While Africa has a rich history of mathematics, it is not accurate to say that it is the “mother” of mathematics or binary code. Mathematics, in various forms, was developed in many different parts of the world, including ancient Greece, India, and China.
However, it is true that African societies made significant contributions to mathematics, and particularly in the areas of geometry and algebra. A good example is the ancient Egyptians, who developed a sophisticated understanding of geometry. They used it to construct their pyramids and other monumental structures.
Similarly, the Yoruba people of West Africa developed a complex system of geometric symbols and patterns that were used in divination and other cultural practices.
The binary code is often attributed to a German mathematician and philosopher. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz developed the binary system in the 17th century. However, some researchers have suggested that African societies may have used binary systems as early as the 14th century, based on evidence from the use of cowrie shells as a form of currency.
The Ishango bone
Discovered in the Ishango region of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early 1960s, the Ishango Bone is a small bone tool that is believed to be one of the oldest mathematical artifacts ever discovered, and has provided insights into the mathematical practices of ancient African societies. The Ishango bone has been dated to around 20,000 BC, which makes it one of the oldest mathematical artifacts ever discovered.
The bone is made of baboon tibia and measures about 10 centimeters long. It has a series of notches carved into it which have been grouped into three columns. The first column contains three sets of notches, the second column has four sets, and the third column has two sets. There is also a single notch at the bottom of the bone.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Ishango Bone is the fact that it shows evidence of a sophisticated mathematical system. The bone contains prime numbers, which are numbers that can only be divided by 1 and themselves, and which are the building blocks of all other numbers. The discovery of prime numbers on the Ishango bone suggests that the people who created it had a deep understanding of mathematics, which was far more advanced than previously thought.
Were women the first Mathematicians in ancient Africa? According to The Universal Book of Mathematics, the Lebombo bone's 29 notches “may have been used as a lunar phase counter by women to keep track of menstrual cycles.” pic.twitter.com/HuNbh8XgbX— Pin Africa (@pin_africa) April 7, 2023
The Lebombo Bone
Discovered within the Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains of Swaziland (now the Kingdom of eSwatini), the Lebombo Bone is a tally stick with 29 distinct notches that were deliberately cut into a baboon’s fibula.
According to 24 radiocarbon datings, the bone is between 44,200 and 43,000 years old. This is far older than the Ishango bone.
According to The Universal Book of Mathematics the Lebombo bone’s 29 notches suggest “it may have been used as a lunar phase counter, in which case African women may have been the first mathematicians, because keeping track of menstrual cycles requires a lunar calendar”. However, the bone is broken at one end, so the 29 notches may or may not be the total number. In the cases of other notched bones since found globally, there has been no consistent notch tally, many being in the 1–10 range.
Despite these contributions, the history of mathematics in Africa has often been marginalized. This is because academics have been biased toward European achievements. But now, new research is highlighting the mathematical traditions of African societies. This recognition is important for a more inclusive history of mathematics.