made to a cashbook known as a codex accepti et expensi. These household expenses were important in Rome because citizens were required to submit regular statements of assets and liabilities, used as a basis for taxation and even determination of civil rights….

The oldest surviving accounting record in the English language is the Pipe Roll, or “Great Roll of the Exchequer,” which provides an annual description of rents, fines and taxes due the King of England, from A.D. 1130 through 1830. Compiled from valuations in the Domesday Book and from statements of sheriffs and others collecting for the royal treasury, the Pipe Roll was the final record on parchment of a “proffer” system which extensively used a wooden stick as a basis of account-keeping. Twice a year, at Easter and Michaelmas (September 29), the various county sheriffs were called before the Exchequer at Westminster. At Easter, a sheriff would pay about half of the total annual assessments his county owed. In accepting a sheriff’s payment on account (the proffer), the treasurer would have a wooden tally stick prepared and cut as a record of the transaction….

While lists of transactions and holdings are themselves simple, ensuring the integrity of the data was not. Even the earliest reporting systems included elaborate internal controls to ensure that the data was recorded accurately, and was not altered afterwards. For example:

Mesopotamia: In a typical transaction of the time, the parties might seek out the scribe at the gates to the city. They would describe their agreement to the scribe, who would take from his supply a small quantity of specially prepared clay on which to record the transaction. Clay was plentiful in this area, while papyrus was scarce and expensive.

The moist clay was molded into a size and shape adequate to contain the terms of the agreement. Using a wooden rod with a triangular end, the scribe recorded the names of the contracting parties, the goods and money exchanged and any other promises made. The parties then “signed” their names to the tablet by impressing their respective seals. In an age of mass illiteracy, men carried their signatures around their necks in the form of stone amulets engraved with the wearer’s mark, and were buried with them at death. Often the seals included the owner’s name and religious symbols, such as the picture and name of the gods worshipped by the owner. After these impressions from the amulets were made, the scribe would dry the tablet in the sun or in a kiln for important transactions which needed a more permanent record. Sometimes a clay layer about as thick as a pie crust was fashioned and wrapped around the tablet like an envelope.

For extra security, the whole transaction would be rewritten on this outer “crust,” in effect making a carbon copy of the original. Attempted alterations of the envelope could be detected by comparing it with its contents, and the original could not be altered without cracking off and destroying the outer shell….

Egypt: Egyptian bookkeepers associated with each storehouse kept meticulous records, which were checked by an elaborate internal verification system. These early accountants had good reason to be honest and accurate, because irregularities disclosed by royal audits were punishable by fine, mutilation or death….

Medieval England: After the amount of the sheriff’s proffer had been carved, a diagonal cross cut was made an inch or two from the thicker end of the tally, and the whole stick was split down the middle into two identically notched parts of unequal length. The flat sides of both pieces were inscribed in Latin to show that they related to the same debt, and as additional protection, the cross cuts were made at various angles on different tallies, so that no “foil” or shorter piece could possibly be fitted to any “stock” but its own. The sheriff then departed with the stock as his receipt for payments rendered, and the foil was kept by the treasurer for the Exchequer archives.

At Michaelmas, each sheriff returns for the final accounting, at which he pays the whole year’s revenues. The treasurer reads the amount due from the Pipe Roll, and the sheriff must justify any unusual expenses claimed. Final settlement occurs at a table covered by a checkered cloth, for which the Exchequer is named. “Counters” are placed on the squares to visually represent the amount due the king from that county. Another row of counters represents the Easter payment, which is verified by fitting together the sheriff’s tally stock with the Exchequer’s foil to demonstrate that the notches and cuttings correspond.