When he came across an article about the relationship between housing patterns and women’s autonomy in Tanzania, Ron Eglash
Eglash is a mathematician whose interests are technical, philosophical and cultural. He found that traditional settlements in West and Central Africa are self-organized, bottom-up developments with self-similar structures that seemed to foster greater social influence for women. Modernization brought more rigidly structured Cartesian grids to village and housing design, and social control for women diminished.
That got Eglash thinking about the contrasts between designs based on fractals and those based on Euclidian geometry. He got a Fulbright scholarship to study fractals in African architecture, and by 1988 he was studying aerial photographs of traditional villages. Thatched-roof huts were organized in circular clusters within circular clusters, which Eglash immediately recognized as fractals—self-similar shapes that keep repeating whether the scale is minimized or expanded. He has written a book, African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design
, and you can hear his wonderfully engaging short presentation on African fractals at TED.com.
Eglash met with village chiefs and elders, and discovered they knew all about rectangles within rectangles and circles within circles. He learned that the patterns were deliberate, not like the unconsciously constructed fractals found in a termite mound. He also discovered that, in his own words, "social scaling was mapped onto geometric scaling.” For instance, one village of rings of rings contained a tiny ring village where ancestral spirits were said to live. Some designs also contained special fractal spaces designated as sacred, approached by pathways imbued with progressively changing behavioral expectations.
Eglash went on to document the use of fractal geometry
not only in African architecture, but in art, religion, games, weaving, culture, and hair braids
. Eglash even discovers binary code in ancient mystical Bamana sand divination.
The intricate designs, deliberate craftsmanship and highly sophisticated patterns are leading scholars to reexamine what must have been conscious knowledge in early African mathematics.
To learn more about African fractal patterns visit Ron Elash’s home page
or follow the link to http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/eglash.htm