The History of Mathematics

Egyptian Numbers and Mathematics

Where does most of our knowledge of Egyptian mathematics originate?

Most of our knowledge of Egyptian mathematics comes from writings on papyrus, a type of writing paper made in ancient Egypt from the pith and long stems of the papyrus plant. Most papyri no longer exist, as the material is fragile and disintegrates over time. But two major papyri associated with Egyptian mathematics have survived.

Named after Scottish Egyptologist A. Henry Rhind, the Rhind papyrus is about 19 feet (6 meters) long and 1 foot (1/3 meter) wide. It was written around 1650 Ahmes, an Egyptian scribe who claimed he was copying a 200-year-old document (thus the original information is from about 1850 B.C.E.). This papyrus contains 87 mathematical problems; most of these are practical, but some teach manipulation of the number system (though with no application in mind). For example the first six problems of the Rhind papyrus ask the following: in problem 1, how to divide n loaves between 10 men, in which n = 1; in problem 2, n = 2 ; in problem 3, n = 6; in problem 4, n = 7; in problem 5, n = 8; and in problem 6, n = 9. In addition, 81 out of the 87 problems involve operating with fractions, while other problems involve quantities and even geometry. Rhind purchased the papyrus in 1858 in Luxor; today it resides in the British Museum in London.

Written around the twelfth Egyptian dynasty, and named after the Russian city, the mathematical information on the Moscow papyrus is not ascribed to any one Egyptian, as no name is recorded on the document. The papyrus contains 25 problems similar to those in the Rhind papyrus, and many that show the Egyptians had a good grasp of geometry, including a formula for a truncated pyramid. It now resides in the Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Math Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App