Blacks and the History of Mathematics

By in expert-voice, Our Expert Talks

When we look at Black history and the contributions of Blacks to society, we tend to look at Blacks in America. This represents a relatively brief period in history, generally spanning from the days of slavery to the present, and gives a very skewed perception of history. If we are to look at the contributions of Blacks in any field, we must begin in the prehistoric past, on the African continent, which according to historic records is the birthplace of humanity.

Let’s take the field of mathematics for example. The first recorded use of numbers and connections began with Blacks in Africa. 

 

History of mathematics

Black people were counting and measuring in Swaziland beginning approximately 37,000 years ago. The Lebombo Bone found in the Lebombo mountains of Swaziland, Africa is the oldest evidence of mathematical thinking. It contains evenly spaced notches that appear to be tallies for recordkeeping to represent the lunar calendar.  

The Lebombo Bone: First evidence of mathematics

The Lebombo Bone

Image source: African heritage 

The Ishango Bone, which was found between Uganda and Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), provides evidence of number sense and operations dating back about 22,000 years in Africa. It has a pattern of tallies that is a sequence of prime numbers. It also demonstrates odd numbers, and contains markings of numbers being added and subtracted, which may have influenced the development of higher math in ancient Egypt.

History of mathematics : the Ishango Bone

 The d’Ishango Bone

Image source: African heritage 

The development of numerals

In the history of mathematics, the development of numerals in Kemet occurred some 5,000 years ago. Kemet refers to ancient Egypt and its surrounding regions. At that time, before the arrival of Europeans, Egypt was a more African centred civilization. Kemet literally means “Black land.” 

Numerals, place value and powers were developed and used during that period; this included a different symbol for each power of 10, from 10 to one million. 

History of mathematics: ancient egyptian hieroglyphic numerals

Evidence of mathematics 

Other evidence of math in Kemet includes a papyrus dating back about 4,000 years, which was found in that region and is now in a museum in Moscow. It is the oldest record of algebra and geometry. It contains about 25 math problems, including how to solve for unknown quantities, and how to calculate surface area and volume, including the volume of a frustum.

Another papyrus, dating back to about the same period, also found in Kemet, contains problems with fractions, linear equations, area, volume and slope. This papyrus is now housed in a British museum.

Ancient Egyptian arithmetic made use of the same principles we use today for the modern method of addition and multiplication. Ancient Egyptians used equations with fractions, calculations with circles and cylinders, and more advanced mathematics such as arithmetic and geometric series, as well as trigonometric ratios. 

 

History of math games

The oldest math game, a counting board game, was found in Ethiopia and dates back more than 3,000 years. This math game requires a player to use strategies to capture more stones than his or her opponent.

Math game : Mancala

Math game: Mancala

While other systems were being developed, the Yoruba people of Nigeria created their own elaborate counting system based on units of 20,  instead of units of 10.

 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Bushoong children used to draw complex networks using one continuous path without lifting the writing tool or retracing a line. These children enjoyed using rules for solving these types of puzzles. They were doing this long before the Swiss-born mathematician, Leonhard Euler, developed network analysis in 1735. 

 

If you were to venture to the University of Sankore in Mali, you would find a library filled with manuscripts mainly written in African languages, featuring advanced math and science dating long before European colonization.

So if we are really to examine the contributions that Blacks have made to society, we should start at the very beginning.


 

We hope you enjoyed this article and that you learned more about the history of mathematics and Black history. Be sure to keep an eye on our blog as we regularly post new math-related articles. Articles you won’t want to miss!

 

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