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Mathematics LibreTexts

4.1: Prelude to Fractions - Egyptian Math

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    Around 3000 BC, Egyptians were carving hieroglyphs into stone monuments to their kings and queens. Hierglyphs are pictures that represent objects and they were used for words and numbers. Oddly, fractions were always written as sums of “unit fractions,” fractions whose numerator is always 1. For instance, instead of writing 3/5 , they would write a sum of unit fractions.

    \[ \frac{3}{5} = \frac{1}{2}+ \frac{1}{10} \nonumber\nonumber \]

    Much of the ancient Egyptian math that we know of was in service to the agricultural and economic life of the people. in measuring dry goods such as grains, special glyphs were used to represent basic fractional amounts, glyphs that came together to represent the Eye of Horus.

    Screen Shot 2019-08-28 at 11.28.39 AM.png

    Horus was a falcon-god whose father Osirus was murdered by his own brother Seth. When Horus attempted to avenge his father’s death, Seth ripped out Horus’ eye and cut it into six pieces, scattering them throughout Egypt.

    Taking pity on Horus, Thot, the god of learning and magic, found the pieces and put them back together making Horus healthy and whole again. Each piece of the Eye of Horus represents a different fraction of a hekat, or volume of grain. It was written that an apprentice scribe added the fractions one day and got

    \[ \frac{1}{2} + \frac{1}{4} + \frac{1}{8} + \frac{1}{16} + \frac{1}{32} + \frac{1}{64} = \frac{63}{64}. \nonumber\nonumber \]

    Asking where the missing 1/64 was, he was told that Thot would make up the difference to anyone “who sought and accepted is protection.”

    In this chapter, you’ll learn how we use fractions.

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