From the Nile to the Niger: Tracing the Development of African Mathematics

Olubayo Stephen
December 6, 2023


The narrative of mathematical development often centers on ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, or the Indian subcontinent, overshadowing the significant contributions of African civilizations. This article aims to shed light on the rich history of African mathematics, tracing its development from the banks of the Nile to the shores of the Niger. The diverse cultures and societies across the African continent have a mathematical heritage that reflects not only practical applications but also profound theoretical insights.

Ancient Egypt: Mathematics along the Nile

The cradle of African civilization, ancient Egypt, stands out for its remarkable mathematical achievements. The construction of the pyramids, with their precise angles and proportions, demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of geometry. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, dating back to around 1550 BCE, provides insights into Egyptian mathematics, including arithmetic, algebraic methods, and geometric progressions.

Egyptian mathematicians excelled in practical applications, using their knowledge for surveying, construction, and commerce. The use of the decimal system, with hieroglyphs representing powers of ten, showcased their proficiency in numerical notation. Moreover, the Egyptians developed methods for solving linear equations, indicating a level of mathematical abstraction.

Nubia and the Kingdom of Kush

To the south of Egypt, the Kingdom of Kush, centred in Nubia (present-day Sudan), also made significant contributions to mathematics. The Meroitic script, used by the Kingdom of Kush from around 300 BCE to 400 CE, remains undeciphered, leaving potential mathematical insights locked within its characters. Archaeological evidence, such as the Meroitic abacus, suggests advanced numeracy skills.

Carved on the temple walls at Meroe, a royal city of Kush, are mathematical puzzles and calculations, showcasing the intellectual pursuits of this ancient African civilization. Unfortunately, due to the limited decipherment of the Meroitic script, much of their mathematical knowledge remains a mystery.

The Great Empires: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai

Moving westward, the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai played crucial roles in the development of mathematics in Africa. While these societies are often celebrated for their economic prosperity and cultural achievements, their mathematical contributions are less well-known.

In the city of Timbuktu, part of the Mali Empire, scholars gathered at centres of learning like the University of Sankore. The manuscripts preserved in these centres contain mathematical treatises covering areas such as geometry, algebra, and astronomy. These mathematical insights were applied practically in areas like architecture and agriculture.

Photo by Dan Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash

The Swahili Coast: Trading and Mathematical Innovation

On the eastern coast of Africa, the Swahili civilization engaged in extensive trade, creating a cultural crossroads where mathematical ideas could flourish. The development of advanced navigational techniques, crucial for the maritime trade routes, required a deep understanding of astronomy and geometry.

The Swahili people developed their own numerical notation system, evident in the written records found in Swahili manuscripts. These records include mathematical problems and solutions, indicating a level of mathematical sophistication in fields such as arithmetic and algebra.

Colonial Era and the Impact on Indigenous Knowledge

The colonial era marked a turning point for African societies, influencing not only their political and economic structures but also their educational systems. European colonizers often dismissed indigenous knowledge systems, including traditional African mathematics, as inferior.

Missionary schools, established during colonial rule, taught European mathematical principles, undermining the value of indigenous techniques. Despite these challenges, some African scholars persevered in preserving and passing down traditional mathematical knowledge, fostering a continuity that would later prove crucial for the reclamation of African mathematical heritage.

Post-Colonial Revival and Contemporary Contributions

With the advent of independence across Africa in the mid-20th century, there was a renewed interest in reclaiming and preserving indigenous knowledge, including traditional mathematics. Scholars and educators worked towards integrating African perspectives into the curriculum, recognizing the importance of cultural context in mathematical education.

In contemporary Africa, initiatives such as the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) aim to promote mathematical research and education. African mathematicians contribute significantly to global mathematics, with research spanning various fields, including pure mathematics, applied mathematics, and mathematical physics.


The development of mathematics in Africa is a narrative of intellectual richness and diversity. From the ancient Egyptians along the Nile to the scholars of Timbuktu and the traders of the Swahili Coast, Africa has a profound mathematical heritage. The colonial era disrupted indigenous knowledge systems, but post-colonial efforts seek to reclaim and integrate traditional mathematics into modern education.

African mathematics is not a historical artefact but a living tradition, with contemporary scholars contributing to global mathematical discourse. Understanding and appreciating this heritage is not only an acknowledgment of the past but also a celebration of the ongoing contributions of African mathematicians to the world.


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