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Mathematical Treasure: Ishango Bone

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Perhaps the oldest mathematical artifact in existence, the Ishango Bone (above), was unearthed in 1950 in the then Belgian colony of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was discovered by the Belgian anthropologist Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt (1920-1998) and named after the region in which it was found. The bone, probably a fibula of a baboon, large cat, or other large mammal, has been dated to the Upper Paleolithic Period of human history, approximately 20,000-25,000 years ago. It is 10 cm long and bears an articulated, organized series of notches readily identifying it, to many observers, as a tally stick. However, its original purpose remains a subject of debate. The Ishango Bone is now housed at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium, with whose cooperation the image above was obtained.

For more information and images, see:

  • Museum of Natural Sciences, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences: Ishango Bone (2007-2009) or Ishango Bone (2001)
  • Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: Ishango Bone
  • Alison S. Brooks, David M. Helgren, et al, "Dating and Context of Three Middle Stone Age Sites with Bone Points in the Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire," Science, New Series, vol. 268, no. 5210 (Apr. 28, 1995), pp. 548-553.

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Ishango Bone," Loci (March 2014)