The Ishango Bone: Evidence of the Congolese Invention of
By Robin Walker
Mathematics was born in Central Africa at least 25,000 years ago. The evidence comes from the Ishango bone, a prehistoric tool handle.
It was unearthed by archaeologists working in the Ishango region of Congo on the shore of Lake Edward. Jean de Heinzelin of Belgium's Royal Institute of the Natural Sciences discovered it in the late 1950s. Originally thought to have
been over 8,000 years old, a more sensitive re-dating by Alison Brooks of George Washington University has established that the bone tool is an astonishing 25,000 years old.
We would do well to ponder over this date. Civilisations as we know them did not exist. Africans had already developed fishing cultures by then and had already dug the world's first mines. They also began the observation of the heavens.
Outside Africa, much less has happening. It must be remembered that the period of which we speak was at least 22,000 years before the first Greek cities, the crowning
achievement of the Europeans. This period was 20,000 years older than the first Middle Eastern kings. Even in Africa, where civilisation began, Ishango was an achievement. This artefact is at least 16,000 years older than the construction of the Great Sphinx of the Giza desert, the crowning achievement of the African people of the Nile River.
So what is so special about this bone? On the tool are three rows of notches, two of which add up to sixty. The number patterns represented by the notches have been analysed by many scholars, most notably by Professor Claudia Zaslavsky, a European-American mathematician. She demonstrates that the number patterns show doubling, addition, subtraction, prime numbers and base ten. The patterns have also been analysed by brilliant and scholarly Charles Finch, one of Black America's best intellects.
The first row of patterns on the bone shows three notches carved next to six, four carved next to eight, ten carved next to two groups of five, and finally a seven. The numbers 3 and 6, 4 and 8, and 10 and 5, are believed to represent the
process of multiplication by 2. Row 2 shows eleven notches carved next to twenty-one notches, and nineteen notches carved next to nine notches. This is thought to represent 10 + 1, 20 + 1, 20 – 1 and 10 – 1. Finally, row 3 shows
eleven notches, thirteen notches, seventeen notches and nineteen notches. 11, 13, 17 and 19 are the prime numbers
between 10 and 20. A prime number can only be divided by itself and by 1 to produce a whole number.
The early mathematician(s?) responsible for the Ishango bone therefore understood multiplication, addition and prime numbers. Moreover, two of the rows add up to sixty. Row 2 consists of 11 + 21 + 19 + 9 = 60. Row 3 consists of 11 +
13 + 17 + 19 = 60. Our leading writer on ancient African science, Charles Finch of the Morehouse School of Medicine, believes that this represents an understanding of base 60. This is, incidentally, the concept on which modern clocks and
watches are based. For example, on a modern clock 60 seconds = 1 minute, and 60 minutes = 1 hour. Finally, the centrality of numbers ten and twenty for the calculations in row 2 and row 3, suggest an early understanding of base 10. This is the basis of the decimal system of counting, the very one that we use today. For example, on a modern decimal ruler 10 millimetres = 1 centimetre, and 10 decimetres = 1 metre.
It is heartening to see that information about ancient African mathematics inspires people today. In England, for example, Elizabeth Rasekoala, a Manchester based chemical engineer, established the Ishango Science Clubs early in 1997. These clubs were part of an initiative by her charity The African-Caribbean Network for Science & Technology to promote mathematical and scientific excellence among Black school children in various British cities. Their impact has already been felt.
We may never find out who the Congolese mathematician(s) was/were who carved the number patterns on the Ishango bone, but their list of distinctions are many. They presented the world's oldest known counting system. They were the first
known people on the planet to present multiplication, addition, subtraction, prime numbers, base 10 and base 60 (if Charles Finch is correct). They did this sometime around 23,000 BC, that is 25,000 years ago! It is sometimes suggested that many Black school students are failures at mathematics and in the sciences. It is also suggested that teacher racism, broken families and the lack of role models are valid explanations for this shabby state of affairs. In all honesty, do these excuses stand up when Africans invented the subject 25,000 years ago?