The World’s Three Oldest Mathematical Objects are From Africa

Yes it’s true. Before there was a Greece, before there was a Romulus or Remus, before there was a Rome, before there was a Carthage, before there was a Kemet (so-called ancient Egypt,) before there was a pyramid, before there was Her Em Ahket (the so-called Sphinx)….Africans were doing math. That means the world’s three oldest mathematical objects are from Africa.

Undeniably, the three oldest known mathematical objects in the world are from Africa. It would seem likely the continent which gave birth to the entire human race, in addition to all language, thought and culture, also gave us mathematics. The two Ishango bones were both excavated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Lebombo bone is from a cave on the border between Swaziland and South Africa.

The Ishango Bones

The name Ishango comes from the Ishango area of the North-Kivu Province located in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It lies near the shores of the Semliki River in the Virunga National Park. Humans have occupied Ishango for over 25,000 years.

Zoologist Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt began excavating the area in 1950.  Hubert Damas located the site originally where he discovered human remains along with bones with harpoon heads on them. After publishing his findings, Damas did not explore the area further.

Excavations first revealed the second Ishango bone in 1959. It comes from the same layer of excavation as the first bone. At 40 cm long, it has 90 notches categorized as “major” and “minor” due to length. Six-sided in shape with a broken, hollow end demonstrates an evident effort at craftsmanship went into its production. At the time of its discovery, no one attached any significance to the notches.

the second ishango bone -- oldest mathematical objects are from africa
The second Ishango Bone was excavated first in 1959. The examination of the first Ishango bone led to the second bone’s reevaluation.

Because of the first Ishango bone a reanalysis of the second was necessary. It is the first Ishango bone which had markings which are considered the oldest known mathematical evidence. Someone scraped, thinned, and polished the bone to such an extent the original source is difficult to determine. Researchers consider it to be either the bone of a baboon or lion.

the first ishango bone -- oldest mathematical objects are from africa
The first Ishango bone from the shores of the Semliki River region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the oldest mathematical object.

One end of the first Ishango bone has a piece of quartz embedded in it. Additionally, his indicates utility as cutting device, although its exact use is still unknown. The main area of the bone has 168 notches, in 16 groups and split in three rows. They cover three sides of the bone.

Lastly, researchers date both Ishango bones to approximately 20,000 before the present.

The Lebombo Bone

Border Cave sits on the border between South Africa and Swaziland. The cave is located in the Lebombo Mountains at an elevation 365 m above sea level.

border cave from open street maps -- oldest mathematical objects are from africa
Map showing Swaziland to the east near the Indian Ocean. Border Cave is in the lower east area of Swaziland near the border of South Africa.

When archaeologists were conducting an excavation of Border Cave in the early 1970s they found a baboon fibula now known as The Lebombo bone. They have dated it to between 42,300 and 43,000 years old. The Lebombo bone has 29 markings along one edge. The notches have been allude to as being related to the cycle of the moon. Additionally, some researchers suggest the notches identify a woman’s menstrual cycle.

lebombo bone -- oldest mathematical objects are from africa
SI Figure 8. Baboon fibula from 1BS Lower B-C presenting an incomplete sequence of 29 notches
along the interosseous crest, and oblique incisions on the other aspects (top). Note the changes in the
section of the notches (bottom) indicating the use of different cutting edges. Scale = 1 cm.


By Nnamdi Azikiwe

The Mhotep Corporation uses its Keyamsha The Awakening brand to heighten perceptions and expand awareness. By producing content that engages, entertains and educates we create value for value relationships with our audience for mutual benefit. Mhotep is derived from the name of the architect and builder of the first pyramid in Kemet, so-called ancient Egypt. I formed the Mhotep Corporation in 2003 to produce and distribute 3D animation videos based on traditional African stories. Since then it has evolved to being a media production company including books. In a previous life I worked as a systems analyst developing solutions for government and multinational organizations. Born and educated in Washington, D.C. I have traveled to several places including Haiti, the Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, Nigeria (several times), Ethiopia (several times), Benin, Togo, and South Africa. I am married with three children.

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