AFRICA Africa has had a great influence on mathematics. Many people think of the only advancements of mathematics coming from Europe. However, Africa also had many contributions to this discipline. During the Middle Ages in Europe, civilizations in Northern Africa were actually much more mathematically advanced than Europe in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. Although people normally think of mathematics as coming from a European tradition, there is also a strong African tradition of mathematics.
This tradition goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, when early mathematicians devised the formulas necessary to build the Great Pyramids. It is the basic assumption of the current report that two important additions to mathematics made by Africa include innovations from Egypt and from the Yoruba tradition, and that these additions have direct relationships to the modern world today, in terms of connecting mainstream mathematics with African traditions.
First of all, there is the Egyptian tradition, as mentioned in Lumpkin’s in depth research on mathematics. As noted, Egypt had a rich tradition of mathematics and geometry in very ancient times. Ancient times can be connected to modern times, as this author notes, because today they feel “fortunate to have been alerted to a reference to “an Egyptian zero” while discussing AE mathematics with Egyptologist Frank Yurco in Chicago. This reference was based not on a mathematical papyrus, but on balance sheets in papyrus Bulaq 18” (Lumpkin, 2009).
This Bulaq was a bookkeeping record kept by the ancient Egyptians thousands of years ago, showing that although these years have passed, we have something in common with the ancient world. The idea of true zero is a very mathematically advanced one that has been discovered by many cultures. It is not just Europe, but also places like Africa and China, where the ancient meets the modern in mathematical theory. People in bookkeeping today are still using true zero to do such tasks as making absolute transfers. “There was also a zero reference level marked on construction lines used as early as 2700 BCE. These lines, still visible at Old Kingdom
pyramids and tombs, show the beginning of metricizing space” (Lumpkin, 2009). The ancient Egyptian Africans used these advanced mathematical concepts to build their monumental architecture, just like architects today.
The Yoruba people in Africa have also contributed to modern mathematics. In the innovative additive system of this notation, what we know of as 11, 12, and 13 are written 10 + 1, 10 + 2, and 10 + 3. Then, when the system reaches 15, the same structure works backwards from 20. “This pattern is repeated for numbers up to 200. After 200, the system becomes irregular” (Zavlasky, 2009). This is similar to the Roman Numeral system that is used widely in the modern world. However, people think of this as an invention of Rome. But Africa also has a rich tradition of mathematics that is often overlooked.
In summary, Africa has made many contributions to modern mathematics. Zavlasky’s and Lumpkin’s research has turned up key examples coming from Yoruba people and the ancient Egyptians. Although people tend to think that most of the mathematical advances nowadays come from other places than from Africa, we must remember that contributions come from everywhere. Mainstream mathematics has a rich and diverse tradition. To limit this tradition to one region is to lose sight of the whole picture of knowledge.
Lumpkin, B (2009). Mathematics. http://www.africahistory.net/lumpkin.htm
Zavlasky, C (2009). The Yoruba number system.