In mathematics, the natural numbers are those used for counting (as in "there are six coins on the table") and ordering (as in "this is the third largest city in the country"). In common language, words used for counting are "cardinal numbers" and words used for ordering are "ordinal numbers".
Some definitions, including the standard ISO 800002,^{[1]} begin the natural numbers with 0, corresponding to the nonnegative integers 0, 1, 2, 3, …, whereas others start with 1, corresponding to the positive integers 1, 2, 3, ….^{[2]}^{[3]}^{[4]}^{[5]} Texts that exclude zero from the natural numbers sometimes refer to the natural numbers together with zero as the whole numbers, but in other writings, that term is used instead for the integers (including negative integers).^{[6]}
The natural numbers are the basis from which many other number sets may be built by extension: the integers, by including (if not yet in) the neutral element 0 and an additive inverse (−n) for each nonzero natural number n; the rational numbers, by including a multiplicative inverse (1/n) for each nonzero integer n (and also the product of these inverses by integers); the real numbers by including with the rationals the limits of (converging) Cauchy sequences of rationals; the complex numbers, by including with the real numbers the unresolved square root of minus one (and also the sums and products thereof); and so on.^{[7]}^{[8]} These chains of extensions make the natural numbers canonically embedded (identified) in the other number systems.
Properties of the natural numbers, such as divisibility and the distribution of prime numbers, are studied in number theory. Problems concerning counting and ordering, such as partitioning and enumerations, are studied in combinatorics.
In common language, for example in primary school, natural numbers may be called counting numbers^{[9]} both to intuitively exclude the negative integers and zero, and also to contrast the discreteness of counting to the continuity of measurement, established by the real numbers.
The natural numbers can, at times, appear as a convenient set of names (labels), that is, as what linguists call nominal numbers, foregoing many or all of the properties of being a number in a mathematical sense.
The most primitive method of representing a natural number is to put down a mark for each object. Later, a set of objects could be tested for equality, excess or shortage, by striking out a mark and removing an object from the set.
The first major advance in abstraction was the use of numerals to represent numbers. This allowed systems to be developed for recording large numbers. The ancient Egyptians developed a powerful system of numerals with distinct hieroglyphs for 1, 10, and all the powers of 10 up to over 1 million. A stone carving from Karnak, dating from around 1500 BC and now at the Louvre in Paris, depicts 276 as 2 hundreds, 7 tens, and 6 ones; and similarly for the number 4,622. The Babylonians had a placevalue system based essentially on the numerals for 1 and 10, using base sixty, so that the symbol for sixty was the same as the symbol for one, its value being determined from context.^{[13]}
A much later advance was the development of the idea that 0 can be considered as a number, with its own numeral. The use of a 0 digit in placevalue notation (within other numbers) dates back as early as 700 BC by the Babylonians, but they omitted such a digit when it would have been the last symbol in the number.^{[14]} The Olmec and Maya civilizations used 0 as a separate number as early as the 1st century BC, but this usage did not spread beyond Mesoamerica.^{[15]}^{[16]} The use of a numeral 0 in modern times originated with the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta in 628. However, 0 had been used as a number in the medieval computus (the calculation of the date of Easter), beginning with Dionysius Exiguus in 525, without being denoted by a numeral (standard Roman numerals do not have a symbol for 0); instead nulla (or the genitive form nullae) from nullus, the Latin word for "none", was employed to denote a 0 value.^{[17]}
The first systematic study of numbers as abstractions is usually credited to the Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Archimedes. Some Greek mathematicians treated the number 1 differently than larger numbers, sometimes even not as a number at all.^{[18]}
Independent studies also occurred at around the same time in India, China, and Mesoamerica.^{[19]}
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In 19th century Europe, there was mathematical and philosophical discussion about the exact nature of the natural numbers. A school^{[which?]} of Naturalism stated that the natural numbers were a direct consequence of the human psyche. Henri Poincaré was one of its advocates, as was Leopold Kronecker who summarized "God made the integers, all else is the work of man".^{[20]}
In opposition to the Naturalists, the constructivists saw a need to improve the logical rigor in the foundations of mathematics.^{[21]} In the 1860s, Hermann Grassmann suggested a recursive definition for natural numbers thus stating they were not really natural but a consequence of definitions. Later, two classes of such formal definitions were constructed; later, they were shown to be equivalent in most practical applications.
Settheoretical definitions of natural numbers were initiated by Frege and he initially defined a natural number as the class of all sets that are in onetoone correspondence with a particular set, but this definition turned out to lead to paradoxes including Russell's paradox. Therefore, this formalism was modified so that a natural number is defined as a particular set, and any set that can be put into onetoone correspondence with that set is said to have that number of elements.^{[22]}
The second class of definitions was introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce, refined by Richard Dedekind, and further explored by Giuseppe Peano; this approach is now called Peano arithmetic. It is based on an axiomatization of the properties of ordinal numbers: each natural number has a successor and every nonzero natural number has a unique predecessor. Peano arithmetic is equiconsistent with several weak systems of set theory. One such system is ZFC with the axiom of infinity replaced by its negation. Theorems that can be proved in ZFC but cannot be proved using the Peano Axioms include Goodstein's theorem.^{[23]}
With all these definitions it is convenient to include 0 (corresponding to the empty set) as a natural number. Including 0 is now the common convention among set theorists^{[24]} and logicians.^{[25]} Other mathematicians also include 0^{[5]} although many have kept the older tradition and take 1 to be the first natural number.^{[26]} Computer scientists often start from zero when enumerating items like loop counters and string or array elements.^{[27]}^{[28]}
Mathematicians use N or ℕ (an N in blackboard bold) to refer to the set of all natural numbers. Older texts have also occasionally employed J as the symbol for this set.^{[29]} This set is countably infinite: it is infinite but countable by definition. This is also expressed by saying that the cardinal number of the set is alephnaught (ℵ_{0}).^{[30]}
To be unambiguous about whether 0 is included or not, sometimes an index (or superscript) "0" is added in the former case, and a superscript "*" or subscript ">0" is added in the latter case:^{[1]}
Alternatively, natural numbers may be distinguished from positive integers with the index notation, but it must be understood by context that since both symbols are used, the natural numbers contain zero.^{[31]}
One can recursively define an addition operator on the natural numbers by setting a + 0 = a and a + S(b) = S(a + b) for all a, b. Here S should be read as "successor". This turns the natural numbers (ℕ, +) into a commutative monoid with identity element 0, the socalled free object with one generator. This monoid satisfies the cancellation property and can be embedded in a group (in the mathematical sense of the word group). The smallest group containing the natural numbers is the integers.
If 1 is defined as S(0), then b + 1 = b + S(0) = S(b + 0) = S(b). That is, b + 1 is simply the successor of b.
Analogously, given that addition has been defined, a multiplication operator × can be defined via a × 0 = 0 and a × S(b) = (a × b) + a. This turns (ℕ^{*}, ×) into a free commutative monoid with identity element 1; a generator set for this monoid is the set of prime numbers.
Addition and multiplication are compatible, which is expressed in the distribution law: a × (b + c) = (a × b) + (a × c). These properties of addition and multiplication make the natural numbers an instance of a commutative semiring. Semirings are an algebraic generalization of the natural numbers where multiplication is not necessarily commutative. The lack of additive inverses, which is equivalent to the fact that ℕ is not closed under subtraction (i.e., subtracting one natural from another does not always result in another natural), means that ℕ is not a ring; instead it is a semiring (also known as a rig).
If the natural numbers are taken as "excluding 0", and "starting at 1", the definitions of + and × are as above, except that they begin with a + 1 = S(a) and a × 1 = a.
In this section, juxtaposed variables such as ab indicate the product a × b, and the standard order of operations is assumed.
A total order on the natural numbers is defined by letting a ≤ b if and only if there exists another natural number c where a + c = b. This order is compatible with the arithmetical operations in the following sense: if a, b and c are natural numbers and a ≤ b, then a + c ≤ b + c and ac ≤ bc.
An important property of the natural numbers is that they are wellordered: every nonempty set of natural numbers has a least element. The rank among wellordered sets is expressed by an ordinal number; for the natural numbers, this is denoted as ω (omega).
In this section, juxtaposed variables such as ab indicate the product a × b, and the standard order of operations is assumed.
While it is in general not possible to divide one natural number by another and get a natural number as result, the procedure of division with remainder is available as a substitute: for any two natural numbers a and b with b ≠ 0 there are natural numbers q and r such that
The number q is called the quotient and r is called the remainder of the division of a by b. The numbers q and r are uniquely determined by a and b. This Euclidean division is key to several other properties (divisibility), algorithms (such as the Euclidean algorithm), and ideas in number theory.
The addition (+) and multiplication (×) operations on natural numbers as defined above have several algebraic properties:
Two important generalizations of natural numbers arise from the two uses of counting and ordering: cardinal numbers and ordinal numbers.
Many wellordered sets with cardinal number ℵ_{0} have an ordinal number greater than ω (the latter is the lowest possible). The least ordinal of cardinality ℵ_{0} (i.e., the initial ordinal) is ω.
For finite wellordered sets, there is a onetoone correspondence between ordinal and cardinal numbers; therefore they can both be expressed by the same natural number, the number of elements of the set. This number can also be used to describe the position of an element in a larger finite, or an infinite, sequence.
A countable nonstandard model of arithmetic satisfying the Peano Arithmetic (i.e., the firstorder Peano axioms) was developed by Skolem in 1933. The hypernatural numbers are an uncountable model that can be constructed from the ordinary natural numbers via the ultrapower construction.
Georges Reeb used to claim provocatively that The naïve integers don't fill up ℕ. Other generalizations are discussed in the article on numbers.
Many properties of the natural numbers can be derived from the five Peano axioms:^{[32]}^{[33]}
These are not the original axioms published by Peano, but are named in his honor. Some forms of the Peano axioms have 1 in place of 0. In ordinary arithmetic, the successor of is . Replacing Axiom Five by an axiom schema one obtains a (weaker) firstorder theory called Peano Arithmetic.
In the area of mathematics called set theory, a special case of the von Neumann ordinal construction ^{[34]} defines the natural numbers as follows:
With this definition, a natural number n is a particular set with n elements, and n ≤ m if and only if n is a subset of m.
Also, with this definition, different possible interpretations of notations like ℝ^{n} (ntuples versus mappings of n into ℝ) coincide.
Even if one does not accept the axiom of infinity and therefore cannot accept that the set of all natural numbers exists, it is still possible to define any one of these sets.
Although the standard construction is useful, it is not the only possible construction. Zermelo's construction goes as follows:
integer 1. n. Any whole number.
… a tablet found at Kish … thought to date from around 700 BC, uses three hooks to denote an empty place in the positional notation. Other tablets dated from around the same time use a single hook for an empty place