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Africa and Mathematics

Dirk Huylebrouck
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Mathematics, Culture, and the Arts
[Reviewed by
Frank Swetz
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The title of this book, Africa and Mathematics, in bearing the conjunction “and’ implies an intersection of subjects. It is this subset that the author Dirk Huylebrouck hopes to define. Huylebrouck, now of the University of Leuven, Belgium, is a mathematician who spent over eight years teaching in Africa, mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is obvious is an African enthusiast. His main thesis is that the existence and testimony of the Ishango tally bones should be better recognized and acknowledged for their mathematical significance, particularly their African origins. 
Judged by most experts as a tally bone and credited with being the oldest mathematical artifact in existence, the first Ishango Bone was unearthed in 1950 in the then Belgian colony of the Congo. It was discovered by the Belgian anthropologist Jean de Heinzelin (1920–1998) and named after the region in which it was found. This fossil has been dated to the Upper Paleolithic Period of human history, approximately 20,000 to 25,000 years ago. 
A second similar bone was discovered in the 1970s closer to South Africa. Due to their geographical region of discovery, apparent age and implied specialization, these bones have been the subject of many controversies and debates: Are they lunar calendars, the record of a woman’s menstrual cycle, or the tally of a game?; Does their existence justify a claim that the history of mathematics begins in Africa?; How pervasive is Eurocentrism in assessing historic and scientific objectivity? The author considers all these issues and many more.
This is a busy book, with numerous diagrams, illustrations, extensive quotations and “appeals to authority.” Perhaps these features are due to the publishers’ prohibition of supporting footnotes or endnotes. Colored photos, some appealing and others of questionable quality and relevance, are distributed throughout the text. The presentation is divided into three parts: 
  • I. “Mathematics in the Heart of Africa” which reviews anthropological research conducted during the Colonial Period of Central Africa’s history and which reflects traditional mathematics; 
  • II. “The Ishango Bone(s),” the main feature, and 
  • III. A brief “Epilogue” promoting the case for the existence of African centered museums and the use of ethnomathematics, the relating of mathematics to its cultural foundations, in teaching. 
The reader is presented with a myriad of facts, claims, counterclaims and justifications but, to use the author’s phrase, there is “a missing link” — a story. In establishing a theory or promote a cause, a book must be structured to tell a story and prepare a path to bring the reader from a collection of data to a convincing/satisfying conclusion or conclusions. While informative and sincere, this effort, unfortunately, seems to fail the requirement.


Frank Swetz, Professor of Mathematics and Education, Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University, is the author of several books on the history of mathematics. His research interests focus on the societal impact on the development, and the teaching and learning, of mathematics.

See the publisher's web page.