mathematics in africa has been written out of history books – its time we be reminded the world of its rich past

In Trinidad and Ghana, it’s known as susu. In Senegal and Benin it’s tontines. In Nigeria, where it began in the 1700s, it’s esusu. Whatever you call it, this system of large-scale money-pooling for mutual benefit shows that Africa has never had a problem with mathematics.

When we learn the history of mathematics, we tend to learn about the achievements of Greek, Indian, Chinese and Arabic civilisations. If we learn anything about African mathematics, it’s almost entirely about Egypt. But sub-Saharan Africa has a rich mathematical history too – and it is possible that the world’s museums hold the key to bringing it back to life.

Sub-Saharan Africa has largely been written out of the history of mathematics because many of its traditions were passed down by word of mouth and then lost because of disruptive events such as the slave trade. It also suited Europeans to spread the idea that the peoples that they had captured and enslaved were not intelligent in any meaningful way. But the records we do have, some written, and some bound up in historical artefacts that give a glimpse of daily life, tell us that complex mathematics was always central to the activities of African civilisations, just as it always has been to civilisations in other regions of the world.

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