Black History Month 2020

Here in UK, October is Black History Month. To celebrate, we posted a three-part mini series on our Instagram.

1. Mathematics in Timbuktu

Part one dives into the Mathematics in Timbuktu. The recently rediscovered Timbuktu manuscripts (dating back to the 13th century) demonstrate the continuous knowledge of advanced mathematics and science in Africa well before colonisation. They understood trigonometry, they created algorithms and they were advanced in astronomy!

2. Black Mathematicians

For part two of the mini series, we mention a few notable Black Mathematicians.

  • Thomas Fuller (1710-1790) was an African-born slave in America known as the Virginia Calculator for his extraordinary powers in arithmetic.
  • Marta Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1850-1980) is the first Black woman in the US to earn a PhD in Mathematics in 1943.
  • Jesse Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923-2011) entered the University of Chicago at 13 years old and became the youngest ever student at that university.
  • Katherine Adebola Okikiolu (1965-present) is the first Black person to receive a Sloan Research Fellowship. (43 fellows have won a Nobel Prize, and 16 have won the Fields Medal in Mathematics)

3. Ancient African Mathematics

For our third and final post, we discuss the first mathematical instruments known to us – the origin of these fascinating ancient relics is African!

  • The Ishango Bone 🦴 (2,000 BC): This bone has 3 columns with different markings on them in clusters.
  • The Lebombo Bone🦴 (30,000 BC): This bone has 29 markings on it believed to be linked to a lunar cycle.

The purpose behind the creation of these relics is still disputed. According to certain historians, (e.g. Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels, where the Ishango bone is presented), it is believed that the people of Ishango knew about prime numbers. However, some mathematicians say that the presence of prime numbers on the bone is a coincidence and that they were actually using the bone as a counting tool. Either way, it is fascinating that people over 35,000 years ago were using maths in some way – possibly before the invention of numbers!

Both of these bones were made on baboon fibulas. The baboon was a symbol of the Ancient gods of the moon which suggests an ancient connection between baboons, the moon, time, and maths.

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