Ancient African Mathematics: Measuring and Counting

Africa is home to the world’s earliest known use of measuring and calculation, confirming the continent as the birthplace of both basic and advanced mathematics. Thousands of years ago, Africans were using numerals, algebra and geometry in daily life. This knowledge spread throughout the entire world after a series of migrations out of Africa, beginning around 30,000 BC, and later following a series of invasions of Africa by Europeans and Asians (1700 BC-present).

Lebombo Bone (35,000 BC):

The Lebombo Bone

The Lebombo Bone

The oldest mathematical instrument is the Lebombo bone, a baboon fibula used as a measuring device and so named for its location of discovery in the Lebombo mountains of Swaziland. The device is at least 35,000 years old. Judging from its 29 distinct markings, it could have been used to either track menstrual or lunar cycles, or used merely as a measuring stick. It is rather interesting to note the significance of the 29 markings (roughly the same number as lunar cycle, i.e., 29.531 days) on the baboon fibula because it is the oldest indication that the baboon, a primate indigenous to Africa, was symbolically linked to Khonsu, who was also associated with time. The Kemetic god, Djehuty (“Tehuti” or “Toth”), was later depicted as a baboon (also an ibis), and is usually associated with the moon, math, writing and science. Use of baboon bones as mathematical devices has been continuous throughout all of Africa, suggesting Africans always held the baboon as sacred and associated with the moon, math, and time.

Ishango Bone (20,000 BC):

Front and rear of the Ishango Bone.

Front and rear of the Ishango Bone.

The world’s oldest evidence of advanced mathematics was also a baboon fibula that was discovered in present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, and dates to at least 20,000 BC. The bone is now housed in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels. The Ishango bone is not merely a measuring device or tally stick as some people erroneously suggest. The bone’s inscriptions are clearly separated into clusters of markings that represent various quantities. When the markings are counted, they are all odd numbers with the left column containing all prime numbers between 10 and 20, and the right column containing added and subtracted numbers. When both columns are calculated, they add up to 60 (nearly double the length of the lunar or menstrual cycle).

Gebet’a or “Mancala” Game (700 BC-present):

Rwandans playing Omweso, a more advanced version of Gebet'a.

Rwandans playing Omweso, a more advanced version of Gebet’a.

Although the oldest known evidence of the ancient counting board game, Gebet’a or “Mancala” as it is more popularly known, comes from Yeha (700 BC) in Ethiopia, it was probably used in Central Africa many years prior. The game forces players to strategically capture a greater number of stones than one’s opponent. The game usually consists of a wooden board with 2 rows of 6 holes each, and 2 larger holes at either end.

A Gebet'a carving on the base of an Aksumite.

A Gebet’a carving on the base of an Aksumite.

However, in antiquity, the holes were more likely to be carved into stone, clay or mud. More advanced versions found in Central and East Africa, such as the Omweso, Igisoro and Bao, usually involve 4 rows of 8 holes each.

By: Ta

Continue to Ancient African Mathematics: Fractions, Algebra and Geometry


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