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The origins of mathematics from non-white populations

This article explores the origins of mathematics from non-white populations and how the subject is represented today.
Timbuktu manuscripts
© Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY

We might be led to think that the major mathematical breakthroughs came from great Western thinkers like Descartes, Leibniz, Gauss, Pascal and many others.

Historical mathematicians

However, much of our mathematics today, and the format of the text has developed with great influence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China. Perhaps underestimated are the major contributions from Arabic Mathematicians to a variety of mathematical forms, theorems and number systems.

These mathematicians pre-date many western figures of the subject by often several centuries. Arabic scholars are also pivotal in the early 8th Century in translating Greek texts into Arabic. Some have dismissed this as mere copying and thereby neglecting the contributions of Arabic scholars to the mathematical canon.

Mathematics from India and China to the western world

They were also instrumental in bringing mathematics from India and China through to the western world. It is known also that many Greek works, although translated into Arabic, have been lost.

There are some good examples of preserved manuscripts though, such as the Timbuktu manuscripts from Mali, West Africa (see image).

Contributions from the Arabic world

Some of the major contributors from the Arabic world are not exclusively Muslim scholars. Some were Jewish, and others Christian and their work stretched from as far east as China, right up through Turkey and into southern Europe.

In time, their influence can be felt from as early as the 8th Century, right up to the 15th Century. Notable examples include North African Greeks, such as Euclid, Eratosthenes, and Diophantus and Arabic scholars such as Abu Kimal, Al Qalasadi and Al Hassar.

Not only were western scientists reliant on the Arabic world for mathematics, but in the 18th century, they also scoured the knowledge they had in dealing with epidemics such as smallpox, something which we might take note of today in the response to Covid-19.

Mathematics develops over time

One might ask why does this matter from decolonisation or decolonial praxis point of view? Mathematics, like language, develops over time. The syntax and methodologies have evolved, with input from a variety of sources.

The historical narrative could help to dispel and counter the culture of ‘whiteness’ in mathematics, and give more of an identity to Black, Asian and Ethnic minority (BAME) students within the subject.

A barrier to students of the discipline

This inclusion, and identity of mathematicians is something that has been identified as a barrier to particularly Black students in the discipline. Mathematics may consider itself to be already deracialised, but in reality, there are embedded and systemic barriers to people engaging with the subject.

One barrier that has been identified in studies is that particularly Black students are put-off studying mathematics due to the perception that it is a set of procedures that only people with ‘talent’ can access, whereas, in reality, anyone with practices can master the subject.

Given that maths is a gateway to other subjects, such as physics, engineering and economics, means that Black students systemically get excluded as a consequence.

A lack of representation

This concept of ‘talent only’ is not helped by the fact that there have been no Fields Medal winners from mathematicians of Black African descent, and only a handful from those of Asian heritage, and just one South American winner (out of a total of 60 winners since the medal was started).

This lack of representation is also apparent in the list of Nobel Prize winners, with only 16 being awarded (out of a total of 916) to Black recipients. None of these recipients was within the scientific categories (medicine, chemistry, physics) and only one to economics.

Role models in this sense are incredibly important, and perhaps these learned societies ought to reflect on this and seriously engage in the decolonisation of the subjects to increase representation and inclusion in what is clearly a very exclusive pursuit.

David Blackwell

Perhaps the best-known Black mathematician was David Blackwell (1919 – 2010), a statistician, who developed the Rao-Blackwell theorem. He was the first Black African American to be inducted into the American Academy of Sciences, the first tenured academic at UC Berkeley, and only the 7th to be awarded a PhD in the US.

Despite these firsts, Professor Blackwell was forbidden from attending lectures in his early career at Princeton because of his race. There has been some effort by people to catalogue great Black mathematicians, but it remains to be seen if any will ever be awarded the very highest prizes available for their work.

Nira Chamberlain

In the UK, Nira Chamberlain who campaigns for inclusion, giving regular talks on the subject, is perhaps the most high-profile Black British mathematician.

There are moves towards genuine decolonisation of mathematics, and to create senses of identity within the subject. These include the development of what has been called ethnomathematics, where the intersections of culture and the subject are given relevance.

Such moves are welcomed, and we should surely advocate for such moves within our curricula in the UK.

© University of Bristol
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