The History of Math in ‘Prehistoric’ Africa

It is important that Africa’s youth draw inspiration from their rich history as they develop a vision of the future. Knowing that they are a part of history may help give them negotiate the future with some degree of confidence.

Mathematics, which serve as the cornerstone of tech success, has deep roots in African history. From arithmetic in ancient Egypt to barter trade in East Africa, math has been used across the continent for centuries.

As students seek to learn math and teachers work tirelessly to teach it, it should come as no surprise that the subject is a major part of their history.

Researcher Dirk Huylebrouck speaks of Africa’s love affair with ethnomathematics, the study of the relationship between math and culture.

According to Huylebrouck, information about African ethnomathematics was found in archeological sites, written sources in Egyptian temples, Greek texts and some scarce reports on American slaves.

The Ishango Bone

Perhaps the most famous evidence of math in Africa is the existence of the Ishango bone, a tool that archeologists believe existed anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000 years ago.

The dark brown length of bone is the fibula of a baboon with a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end for engraving. It is thought by some to be a tally stick, as it has a series of what has been interpreted as tally marks carved in three columns running the length of the tool. Archeologists believe that it was a sort of counting tool used to perform simple mathematical procedures.

The bone was found in 1960 in a place called Ishango near the Semliki River, 140-kilometre-long waterway in Central and East Africa. It was discovered by researcher, Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt, who was exploring what was then the Belgian Congo.

Today, the Ishango Bone is described as the world’s oldest mathematical tool, proving that education is not a concept that was imported into the continent. In fact, mathematics is a language and has been spoken throughout Africa for centuries.

Replica of the Ishango bone outside the Science Museum in Brussels.

Addition and Multiplication Was Common in East and Central Africa

Addition and multiplication have been used by indigenous tribes for thousands of years. The Huku-Walegga, the people who lived in the area along the Semliki River, would express the number 7 as 6+1 and 8 as 2×4, while 16 would be (2×4) ×2. Also, in other cultures such as Somali, 12 is expressed as 2+10, 25 as 5 +20 and so on. This proves that mathematics was indeed an important part of their day-to-day lives.

Didier Goyvaerts, a Professor at the VUB, a University in Brussels and at the National University of Congo in Bukavu, co-supervised a research thesis on African number words by research analyst Sofie Ponsaerts. He provided her with his results on the Logo language, spoken in the North East of Congo. The results of the study revealed that speakers would use addition as a way to describe certain numbers. For instance, the Logo word for 18 directly translates to 10+5+3.

The Tsjokwe People used Graphs to Describe the Cycle of Life and Death

Some African tribes have been using graphs for centuries. The Tsjokwe people, for instance, who hail from the border area of Congo and Angola, made what are known as “sona” diagrams, described by historians as graphs.

The process of making them was taught during an initiation ceremony. Sometimes these drawings were used in mourning as a way to document a person’s history.

Geometric Patterns Were Used by Ghana’s Ashanti Tribe

Studies have confirmed that woven African fabrics are sometimes inspired by math. The Ashanti people of Ghana are known for their geometric drawings and so are other tribes in Central-Africa. These shapes have appeared on enclosures around huts, on baskets, milk jars, or ornamented drums.

AS early as 1972, mathematicians studied hut decorations in an isolated part in the Southeast of Rwanda, and found out that one tribe had documented time backwards about three hundred years, to the legendary king Kakira ka Kimenyi.

The Bashongo of East Congo Used Lines to Space and Categorize Numbers

Historical data has confirmed that the Bashongo from East-Congo would draw lines in the sand with three fingers of one hand.

Nearly 30 years ago, Belgian Architect Tijl Beyl (Belgium) revealed the work of Dr. Mubumbila Mfika, a Gabon chemist, who revealed the Bashongo counted per three, and the longer line would simply be a symbol for a counting interspacing. Another tribe known as the Bambala, would count per five.

Using Knots to Keep Track of Purchases

Trade is an essential part of any given society. Even today forms of barter trade still exist even though currencies have simplified the process.

Many years prior to the introduction of paper money in the continent, some Central African societies used knotted ropes to keep track of purchase. Knots were tied on both sides of a string, at one side for the sale, at the other for purchase.

All this history serves to not only educate young minds, but inspire them to do great things. With a past as rich as this one, young people should be encouraged to shoot for the stars.