World’s oldest times table found on ancient Chinese bamboo strips
Archaeologists and historians have just finishing piecing together 2,200-year-old fragments of bamboo strips, which have turned out to be the world’s oldest example of a multiplication table in base 10 . The finding shows that a highly sophisticated arithmetic had been established for both theoretical and commercial purposes in ancient China.
The bamboo strips, which date back to the Warring States period (475-221 BC) before the unification of China, were donated to Tsinghua University in Beijing five years ago. However, it was not known at the time what was written on the strips because they arrived muddy and covered in mould. It is suspected that they originated from the illegal excavation of a tomb, and the donor had purchased them at a Hong Kong market.
Once the strips had been carefully cleaned, it was found that they contained vertical lines of ancient Chinese calligraphy painted in black ink. However, assembling the pieces was like piecing together a very difficult jigsaw puzzle.
“The strips were all mixed up because the strings that used to tie each manuscript together to form a scroll had long decayed,” says Li Junming, a historian and paleographer at Tsinghua. But “21 bamboo strips stand out from the rest as they contain only numbers, written in the style of ancient Chinese”, said Feng Lisheng, a historian of mathematics at Tsinghua.
The 21 strips turned out to be a multiplication table. The table can help users to multiply any whole or half integer between 0.5 and 99.5, and can also be used to do divisions and square roots. “It’s effectively an ancient calculator,” says Li.
The oldest previously known Chinese times tables, dating to the Qin Dynasty between 221 and 206 BC, were in the form of a series of short sentences such as “six eights beget forty-eight” and capable of only much simpler multiplications.
Archaeologists have found multiplications tables used by the ancient Babylonians dating back some 4,000 years ago, but theirs were in a base-60, rather than base-10 (decimal), system. The earliest-known European multiplication table dates back to the Renaissance.
The discovery is a unique finding considering that it occurred before Qin Shi Huang, China's first emperor, came to power and ordered the destruction of academic material in an attempt to reshape the country's intellectual tradition.