The African Roots of Modern Mathematics

Most modern academics believe that the ancient Greeks discovered mathematics. Whilst Greek mathematicians such as Euclid and Pythagoras made many significant discoveries, the contributions of African mathematicians were also very important. In many cases, the Greeks were building on the mathematical discoveries of African civilisations. 

Ancient Mathematical Artefacts 

In 1950, a Belgian explorer, Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt, discovered a large collection of ancient tools whilst excavating (digging) in the Congo. The most interesting item discovered was a dark brown baboon bone, with a collection of numbers carved into the side. It is known today as the Ishango bone, after the area it was discovered in. It is believed to be at least 20,000 years old. 

Many historians argue that the Ishango bone is the oldest known mathematical object. The numbers are grouped into three rows, with the middle row containing only prime numbers (numbers divisible by only 1 and themselves). The numbers carved into the other rows also show other interesting patterns. For example, two of the rows add up to 60 and the other adds up to 48. 

The number 60 formed the basis of many ancient numerical systems based around multiples of 12. This explains many aspects of our modern time system, including the fact that there are 60 seconds in a minute. 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day. The Ishango bone suggests that the ancient peoples living in the area had a surprisingly good understanding of mathematics. They may have even understood prime numbers. This is backed up by other similar discoveries, such as the Lembombo bone discovered in South Africa. 

Ancient Egyptian Mathematics 

The most obvious examples of ancient African mathematics occurred during the period of Egyptian civilisation. Egyptians used advanced calculations for many everyday tasks, including farming and trade. Ancient historians, such as the Greek Herodotus, report that the Egyptian pharaohs used geometry to calculate areas of land. So that they could work out how much to tax their farmers. 

Egyptians used a numerical system for solving problems and were able to calculate the volumes of their buildings and pyramids. This is shown in many surviving historical documents, such as the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus and the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. 

However, the Egyptian understanding of mathematics was not just practical. It was much more theoretical than people often claim. The Greek philosopher Aristotle described this, arguing that: ‘the sciences…were invented, and first in those places where men had leisure. Thus the mathematical sciences originated in the neighborhood of Egypt, because there the priestly class was allowed leisure.’ Furthermore, some scholars have observed similarities between the Greek and Egyptian numeral systems. They argue that the Greeks based their system on Egyptian numbers after contact through trade.


[Picture of the numbers on the Ishango Bone – Creative Commons]

Oisin Kim


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