Africans were using math before Europeans


In the midst of the plans to establish the Africentric Alternative School a racist cartoon entitled “Afrocentric Math” appeared in one of the White daily newspapers. It was evident that whoever was responsible for illustrating and publishing the cartoon was ignorant of the fact that mathematics had its beginning in Africa.

If the ignoramuses had done their homework or just a little bit of research they would have known about the Ishango bone, the world’s oldest mathematical artifact, discovered in the Congo, which has been dated to be approximately 22,000 years old. Not surprisingly, the Ishango bone is kept in Brussels (capital city of Belgium) at the Royal Institute for Natural Sciences of Belgium.

The Belgians, during the scramble for Africa, claimed and colonized the Congo until its independence on June 30, 1960, but Belgium has never completely loosened its hold on the Congo.

Mathematics has its roots in Africa where Africans used algebra, geometry, trigonometry etc., in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the fact that White people stumbled upon fractals in the 1870s while Africans had been using fractals for centuries before that. I have to confess that not being mathematically or scientifically inclined I had not heard of fractals until very recently. It all started after I had a chat with Brother Oji, whose organization, MACPRI, promotes the Oware game internationally.

The African board game Oware is the world’s oldest board game and is also used for teaching mathematics. The name Oware comes from the Akan people of Ghana. The game is “an interactive math game and teaching tool” that has been used for thousands of years to teach African children mathematics. Europeans discovered this about 400 years ago.

Oware is only one version of the popular “pit and pebbles” game. There are approximately 300 games in this class, with Ayo (Nigeria) and Oware (Ghana) being the most popular internationally. Bao is the name of the game as it is played mainly in East and South Africa and Gebeta in Ethiopia and Eritrea. There is a version of the Oware game in every African country.

Oware is also played in the Eastern Caribbean under the name Ware or Warri (Warri is the national game of Antigua) which obviously means that this is one of the remnants of the African culture that survived the Maafa (the Middle Passage and slavery). International Tournaments are held annually in the Caribbean (Antigua) and Europe (France) and there are plans to add Africa (Ghana) to this growing list.

Local competitions are held regularly in many countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Europe and the list of countries is growing every year. In the United Kingdom a National Schools Tournament is held every year. There are even computer versions of the game and some players compete on the Internet.

Brother Oji’s MACPRI organization plans to host the first Toronto International Oware Tournament in the summer of 2011.

As I was researching Oware and other so-called “ethno-mathematics” methods of teaching mathematics I happened upon the name of a White American ethno-mathematician, Ron Eglash, who has spent many years researching “how math and cultures intersect”. He has demonstrated and written that many aspects of African design, in architecture, art, even hair braiding, are based on perfect fractal patterns.

As a White person, Eglash had access to grant money (Fulbright Scholarship) to travel around Africa for a year and do his research. He wrote the book, African Fractals, where he examines the fractal patterns underpinning architecture, art and design in many parts of Africa.

Eglash examined aerial-view photographs before doing detailed research on the ground. He discovered that many African villages are designed to form perfect fractals with self-similar shapes repeated in the rooms of houses and the houses themselves and the grouping of houses in the village, in mathematically predictable patterns.

Eglash was so impressed, he reportedly said: “When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of Mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet”.

Other indigenous African information technologies include computational aspects of Oware, geometric algorithms, and the codes of drums and whistle languages. Interestingly enough, although Africans have been using fractals for thousands of years, it was not until the 1970s that the western world discovered fractals. For more information, please visit:

Since my conversation with Brother Oji I have been researching how and where “ethno-mathematics” is taught in the community. I contacted Francis Jeffers, who is the founder and Executive Director of Visions of Science Network for Learning (a math and science program where children learn, among other things, that Africans are scientists and mathematicians).

From Jeffers I received information about an African-American mathematician, Dr. Gloria Gilmer, who works with fractals. If the person who drew the racist cartoon entitled “Afrocentric Math” or any of the people responsible for publishing it had contacted Brother Oji or Francis Jeffers they would have received an education in real Africentric math.

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