Hera lived under a massive stone overhang, perched high in the Lebombo mountains and overlooking the Ingwavuma River. She probably never met a soul outside of the two dozen or so relatives who shared her cave. It was a comfortable existence in a lush and beautiful land. The men of her tribe hunted for bushpigs, zebra and buffalo while Hera, along with the other women, gathered berries and roots, and probably manufactured a lot of the weapons that the men used for hunting. They had tools of wood and stone (mostly flint), and made artwork from semi-precious minerals like quartz and chalcedony.
But Hera was inquisitive, a revolutionary; she was able to do something which, to our knowledge, had never been done before. She could count. That’s not to say she could count out loud; even today hunter-gatherer languages generally don’t have words for numbers greater than 4, and Hera would have been no exception. But Hera understood the idea of larger numbers, and she wanted to be able to keep track of them even if her language didn’t provide her the tools. So rather than specific names for numbers, she used a simple but revolutionary written notation that we would now call “tallying”; she made notches in a baboon fibula.
It may seem crude from a modern perspective, but tallying is actually a very sophisticated system. First off, it’s symbolic. The spoken word “five” recognizes that there is a fundamental analogy between the fingers (and thumb) on my hand, the petals on a geranium, and any other collection of five things. “Five” is a shorthand for this analogy, so we can make statements that apply to both hands and geraniums; five tally marks serves the same purpose. But tallying isn’t just symbolic - it’s extensible. Rather than just a finite vocabulary of symbols, tallying is a way to construct new symbols from previous ones (i.e. by adding one more mark) so that you don’t need to learn a new word for every distinct quantity. It’s a crude system, but even as simple as it is, it can express any number.
In the 1970’s archaeologists excavated Hera’s home, now called Border Cave, the oldest known human settlement. The cave contained 69,000 artifacts spanning 200,000 years of continuous human settlement - a gold mine for the study of early human evolution. Bones from humans, stone tools, remains of hunted animals - it was all there, the only remaining testament to Hera and her ancient people. Among the countless artifacts people found the fibula that Hera had used for tallying – the only written record of Hera (hence my somewhat tenuous claim that she’s part of “recorded” history). It was christened the “Lebombo bone”, and has been carbon-dated to 35,000 B.C.E. The Lebombo bone has 29 notches; Hera was counting her menstrual cycle.
Everything we know about Hera is speculation based on the artifacts in Border Cave and our knowledge of early human societies. It could be that Here was actually counting the days between full moons; in that case, she may well have been a man. In fact, her work resembles “calendar sticks” used by the Bushmen tribes in southern Africa up through modern times, so there is an outside possibility they are the same technology. Chances are Hera didn't invent tallying, and the technique was well known among her tribe. But in any case, the Lebombo bone is the oldest known example of symbolic human counting. It is also, I would argue, the oldest example of written language – a single word, the word “twenty-nine”.