Monthly Archives: November 2012

Addition and the Ishango Bone

In today’s blog, we are going to start a steady and cumulative process of exploring the concepts and techniques of mathematics in an evolutionary way. You will soon realize that even the most basic concepts can be seen in different and interesting ways. As always, and whenever possible, I’ll point you to some interesting places, events and people in the history of mathematics.  Lets start with the concept of addition. Addition evolved out of a very fundamental desire to count and know the quantity of similar objects we have.

Suppose we begin with two sets of objects (1). Set A consists of six elements (blue discs) and Set B has three elements (green discs). These two sets have no elements in common. The intersection of sets A and B is the empty set. Thus, they are referred to as disjoint sets. The union of sets A and B consists of both the six blue discs and the three green discs. In the Hindu/Arabic number system, there are numbers that are used to represent the quantities of discs in each set (2). In this case, it is the numbers “6” and “3.” The union of two disjointed sets is a visual way of representing the sum of two numbers. The addition symbol (+) is used to represent the operation of addition in a mathematical expression or equation. The sum of these two numbers is equivalent to counting the number of blue and green discs in the union of two sets (3).  In this case, six plus three is equal to nine.  One should note that counting is nothing more than the repeated addition of 1 to generate a set of natural numbers.

In 1960, a Belgian geologist, Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt (1920-1998) was exploring an area of Africa near the headwaters of the Nile River at Lake Edwards, called Ishango. At the time, the area was part of the Belgian Congo. He discovered a large number of tools, artifacts, and human remains.  In the world of archeology, there have been numerous discoveries of prehistoric animal bones that have notches carved into them. These artifacts are generally known as tallies or tally sticks. Some of these notched bones have proven to be more interesting to the mathematical community than others. One of these interesting bones was discovered at Ishango by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt . Today, this artifact is referred to as the Ishango bone.  It is considered the second oldest mathematical object. However, its exact purpose has yet to be determined.

The Ishango bone is currently on display at the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium.  There, you will find a Flash-based website on the Ishango archeological site, which will give you a detailed explanation of the bone’s markings and its possible uses. Explore this site and you will find out how far back the history of mathematics stretches.

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Mayan Numbers

In the previous blog, we looked at how the numbers we use in mathematics were formed using the decimal number system. In this system, we use multipliers of ten to define the positions for the number’s digits. There are other number systems that used multipliers of twenties instead of tens. This vigesimal number system was used by the Pre-Columbian Mayan civilization as their way of representing quantities.

The Mayans used the following three unique symbols to represent numbers: A seashell symbol Mayan seashell symbol for zero which is used to represent zero, a dot Mayan symbol for 1 unit, a dot used to represent one unit, and a stroke Mayan stroke symbol for 5 units used to represent five units. They used these symbols to represent the numbers 0-19 as follows:

The digits of the Mayan Number System

The vertical positions of the Mayan numbersThe Mayans wrote their numbers vertically. The bottom slot in any number has a multiplier of 1. The next slots above them increase by multiples of 20, as shown in the diagram below.  They Mayans defined numbers by placing one or more of the twenty digits from above in the appropriate slots.  Note that the Mayans used zero as a placeholder just like the Indians did in the Hindu-Arabic Number System (See “India & Zero” blog).

Lets use this information to decipher a mayan number (A).

We translate the symbol into a hindu-arabic number and we multiply it by the multiplier associated with its vertical position (B).  We add the values of each position and come up with the value of the Mayan number (C).  In this example, the Mayan number (A) has a value of 96,410.

A page from the Mayan Dresden CodexThere are only three undisputably authentic Maya codices in existence today. The only one of these three to contain mathematical symbols is the one referred to as the Dresden Codex. It is currently at the Saxon State Library (Sächsische Landesbibliothek) of Dresden, Germany. A high-quality high-resolution image of the codex is available at this website for you to explore. See examples of how the Mayans wrote down numbers and see if you can decipher them using what you learned in this blog.

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