The First Mathematician (Week 1, Day 5)

Who was the first mathematician? The actual answer to that has been lost, since mathematics predates writing (which you would know if  you watched yesterday’s documentary.) However we are able to guess some things.
The oldest mathematical artifacts discovered are bones with a sequence of notches carved in them. The notches are widely interpreted as tally marks. Tally marks are essentially the simplest way to record a number, with one notch for each thing being counted. So even in a culture with no words for numbers, they could remember quantities by marking them down.

The Lobombo bone is the oldest known mathematical artifact. It is a Baboon fibula with 29 notches carved into it.

In 1991 Claudia Zaslavsky made the following observation in the fall edition of the Women in Mathematics Education Newsletter. Her article was reprinted in winter 1992 in the ISGEm newsletter which luckily can be found online.

Let’s review some of the evidence. In my book Africa
Counts: Number and Pattern in African Culture
(L. Hill, 1979), I wrote about the Ishango bone, an artifact that has since found its way into books on the history of mathematics by Howard Eves, George G. Joseph, and others. This incised bone was discovered in the 1960s on the shore of a lake in northeastern Zaire. Originally described as a record of prime numbers and doubling (perhaps a forerunner of the ancient Egyptian system of multiplication by doubling), Alexander Marshack later concluded, on the basis of his microscopic examination, that it represented a six-month lunar calendar. The dating of the Ishango bone has been reevaluated, from about 8000 perhaps 20,000 B.C. or earlier. Similar calendar bones, dating back as much as 30,000 years, have been found in Europe. Thus far the oldest such incised bone, discovered in southern Africa and having 29 incisions, goes back about 37,000 years.
Now, who but a woman keeping track of her cycles would need a lunar calendar? When I raised this question with a colleague having similar mathematical interests, he suggested that early agriculturalists might have kept such records. However, he was quick to add that women were probably the first agriculturalists. They discovered cultivation while the men were out hunting, So, whichever way you look at it, women were undoubtedly the first mathematicians!

While it isn’t as rigorous as us mathematicians are used to, it is a fair guess that the first person to record a number was a woman living in Sub-Saharan Africa about 37000 years ago. Which I think is a great story to tell.


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