The numbering system universally used today, often thought to have Arabic or Indian origins, traces its roots even further back to ancient Africa. Over 3,000 years ago, in Pharaonic Africa, symbols were used to represent numbers, closely resembling today’s numerals. Specifically, symbols for six numbers—0, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 9—mirror those we use currently. This early use of numerical symbols underscores Africa’s contribution to mathematical history, a fact often overshadowed by later developments in Arabic and Indian cultures.

The earliest forms of numerical representation, such as the use of notches on bones for counting, date back to around 44,000 years ago, with the Lebombo bone discovered in eSwatini. This artifact, possibly used for lunar tracking, suggests the sophisticated use of mathematical concepts by ancient Africans, potentially African women. The tradition of using notches for counting continued with the Ishango bone, found near the Nile’s source, demonstrating an understanding of prime numbers and doubling 25,000 years ago. These findings highlight Africa’s role in the development of early mathematics.

The evolution of numerical systems in Egypt, from hieroglyphics to the hieratic and finally to the Demotic script, reflects the progression towards simplification for practical use in administrative and clerical tasks. The hieratic script, in particular, shows clear parallels to modern numerals, suggesting a direct lineage from African to contemporary numbering systems.

Despite the prevalent narrative attributing the origins of the 0 to 9 numeral system to Arabic and Indian sources, evidence suggests a significant African influence. For instance, the hieratic numerals for one, two, three, and an earlier form of four, as well as the flipped nine, share striking similarities with today’s numbers. This challenges the conventional story of the numeral system’s development, highlighting the need to recognize Egypt’s, and therefore Africa’s, contributions.

The narrative often omits Egypt’s early role in shaping our numeral system, influenced by biases against its African heritage. While the modern numeral system is commonly attributed to developments in India and later Arab regions, it’s crucial to acknowledge the foundational influence of Egyptian numerals encountered by Arabs after their entry into Egypt in 639.

The Saqqara tablet’s story, purportedly showing Western Arabic numerals within the Saqqara pyramid, remains unverified and is considered a fabrication by many African scholars. This skepticism towards certain artifacts, including the Saqqara tablet and the bust of Nefertiti, underscores the controversies and challenges within Egyptology, emphasizing the importance of verifying historical objects’ authenticity.

In sum, the journey from ancient African numerical representations to the global use of the modern numeral system is a testament to Africa’s foundational role in mathematical history. This history challenges the traditional narratives that have often marginalized Africa’s contributions, urging a reevaluation of the origins of our numerical understanding and a greater appreciation for ancient African civilizations’ sophistication.


 Beaumont, Peter B.; Bednarik, Robert G. (2013). “Tracing the Emergence of Palaeoart in Sub-Saharan Africa” (PDF). Rock Art Research30 (1): 33–54. 


Historia Africana

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