Mathematics in Ancient Africa: Lebombo Bone & Others

Innovative record keeping and complex mathematical calculations were commonplace in some of the earliest civilizations of Africa. The oldest mathematical instrument in the world is the Lebombo bone, discovered in the Lebombo Mountains in present-day Swaziland. The bone, which comes from a baboon’s fibula, is dated at 35,000 BCE. The bone bears 29 markings believed to have been used to track lunar cycles.

Another ancient African mathematical instrument is the Ishango bone, which was discovered in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo and is dated at 20,000 BCE. Also derived from the fibula of a baboon, the bone was used as a measuring tool. It has clusters of odd-numbered markings, which some believe could have been used as a prehistoric calculator. Like the Lebombo bone, the Ishango bone is believed to have been used to track the lunar or menstrual cycle. The bone was discovered by a Belgian expedition in 1960 and is now on permanent exhibition at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

Another example of the application of mathematics in ancient African Kingdoms is the ‘Moscow’ Papyrus. The papyrus is attributed to the 13th century Kingdom of Kemet in present-day Egypt to Sudan, and it details various mathematical hypotheses, specifically in geometry and algebra. The artefact also includes calculations such as how to find the surface area of a basket, the volume of a pyramid, the length of a ship’s rudder, among others. It is housed in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The ‘Rhind’ Mathematical Papyrus is another example, which is dated to around 1650 BCE at the start of the New Kingdom of Egypt, and is currently located in the British Museum in London. It also details algebraic and linear equations used to calculate the volume of various shapes.

By Edel Were

(Image: Afrolegends; Wikimedia)

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