28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

I don’t care how much you hated the subject in high school. Studies show, most people did. Well, not math, per se, but being frustrated in general. And there is little as harshly challenging as this one universal concept: Mathematics. There should be very little surprise then, that the system of equations that hold the key to all technological advances comes from the place where humanity began. Africa. Proving once again, we have to look within before we search outside of ourselves, and into the cosmos.

Although many of the greatest minds in the world of math have been seen as overwhelmingly European, and several unsung heroes of color, none of their successes would have been possible without the discovery of math, starting with this, the first instrument on which to perform equations: The Lebombo Bone. It’s a baboon fibula used as a measuring device. The name comes from the Lebombo mountains (a range mountains with a height of 776 meters, 800 km long and 100 km wide) of Swaziland, where it was discovered. Clocking in at at least 35,000 years old, it’s a perfect testament to African greatness, and an awe-inspiring thing to know that without this object, the history of math and how it’s taught would indeed be drastically different. What has been ascertained from its 29 distinct markings, is that it could have been used to either track menstrual or lunar cycles, or used merely as a measuring stick.

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Most interesting is the significance of the 29 markings (roughly the same number as lunar cycle, i.e., 29.531 days). Also of note, the baboon, a primate indigenous to Africa, was symbolically linked to Khonsu, who was also associated with time. The Kemetic god, Djehuty (“Tehuti” or “Toth”), was later depicted as a baboon (also an ibis), and is usually associated with the moon, math, writing and science. Use of baboon bones as mathematical devices has been continuous throughout all of Africa, suggesting Africans always held the baboon as sacred and associated with the moon, math, and time.

But without this precious bone, and others like it, there could not have been the advances made in science that we hear about every day. No space shuttles. No advances in astronomy and string theory. Not even the computer science that makes up websites. Mathematicians like Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, Archimedes, or even Einstein. We, and I mean we as in all people, must give thanks to this small little bone. Today’s amazing example of black excellence!

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.