Some incredibly old written multiplication formulas have been unearthed at a mausoleum in central China. While excavating the Qinjiazui site in Hubei Province, archaeologists came across strips of bamboo inscribed with mathematical tables, which are likely to have been recorded more than 2,300 years ago.
Announcing the discovery at a press conference, China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration said the ancient scraps of bamboo were found in a tomb dating back to the Warring States period, which was characterized by bitter conflict between seven quarreling states. According to Yang Kaiyong from the Jingzhou Museum, the burial - known simply as M1093 - probably dates back to the reign of either King Chu Xuan or King Chu Wei, from 369 to 329 BCE.
Bamboo slips were the most popular writing material in the period before paper became widespread. Typically just a centimeter or two wide and a few inches long, these slips have been found in huge numbers at the Qinjiazui site.
Of all the tombs identified so far, M1093 contains the highest number of these slips. Commenting on the vast quantity of writing scraps found at Qinjiazui, Yang said in a statement that “a total of 3,910 bamboo slips were uncovered.”
“It is expected that [a further] 1,200 to 1,500 bamboo slips can be combined into a total of about 30,000 words," he said.
The various writings cover a range of topics including the so-called Six Arts, which formed the basis of ancient Chinese education. These include disciplines such as archery, horsemanship, calligraphy, music, ritual practice, and mathematics.
On one of the strips, researchers found multiplication formulas as well as the oldest known example of an algebraic table known as Jiujiushu.
Other subjects covered by the ancient notes include medicine, animal husbandry, and the teachings of the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius. More specifically, researchers found bamboo strips including information about “raising horses” and “prescriptions for diseases”, among other topics.
The Warring States period lasted from 475 to 221 BCE and ended when the Qin state overcame its six adversaries. This resulted in the unification of the Chinese empire for the first time and the establishment of the Qin dynasty.
According to the researchers, the thousands of bamboo writing strips discovered at Qinjiazui serve as “an important tool for studying the history, culture and thought of the pre-Qin period.”