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Congo to request return of famous Ishango Bone

12:51 23/11/2021

The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) plans to formally request the return of the Ishango Bone, a valuable artefact excavated in the DRC during Belgian colonialisation. ICCN director Olivier Mushiete Nkole mentioned the artefact in a recent interview ahead of a Belgian delegation’s visit to the country.

The renowned Ishango Bone is on display in the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels. This bone tool handles contain notches representing numerical values and suggest that mathematical calculations were being made in Africa’s Great Lakes area some 20,000 years ago. It is considered the oldest mathematical tool ever found.

The discovery of the Ishango Bone (the age of the bone makes it impossible to determine to what mammal it belongs) by Belgian geologists in the 1950s threw into question the idea that the Mesopotamians or Egyptians were responsible for the first sophisticated use of mathematics.

‘Star of African archaeology’

The Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences has called the Ishango Bone “the world’s oldest calculator” and “a star of African archaeology”. It can be found in the museum’s permanent exhibition 250 Years of Natural Sciences.

But not forever, if the ICCN has its way. According to Mushiete, the organisation plans to formally request the return of the Ishango Bone to the DRC. It is the latest in a series of announcements among both the Belgian and Congolese institutions about the return of art and objects acquired during colonialisation.

Last summer, Belgium announced that it would return thousands of objects and artefacts acquired during colonialisation, particularly during the reign of Leopold II between 1885 and 1908. This was the period of the Congo Free State, when Leopold made the country his personal property. A project has been launched to assess the origin of objects and artefacts in various Belgian collections – particularly at the Africa Museum in Tervuren.

Later this week, a delegation of federal representatives are arriving in Kinshasa for an official visit. Included in the diplomatic mission are federal minister of development Meryame Kitir (Vooruit) and state secretary of science policy Thomas Dermine (PS).

Photo: Two sides of the Ishango Bone
©Thierry Hubin/Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences


Written by Lisa Bradshaw