African Mathematical Treasure:
Ishango Bone

There were mathematicians 20,000 years ago on the African continent.

Today, I would like to talk about the Ishango bone, or rather the first evidence of a calculator in the world.  Named after the place where it was found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Ishango bone is what is called a bone tool or the craddle of mathematics.  Dating as far back as 22000 years ago, in the Upper Paleolitic era, the Ishango bone is a dark brown bone which happens to be the fibula of a baboon, with a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end for engraving.  It is the oldest attestation of the practice of arithmetic in human history.

The Ishango Bone: Craddle of Ancient Mathematics

it is amazing to realize that there were mathematicians 20,000 years ago on the African continent.  It is so great to realize that my ancestors, on the shores of Lake Edouard, were actually brilliant scientists playing with prime numbers.  Whether it was a woman calculating her menstrual cycle, or some brilliant tribe astronomer, it feels so good to know that the paleo-mathematicians of Ishango already knew prime numbers.  They were a great civilization long before the pharaohs of Egypt. Thus, in reality, the Ishango bone is the oldest table of prime numbers in the world. To read more, check out Mathematicians of the African Diaspora,, the Prime Glossary, and Wolfram Mathworld.


Mathematical Treasure: Ishango Bone

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)



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