The origin of arithmetic has been subject to quite a lot of Eurocentric myths, that more often than not seek to torpedo the African roots of the concept. However, a study of historical research, archaeological evidence, as well as artifacts confirm the fact that arithmetic was pioneered in Africa.
Mathematical expressions were developed from concepts of numbering, counting, measuring and other basic numerical forms, which were not foreign to ancient Africans. Prehistoric artifacts discovered in Africa, dated 25,000 years old or more suggest early attempts to quantify time.
The Lebombo bonediscovered in the mountains of Swaziland and the Ishango bone, found near the headwaters of the Nile River (north-eastern Congo) may be more than 25,000 years old, and consist of a series of tally marks carried in the columns running the length of the bone. It is widely suggested that the Ishango bone represents either the earliest known representation of prime numbers or the six-month lunar calendar.
Additionally, the systems of measurement used in the African forest kingdoms, and the mathematics used in building the great stone complexes of Zimbabwe, as well as the great accuracy of the pyramids still give rise to wonder and feed the evidential value of the African origin of mathematics.
The Lebombo bone is the world’s oldest recorded and proven measuring and mathematical device. It is a bone tool made of a baboon fibula, with incised markings discovered in the Lebombo mountains located between South-Africa and Swaziland. According to two dozen radiocarbon datings, the bone is said to be between 44,200 and 43,000 years old, apparently much older than the Ishango bone, which it is often confused with.
This bone, known for its distinct 29 markings, is suggested to have been used to track either menstrual or lunar cycle or used as a measuring or counting instrument. These suggestions stem from the fact that the lunar cycle is roughly 29 days (29.531 days), which is proximate to the notched markings on the bone.
To further validate the mathematical symbolization of the bone, history suggests that the Lebombo bone, which is a product of the baboon’s fibula, a primate indigenous to Africa, was symbolically linked to Khonso – an ancient god that was linked to time. The Kemetic god, Djehuty (“Tehuti” / “Toth”) was later depicted as a baboon and is usually associated with the moon, math, writing and science. The use of baboon bones as mathematical devices has historically been proven to have existed through-out Africa, which suggests that Africans have always held the baboon as sacred and associated it with the moon, math and time.
Another bone, the Ishango bone, which was buried in layers of volcanic ashes on the shores of lake Edward, in the Ishango region of present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was discovered by Belgian geologist Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt in 1960. It is the oldest confirmation of the practice of arithmetic in human history. Much like the Lebombo bone, the Ishango bone also bears a series of notches in groups. Although it was first thought that the notches were some kind of tally marks, it was however later determined that the groupings of the notches were in fact symbolic of mathematical concepts and were more intricate than simple tally.
The indications on the bone are distinguished by a collection of markings that represent different quantities. When the markings are counted, they are all odd numbers with the left column containing all prime numbers between 10 and 20, the right column contains added and subtracted numbers. If both columns are calculated, they sum up to 60 (almost twice the length of the lunar/menstrual cycles). The notches have been interpreted as a prehistoric calculator/lunar calendar/prehistoric barcode.
Alexander Mar-shack, who was a scholar, conducted a detailed microscopic examination of the bone and found markings of different indentations, shapes and sizes. His conclusion was that there was strong evidence of a close fit between different phases of the moon and sequential notation contained on the bone. He further suggested that the later development of mathematics in Egypt, like some entries on the Ishango bone, indicated arithmetic as it also made use of multiplication by two.
Concerning geometrics, according to Paul Gerdes, a scientist and professor of mathematics, “the development of geometrical thinking started early in African history, as early as humans learned to geometricize in the context of their labor activities.” For example, the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, learned to track animals, to recognize and interpret spoors. They got to know the shape of the spoor and provided information on what animal passed by, how long ago and if it was hungry or not.
Furthermore, the Tellem wearers of Mali, experimented with dimensions and found relationships between the dimensions and (symmetric) properties of the patterns. In particular, the variation among the discovered plain weave fragments suggests that the weavers knew the effect on the patterns of the selection of even and odd dimensions. Some of these activities have been argued to have influenced the study and development of geometrics dating back to ancient Egypt.
The earliest work on Algebra is the Egyptian Rhind Papyrus (c. 1700 BC), however, in c.3000 BC Egyptians called it “aha Calculus” because “Aha,” “Ahe,” or “Ahau” was the name of the second pharaoh of the first dynasty. Meaning mass, quantity or heap (a pile of things), it was used as an abstract term for the unknown in an equation. Originally the word “algebra” (“al” from Egypt- “al-kemit”) meant the reuniting of broken parts and was later defined by the Arabs as “restoration,” including “bone-setting.” The phrase “Yin and Yang” is also about the union of separate parts.