The Ishango Bone – Is This The World’s Oldest Mathematical Artefact?

With thanks to Alan Mason

Most people think that the study of mathematics has its origins in Ancient Egypt and Babylonia, but this view was dramatically challenged in the 1950’s with the discovery of a small animal bone, inscribed with markings that appear to represent numbers.

This artefact was discovered in the small African fishing village of Ishango, on the border of Zaire and Uganda by the Belgian geologist Jean de Heinzelin.

The Ishango Bone now lies at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels, and has been dated to around 20,000 BC. It is thought to be the oldest mathematical artefact ever discovered.

The Bone

At first glance the bone appears to be a simple writing tool. It is 10 cm long, and at one end is embedded with a piece of quartz thought to be for engraving and tattooing. Closer examination reveals a series of notches running up the side of the bone, in three columns……..

Read more here The Ishango Bone.

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2 Responses to The Ishango Bone – Is This The World’s Oldest Mathematical Artefact?

  1. Huylebrouck says:

    You wrote “The puzzle will only be solved if other similar items can be unearthed.” Well, there is a second Ishango rod now, revealed in 2007. De Heinzelin told about it on his death bed in 1998 but it took years to convince the involved people to disclose it.
    And similar objects were taken to Belgium by missionaries around 1900 (50 years before the discovery of the Ishango rod) and their use as tally sticks was described in their reports. The objects are not shown in musea as the public is more interested in elephants, masks, nude women and so on, not in math.

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