How Menstruation Created Mathematics*
by John Kellermeier
Who created mathematics? Where did it begin? To answer these questions, we need to think about what mathematics is. In their work on ethnomathematics, Borba (1990) and D’Ambrosio (1990) define the compnonents of ethnomathematics as the follows:
ethnos - within a cultural environment
mathema - explaining and understanding in order to transcend, managing and coping with reality in order to survive and thrive.
tics - techniques such as counting, ordering, sorting, measuring, weighing, ciphering, classifying, ordering, inferring and modeling.
Thus they define mathematics as the quantitative techniques that humans develop in response to the problems, struggles, and endeavors of human survival. So what was the first use of quantitative techniques in human development? It is important to realize that this development development of quantitative thinking always takes place within a cultural context. It is influenced by and influences that culture. Indeed, quantitative thinking is a vital component of culture.
So what was the first use of quantitative techniques or tics in human development? And who were the first people to do this mathematics? The evidence points to women as the first people to do mathematics and to menstruation as the motivation for this activity.
This evidence begins with the Ishango bone, a small scratched bone found on the shores of Lake Edward in Zaire, Africa. A microscopic analysis of the incisions on this bone shows that it is a six month lunar calendar (Marshack, 1972, p. 27-32). This bone has been dated between 25,000 and 20,000 B.C.E.
The Ishango Bone

Notched bone from the Congo, Africa. 25,000 to 20,000 BCE. The markings on the Ishango Bone represent a six-month lunar calendar.

While the Ishango Bone is the most well known lunar calendar, other such lunar calendars have been found in Europe dating from throughout the Paleolithic period (30,000-10,000 B.C.E.) (Zaslavsky, 1992, p. 1; Sjöö & Mor, 1991, p. 144-149) such as the Isturitz baton and the Blanchard bone plaque.

The Isturitz Baton

Engraved baton made of antler, from Isturitz, France, 25,000 to 20,000 BCE. The markings represent a five-month and a four-month lunar calendar.

The Blanchard Bone Plaque

Found in Abri Blanchard in the region of Dordogne, France, 25,000 to 32,000 BCE. Meandering markings possibly represent a two-month lunar calendar.

These lunar calendars are the oldest known use of number by humans. This quantitative thinking demanded a time-factored way of thinking, an awareness of the passing of time and the cycling of the natural world. This recognition of the cycles of the moon and the recording of time is the earliest evidence of human activity based on quantitative techniques.
And who made these lunar calendars? What was the human condition, the mathema to which this quantitative technique was a response? Was it the inherent cyclical nature paralleling that of the moon possessed by women? Was it women who first did this mathematics?
And in what cultural context or ethnos did these lunar calendars arise? The Paleolithic period was characterized by the development of Goddess worship on the European continent where much of the evidence of lunar calendars has been found. This Goddess worship was marked by images of the sacred female as life giver with an emphasis on the vulva, breast, and buttocks and the use of red ochre paint representing menstrual blood (Marshack, p. 281-340; Eisler, 1987, p. 1-7; Gadon, 1989, p. 3-21) such as the Venuses of Willendorf and Laussel.

The Venus of Willendorf

Small stone image painted with red ochre. From Willendorf Austria, 30,000 to 25,000 BCE.

The Venus of Laussel

Bas relief image from Laussel, France. 25,000 to 20,000 BCE. The horn has thirteen marks, the number of moons in a year.

Gadon suggests, "The earliest rituals may have honored the menstrual cycle, the womb blood that nurtured new life" (1989, p. 11). Evidence of this can be seen in the stylized artifacts form the Paleolithic

Abstract Female Form

From Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic. 25,000 to 20,000 BCE.
Mammoth ivory pendant in the shape of a highly abstracted female from with widespread legs and a vulva line

Disc with Vulva Line

From Brno in the Czech Republic, 25,000 to 20,000 BCE.
Circular disc representing an abstract vulva

It was in this culture that the lunar calendars arose. This was a time when women, their bodies, their sexuality, and their life giving ability were honored and at the center of the spiritual life of human communities.
The question of which gender made which specific Paleolithic markings or drawings is largely unanswerable and probably irrelevant, since both genders have had to practice these arts in order to learn time’s dimensions... But the menstruant, having the most direct connection with the lunar cycle, would have been the first to know; she had motive, method, and opportunity to be the originator of lunar notation. (Grahn, 1993, p. 156)
Thus, the lunar calendars would not have been merely methods of keeping time but also reflective of the resonance between the phases of the moon and the sacred menstrual cycles of women.
This evidence points to the conclusion that women’s menstruation gave rise to the earliest mathematics. It also suggests that women were the first mathematicians.
Works Cited

  • Borba, M. (1990). Ethnomathematics and education. For the Learning of Mathematics, 10(1), 39-43.
  • D'Ambrosio, U. (1990). The history of mathematics and ethnomathematics. How a native culture intervenes in the process of learning science. Impact of Science on Society, 40(4) 369-78.
  • Eisler, R. (1987). The Chalice and the Blade. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
  • Gadon, E. (1989) The Once and Future Goddess. San Francisco: Harper.
  • Grahn, J. (1993). Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Marshack, A. (1972). The Roots of Civilization. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Sjöö, M. & Mor, B. The Great Cosmic Mother. San Francisco: Harper.
  • Zaslavsky, C. (1992) Women as the first mathematicians. International Study Group on Ethnomathematics Newsletter, 7(1), 1.
* With appreciation to Judy Grahn for her subtitle to Blood, Bread and Roses.
©2009 John Kellermeier

How Menstruation Created Mathematics

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