Archaeologists have dug up many ancient, notched bones all around the world, but the Ishango bone is different. On it, there are markings that suggest its owners were making the first attempts at actual mathematics.
In what was once Zaire, on the shores of Edward lake, a bone was found during an archeological dig. At first the bone was dated at about 9,000 years old. Further testing set it back to 18,000 BC. It was carved into by someone in a paleolithic society that was soon to be wiped out – or at least forced to relocate – by a volcano that filled the skies around the area with ash. The bone had small, straight scratches on the side. Some of the scratches were grouped together, with spaces in between each group. Usually such objects are thought to be simple tallies of animals in a herd, or people in a group.
This bone, however, was different. It contained different columns of scratches. One column is a group of three scratches that double to six. Then four that double to eight. And last, ten scratches halve to five. It may be an early math lesson in doubling and halving. Perhaps it’s just practice, because other columns have other strange scratches. One column has every prime number between ten and twenty. One column has only odd numbers. And each column adds up to either 48 or 60, both multiples of twelve.
There have been many thoughts on what the Ishango bone is. Some have thought it was an early menstrual calendar. Others have thought that it was a tallying device experimenting with different ways of counting things up. It’s possible that it was a math lesson for a child, and that it was meant to be discarded once it was filled up with scratches. It could also have been an early exploration of math – made by some early mathematician looking for patterns in numbers. Alternately, it could be a case of archeologists looking for patterns in coincidence.
As long as coincidence comes in multiples of twelve.