History of science and technology in Africa
Africa has the world's oldest record of human technological achievement: the oldest stone tools in the world have been found in eastern Africa, and later evidence for tool production by our hominin ancestors has been found across Sub-Saharan Africa. The history of science and technology in Africa since then has, however, received relatively little attention compared to other regions of the world, despite notable African developments in mathematics, metallurgy, architecture, and other fields.
- An unidentified hominin, possibly Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops, created stone tools dating to 3.3 million years ago at Lomekwi in the Turkana Basin, eastern Africa.
- Homo habilis, residing in eastern Africa, developed another early toolmaking industry, the Oldowan, around 2.3 million years ago.
- Homo erectus developed the Acheulean stone tool industry, specifically hand-axes, at 1.5 million years ago. This tool industry spread to the Middle East and Europe around 800,000 to 600,000 years ago. Homo erectus also begins using fire.
- Homo sapiens, or modern humans, created bone tools and backed blades around 90,000 to 60,000 years ago, in southern and eastern Africa. The use of bone tools and backed blades eventually became characteristic of Later Stone Age tool industries. The first appearance of abstract art is during the Middle Stone Age, however. The oldest abstract art in the world is a shell necklace dated to 82,000 years ago from the Cave of Pigeons in Taforalt, eastern Morocco. The second oldest abstract art and the oldest rock art is found at Blombos Cave in South Africa, dated to 77,000 years ago. There are evidences that stone age humans had an elementary knowledge of chemistry in Southern Africa, and that they used a specific recipe to create a liquefied ochre-rich mixture., according to Henshilwood "This isn't just a chance mixture, it is early chemistry. It suggests conceptual and probably cognitive abilities which are the equivalent of modern humans".
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
In 295 BC, the Library of Alexandria was founded in Egypt. It was considered the largest library in the classical world.
Al-Azhar University, founded in 970~972 as a madrasa, is the chief centre of Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning in the world. The oldest degree-granting university in Egypt after the Cairo University, its establishment date may be considered 1961 when non-religious subjects were added to its curriculum.
West Africa and the Sahel
By the end of Mansa Musa's reign in Mali, the Sankoré University had been converted into a fully staffed University with the largest collections of books in Africa since the Library of Alexandria. The Sankoré University was capable of housing 25,000 students and had one of the largest libraries in the world with between 400,000 and 700,000 manuscripts.
Timbuktu was a major center of book copying, religious groups, the sciences, and arts. Scholars and students came throughout world to study in its university. It attracted more foreign students than New York University.
Three types of calendars can be found in Africa: lunar, solar, and stellar. Most African calendars are a combination of the three. African calendars include the Akan calendar, Egyptian calendar, Berber calendar, Ethiopian calendar, Igbo calendar, Yoruba calendar, Shona calendar, Swahili calendar, Xhosa calendar, Borana calendar, and Luba calendar.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
A stone circle located in the Nabta Playa basin may be one of the world's oldest known archeoastronomical devices. Built by the ancient Nubians about 4800 BCE, the device may have approximately marked the summer solstice.
Since the first modern measurements of the precise cardinal orientations of the Egyptian pyramids were taken by Flinders Petrie, various astronomical methods have been proposed as to how these orientations were originally established. Ancient Egyptians may have observed, for example, the positions of two stars in the Plough / Big Dipper which was known to Egyptians as the thigh. It is thought that a vertical alignment between these two stars checked with a plumb bob was used to ascertain where North lay. The deviations from true North using this model reflect the accepted dates of construction of the pyramids.
Egyptians were the first to develop a 365-day, 12 month calendar. It was a stellar calendar, created by observing the stars.
Western Africa and the Sahel
Based on the translation of 14 Timbuktu manuscripts, the following points can be made about Timbuktu astronomical science during the 12th–16th centuries:
- They made use of the Julian Calendar.
- Generally speaking, they had a heliocentric view of the solar system.
- Diagrams of planets and orbits made use of complex mathematical calculations.
- Scientists developed an algorithm that accurately oriented Timbuktu to Mecca.
- They recorded astronomical events, including a meteor shower in August 1583.
At this time, Mali also had a number of astronomers including the emperor and scientist Askia Mohammad I.
Megalithic "pillar sites," known as "namoratunga," date to as early as 5,000 years ago and can be found surrounding Lake Turkana in Kenya. Although somewhat controversial today, initial interpretations suggested that they were used by Cushitic speaking people as an alignment with star systems tuned to a lunar calendar of 354 days.
Today, South Africa has cultivated a burgeoning astronomy community. It hosts the Southern African Large Telescope, the largest optical telescope in the southern hemisphere. South Africa is currently building the Karoo Array Telescope as a pathfinder for the $20 billion Square Kilometer Array project. South Africa is a finalist, with Australia, to be the host of the SKA.
Central and Southern Africa
The Lebombo bone from the mountains between Swaziland and South Africa may be the oldest known mathematical artifact. It dates from 35,000 BCE and consists of 29 distinct notches that were deliberately cut into a baboon's fibula.
The Ishango bone is a bone tool from the Democratic Republic of Congo dated to the Upper Paleolithic era, about 18,000 to 20,000 BCE. It is also a baboon's fibula, with a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end, perhaps for engraving or writing. It was first thought to be a tally stick, as it has a series of tally marks carved in three columns running the length of the tool, but some scientists have suggested that the groupings of notches indicate a mathematical understanding that goes beyond counting. Various functions for the bone have been proposed: it may have been a tool for multiplication, division, and simple mathematical calculation, a six-month lunar calendar, or it may have been made by a woman keeping track of her menstrual cycle.
The "sona" drawing tradition of Angola also exhibit certain mathematical ideas.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
By the predynastic Naqada period in Egypt, people had fully developed a numeral system. The importance of mathematics to an educated Egyptian is suggested by a New Kingdom fictional letter in which the writer proposes a scholarly competition between himself and another scribe regarding everyday calculation tasks such as accounting of land, labor and grain. Texts such as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus and the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus show that the ancient Egyptians could perform the four basic mathematical operations—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—use fractions, knew the formula to compute the volume of a frustum, and calculate the surface areas of triangles, circles and even hemispheres. They understood basic concepts of algebra and geometry, and could solve simple sets of simultaneous equations.
Mathematical notation was decimal, and based on hieroglyphic signs for each power of ten up to one million. Each of these could be written as many times as necessary to add up to the desired number; so to write the number eighty or eight hundred, the symbol for ten or one hundred was written eight times respectively. Because their methods of calculation could not handle most fractions with a numerator greater than one, ancient Egyptian fractions had to be written as the sum of several fractions. For example, the fraction two-fifths was resolved into the sum of one-third + one-fifteenth; this was facilitated by standard tables of values. Some common fractions, however, were written with a special glyph; the equivalent of the modern two-thirds is shown on the right.
Ancient Egyptian mathematicians had a grasp of the principles underlying the Pythagorean theorem, knowing, for example, that a triangle had a right angle opposite the hypotenuse when its sides were in a 3–4–5 ratio. They were able to estimate the area of a circle by subtracting one-ninth from its diameter and squaring the result:
- Area ≈ [(8⁄9)D]2 = (256⁄81)r2 ≈ 3.16r2,
a reasonable approximation of the formula πr2.
The golden ratio seems to be reflected in many Egyptian constructions, including the pyramids, but its use may have been an unintended consequence of the ancient Egyptian practice of combining the use of knotted ropes with an intuitive sense of proportion and harmony.
Based on engraved plans of Meroitic King Amanikhabali's pyramids, Nubians had a sophisticated understanding of mathematics and an appreciation of the harmonic ratio. The engraved plans is indicative of much to be revealed about Nubian mathematics.
West Africa and the Sahel
All of the mathematical learning of the Islamic world during the medieval period was available and advanced by Timbuktu scholars: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
Most of sub-Saharan Africa moved from the Stone Age to the Iron Age. The Iron Age and Bronze Age occurred simultaneously. North Africa and the Nile Valley imported its iron technology from the Near East and followed the Near Eastern pattern of development from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.
Many Africanists accept an independent development of the use of iron in Sub-Saharan Africa. Among archaeologists, it is a debatable issue. The earliest dating of iron in sub-Saharan Africa is 2500 BCE at Egaro, west of Termit, making it contemporary with iron smelting in the Middle East. The Egaro date is debatable with archaeologists, due to the method used to attain it. The Termit date of 1500 BCE is widely accepted. Iron at the site of Lejja, Nigeria, has been radiocarbon dated to approximately 2000 BC. Iron use, in smelting and forging for tools, appears in West Africa by 1200 BCE, making it one of the first places for the birth of the Iron Age. Before the 19th century, African methods of extracting iron were employed in Brazil, until more advanced European methods were instituted.
Besides being masters in iron, Africans were masters in brass and bronze. Ife produced lifelike statues in brass, an artistic tradition beginning in the 13th century. Benin mastered bronze during the 16th century, produced portraiture and reliefs in the metal using the lost wax process. Benin also was a manufacturer of glass and glass beads.
In West Africa several centres of iron production using natural draft furnaces emerged from the early second millennium AD. Iron production in Banjeli and Bassar for example in Togo reached up to 80,000 cubic meters(which is more than the production at places such as Meroe), analyses indicate that fifteenth-and sixteenth-century AD slags from this area were just bloomery waste products, while preliminary metallographic analyses of objects indicate them to be made of low-carbon steels. In Burkina Faso, the Korsimoro district reached up to 169,900 cubic meters. In the Dogon region, the sub-region of Fiko has about 300,000 cubic meters of slag produced.
Brass barrel blunderbuss are said to have been produced in some states of the Gold Coast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Various accounts indicate that Asante blacksmiths were not only able to repair firearms, but that barrels, locks and stocks were on occasion remade.
In the Aïr Mountains region of Niger, copper smelting was independently developed between 3000 and 2500 BCE. The undeveloped nature of the process indicates that it was not of foreign origin. Smelting in the region became mature around 1500 BCE.
Africa was a major supplier of gold in world trade during the Medieval Age. The Sahelian empires became powerful by controlling the Trans-Saharan trade routes. They provided 2/3 of the gold in Europe and North Africa. The Almoravid dinar and the Fatimid dinar were printed on gold from the Sahelian empires. The ducat of Genoa and Venice and the florine of Florence were also printed on gold from the Sahelian empires. When gold sources were depleted in the Sahel, the empires turned to trade with the Ashante Kingdom.
The Swahili traders in East Africa were major suppliers of gold to Asia in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade routes. The trading port cities and city-states of the Swahili East African coast were among the first African cities to come into contact with European explorers and sailors during the European Age of Discovery. Many were documented and praised in the recordings of North African explorer Abu Muhammad ibn Battuta.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
Around 500 BCE, Nubia, during the Meroitic phase, became a major manufacturer and exporter of iron. This was after being expelled from Egypt by Assyrians, who used iron weapons.
Anthropologist Peter Schmidt discovered through the communication of oral tradition that the Haya in Tanzania have been forging steel for nearly 2000 years. This discovery was made accidentally while Schmidt was learning about the history of the Haya via their oral tradition. He was led to a tree which was said to rest on the spot of an ancestral furnace used to forge steel. When later tasked with the challenge of recreating the forges, a group of elders who at this time were the only ones to remember the practice, due to the disuse of the practice due in part to the abundance of steel flowing into the country from foreign sources. In spite of their lack of practice, the elders were able to create a furnace using mud and grass which when burnt provided the carbon needed to transform the iron into steel. Later investigation of the area yielded 13 other furnaces similar in design to the recreation set up by the elders. These furnaces were carbon dated and were found to be as old as 2000 years, whereas steel of this caliber did not appear in Europe until several centuries later.
Two types of iron furnaces were used in Sub-Saharan Africa: the trench dug below ground and circular clay structures built above ground. Iron ores were crushed and placed in furnaces layered with the right proportion of hardwood. A flux such as lime sometimes from seashells was added to aid in smelting. Bellows on the side would be used to add oxygen. Clay pipes on the sides called tuyères would be used to control oxygen flow.
West Africa and the Sahel
The knowledge of inoculating oneself against smallpox seems to have been known to West Africans, more specifically the Akan. A slave named Onesimus explained the inoculation procedure to Cotton Mather during the 18th century; he reported to have gotten the knowledge from Africa.
In Djenné the mosquito was identified to be the cause of malaria, and the removal of cataracts was a common surgical procedure (as in many other parts of Africa). The dangers of tobacco smoking were known to African Muslim scholars, based on Timbuktu manuscripts.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
Ancient Egyptian physicians were renowned in the ancient Near East for their healing skills, and some, like Imhotep, remained famous long after their deaths. Herodotus remarked that there was a high degree of specialization among Egyptian physicians, with some treating only the head or the stomach, while others were eye-doctors and dentists. Training of physicians took place at the Per Ankh or "House of Life" institution, most notably those headquartered in Per-Bastet during the New Kingdom and at Abydos and Saïs in the Late period. Medical papyri show empirical knowledge of anatomy, injuries, and practical treatments. Wounds were treated by bandaging with raw meat, white linen, sutures, nets, pads and swabs soaked with honey to prevent infection, while opium was used to relieve pain. Garlic and onions were used regularly to promote good health and were thought to relieve asthma symptoms. Ancient Egyptian surgeons stitched wounds, set broken bones, and amputated diseased limbs, but they recognized that some injuries were so serious that they could only make the patient comfortable until he died.
Around 800, the first psychiatric hospital and insane asylum in Egypt was built by Muslim physicians in Cairo.
In 1285, the largest hospital of the Middle Ages and pre-modern era was built in Cairo, Egypt, by Sultan Qalaun al-Mansur. Treatment was given for free to patients of all backgrounds, regardless of gender, ethnicity or income.
Tetracycline was being used by Nubians, based on bone remains between 350 AD and 550 AD. The antibiotic was in wide commercial use only in the mid 20th century. The theory is earthen jars containing grain used for making beer contained the bacterium streptomycedes, which produced tetracycline. Although Nubians were not aware of tetracycline, they could have noticed people fared better by drinking beer. According to Charlie Bamforth, a professor of biochemistry and brewing science at the University of California, Davis, said "They must have consumed it because it was rather tastier than the grain from which it was derived. They would have noticed people fared better by consuming this product than they were just consuming the grain itself."
European travelers in the Great Lakes region of Africa (Uganda and Rwanda) during the 19th century reported cases of surgery in the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. One observer noted a "surgical skill which had reached a high standard". Caesarean sections were performed on a regular basis with the use of antiseptics, anaesthetics and of cautery iron. The expectant mother was normally anesthetized with banana wine, and herbal mixtures were used to encourage healing. From the well-developed nature of the procedures employed, European observers concluded that they had been employed for some time. Bunyoro surgeons treated lung inflammations and pleurisy by punching holes in the chest until the hair passed freely. Trephining was carried out and the bones of depressed fractures were elevated. Horrible war wounds, even penetrating abdominal and chest wounds were treated with success, even when this involved quite heroic surgery.
During the 1960s, South African Aaron Klug developed crystallographic electron microscopy techniques, in which a sequence of two-dimensional images of crystals taken from different angles are combined to produce three-dimensional images of the target.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
Archaeologists have long debated whether or not the independent domestication of cattle occurred in Africa as well as the Near East and Indus Valley. Possible remains of domesticated cattle were identified in the Western Desert of Egypt at the sites of Nabta Playa and Bir Kiseiba and were dated to c. 9500–8000 BP, but those identifications have been questioned. Genetic evidence suggests that cattle were most likely introduced from Southwest Asia, and that there may have been some later breeding with wild aurochs in northern Africa.
Genetic evidence also indicates that donkeys were domesticated from the African wild ass. Archaeologists have found donkey burials in early Dynastic contexts dating to ~5000 BP at Abydos, Middle Egypt, and examination of the bones shows that they were used as beasts of burden.
Engaruka is an Iron Age archaeological site in northern Tanzania known for the ruins of a complex irrigation system. Stone channels were used to dike, dam, and level surrounding river waters. Some of these channels were several kilometers long, channelling and feeding individual plots of land totaling approximately 5,000 acres (20 km2). Seven stone-terraced villages along the mountainside also comprise the settlement.
Teff is believed to have originated in Ethiopia between 4000 and 1000 BCE. Genetic evidence points to E. pilosa as the most likely wild ancestor. Noog (Guizotia abyssinica) and ensete (E. ventricosum) are two other plants domesticated in Ethiopia.
Ethiopians used terraced hillside cultivation for erosion prevention and irrigation. A 19th century European described Yeha:
All the surrounding hills have been terraced for cultivation, and present much the same appearance as the hills in Greece and Asia Minor, which have been neglected for centuries; but nowhere in Greece or Asia Minor have I ever seen such an enormous extent of terraced mountains as in this Abyssinian valley. Hundreds and thousands of acres must here have been under the most careful cultivation, right up almost to the tops of the mountains, and now nothing is left but the regular lines of the sustaining walls, and a few trees dotted about here and there. This valley is most completely shut in, quite such an one as one can imagine Rasselas to have lived in— James T. Bent, The sacred city of the Ethiopians, being a record of travel and research in Abyssinia in 1893 (1896)
West Africa and the Sahel
The earliest evidence for the domestication of plants for agricultural purposes in Africa occurred in the Sahel region c. 5000 BCE, when sorghum and African rice (Oryza glaberrima) began to be cultivated. Around this time, and in the same region, the small guineafowl was domesticated. Other African domesticated plants were oil palm, raffia palm, black-eyed peas, groundnuts, and kola nuts.
African methods of cultivating rice, introduced by enslaved Africans, may have been used in North Carolina. This may have been a factor in the prosperity of the North Carolina colony. Portuguese observers between the half of the 15th century and the 16th century witnessed the cultivation of rice in the Upper Guinea Coast, and admired the local rice-growing technology, as it involved intensive agricultural practices such as diking and transplanting.
Between 6500 and 3500 BCE knowledge of domesticated sorghum, castor beans, and two species of gourd spread from Africa to Asia. Pearl millet, black-eyed peas, watermelon, and okra later spread to the rest of the world.
In the lack of more detailed historical and archaeological studies on the chronology of terracing, intensive terrace farming is believed to have been practiced before the early 15th century AD in West Africa. Terraces were used by many groups, notably the Mafa, Ngas, Gwoza, and the Dogon.
Randall-MacIver described the irrigation technology used in Nyanga, Zimbabwe :
The country about Inyanga is well watered, but it would seem that the old inhabitants required a more general distribution of the supply than was afforded by the numerous streams running down from the hills. Accordingly, they adopted a practice which has been prevalent under similar conditions in several other countries, Algeria being one instance which has come under the waiter's own observation. The stream was tapped at a point near its source, and part of the water deflected by a stone dam. This gave them a high-level conduit, by which the water could be carried along the side of a hill and allowed to descend more gradually than the parent stream. There are very many such conduits in the Inyanga region, and they often run for several miles. The gradients are admirably calculated, with a skill which is not always equalled by modern engineers with their elaborate instruments. The dams are well and strongly built of unworked stones without mortar ; the conduits themselves are simple trenches about one metre in depth. The earth taken out of the trench is piled on its lower side and supported by boulders imbedded in ito.
West Africa and the Sahel
Some of the oldest surviving African textiles were discovered at the archaeological site of Kissi in northern Burkina Faso. They are made of wool or fine animal hair in a weft-faced plain weave pattern. Fragments of textile have also survived from the thirteenth century Benin City in Nigeria.
By the 12th century, so-called Moroccan leather, which actually came from the Hausa area of northern Nigeria, was supplied to Mediterranean markets and found their way to the fairs and markets of Europe
Barkcloth was used by the Baganda in Uganda from the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis). Kanga are Swahili pieces of fabric that come in rectangular shapes, made of pure cotton, and put together to make clothing. It is as long as ones outstretch hand and wide to cover the length of ones neck. Kitenge are similar to kangas and kikoy, but are of a thicker cloth, and have an edging only on a long side. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Sudan are some of the African countries where kitenge are worn. In Malawi, Namibia and Zambia, kitenge are known as Chitenge. Lamba Mpanjaka was cloth made of multicolored silk, worn like a toga on the island of Madagascar.
Shemma, shama, and kuta are all cotton-based cloths used for making Ethiopian clothing. Three types of looms are used in Africa: the double heddle loom for narrow strips of cloth, the single heddle loom for wider spans of cloth, and the ground or pit loom. The double heddle loom and single heddle loom might be of African origin. The ground or pit loom is used in the Horn of Africa, Madagascar, and North Africa and is of Middle Eastern origins.
In southern Africa one finds numerous use of animal hide and skins for clothing. The Ndau in central Mozambique and the Shona mixed hide with barkcloth and cotton cloth. Cotton weaving was practiced by the Ndau and Shona. Cotton cloth was referred to as machira. The Venda, Swazi, Basotho, Zulu, Ndebele, and Xhosa also made extensive use of hides. Hides came from cattle, sheep, goat, elephant, and from jangwa( part of the mongoose family). Leopard skins were coveted and was a symbol of kingship in Zulu society. Skins were tanned to form leather, dyed, and embedded with beads.
In 1987 the third oldest canoe in the world and the oldest in Africa, the Dufuna canoe, was discovered in Nigeria by Fulani herdsmen near the Yobe river and the village of Dufuna. It dates to approximately 8000 years ago, and was made from African mahogany.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
Carthage's fleet included large numbers of quadriremes and quinqueremes, warships with four and five ranks of rowers. Its ships dominated the Mediterranean. The Romans however were masters at copying and adapting the technology of other peoples. According to Polybius, the Romans seized a shipwrecked Carthaginian warship, and used it as a blueprint for a massive naval build-up, adding their own refinement – the corvus – which allowed an enemy vessel to be "gripped" and boarded for hand-to-hand fighting. This negated initially superior Carthaginian seamanship and ships.
Early Egyptians knew how to assemble planks of wood into a ship hull as early as 3000 BC (5000 BCE). The oldest ships yet unearthed, a group of 14 discovered in Abydos, were constructed from wooden planks which were "sewn" together. Woven straps were used to lash the planks together, and reeds or grass stuffed between the planks helped to seal the seams. Because the ships are all buried together and near a mortuary complex belonging to Pharaoh Khasekhemwy, originally the boats were all thought to have belonged to him. One of the 14 ships dates to 3000 BC, however, and is now thought to perhaps have belonged to an earlier pharaoh, possibly Pharaoh Aha.
West Africa and the Sahel
In the 14th century CE King Abubakari II, the brother of King Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire is thought to have had a great armada of ships sitting on the coast of West Africa. This is corroborated by ibn Battuta himself who recalls several hundred Malian ships off the coast. The ships would communicate with each other by drums. This has led to great speculation, that Malian sailors may have reached the coast of Pre-Columbian America under the rule of Abubakari II, nearly two hundred years before Christopher Columbus.
Numerous sources attest that the inland waterways of West Africa saw extensive use of war-canoes and vessels used for war transport where permitted by the environment. Most West African canoes were of single log construction, carved and dug-out from one massive tree trunk. The primary method of propulsion was by paddle and in shallow water, poles. Sails were also used to a lesser extent, particularly on trading vessels. The silk cotton tree provided many of the most table logs for massive canoe building, and launching was via wooden rollers to the water. Boat building specialists were to emerge among certain peoples, particularly in the Niger Delta.
Some canoes were 80 feet (24 m) in length, carrying 100 men or more. Documents from 1506 for example, refer to war-canoes on the Sierra Leone river, carrying 120 men. Others refer to Guinea coast peoples using canoes of varying sizes – some 70 feet (21 m) in length, 7–8 ft broad, with sharp pointed ends, rowing benches on the side, and quarter decks or focastles build of reeds, and miscellaneous facilities such as cooking hearths, and storage spaces for crew sleeping mats.
Early Egyptians also knew how to assemble planks of wood with treenails to fasten them together, using pitch for caulking the seams. The "Khufu ship", a 43.6-meter vessel sealed into a pit in the Giza pyramid complex at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza in the Fourth Dynasty around 2500 BCE, is a full-size surviving example which may have fulfilled the symbolic function of a solar barque. Early Egyptians also knew how to fasten the planks of this ship together with mortise and tenon joints.
It is known that ancient Axum traded with India, and there is evidence that ships from Northeast Africa may have sailed back and forth between India/Sri Lanka and Nubia trading goods and even to Persia, Himyar and Rome. Aksum was known by the Greeks for having seaports for ships from Greece and Yemen. Elsewhere in Northeast Africa, the 1st century CE Greek travelogue Periplus of the Red Sea reports that Somalis, through their northern ports such as Zeila and Berbera, were trading frankincense and other items with the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula as well as with the then Roman-controlled Egypt.
Middle Age Swahili kingdoms are known to have had trade port islands and trade routes with the Islamic world and Asia and were described by Greek historians are "metropolises". Famous African trade ports such as Mombasa, Zanzibar, Mogadishu and Kilwa were known to Chinese sailors such as Zheng He and medieval Islamic historians such as the Berber Islamic voyager Abu Abdullah ibn Battuta. The dhow was the ship of trade used by the Swahili. They could be massive. It was a dhow that transported a giraffe to Chinese Emperor Yong Le's court, in 1414.
The Walls of Benin City are collectively the world's largest man-made structure and were semi-destroyed by the British in 1897. Fred Pearce wrote in New Scientist:
- "They extend for some 16,000 kilometres in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They cover 6500 square kilometres and were all dug by the Edo people. In all, they are four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet."
Sungbo's Eredo is the second largest pre-colonial monument in Africa, larger than the Great Pyramids or Great Zimbabwe. Built by the Yoruba people in honour of one of their titled personages, an aristocratic widow known as the Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo, it is made up of sprawling mud walls and the valleys that surrounded the town of Ijebu-Ode in Ogun state, Nigeria.
Tichit is the oldest surviving archaeological settlements in the Sahel and is the oldest all-stone settlement south of the Sahara. It is thought to have been built by Soninke people and is thought to be the precursor of the Ghana empire.
The Great Mosque of Djenné is the largest mud brick or adobe building in the world and is considered by many architects to be the greatest achievement of the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style, albeit with definite Islamic influences.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
Around 1000 AD, cob (tabya) first appears in the Maghreb and al-Andalus.
The Great Pyramid was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years.
The earliest style of Nubian architecture included the speos, structures carved out of solid rock, an A-Group (3700–3250 BCE) achievement. Egyptians made extensive use of the process at Speos Artemidos and Abu Simbel.
Aksumites built in stone. Monolithic stelae on top of the graves of kings like King Ezana's Stele. Later, during the Zagwe Dynasty Churches carved out of solid rocks like Church of Saint George at Lalibela.
In southern Africa one finds ancient and widespread traditions of building in stone. Two broad categories of these traditions have been noted: 1. Zimbabwean style 2. Transvaal Free State style. North of the Zambezi one finds very few stone ruins. Great Zimbabwe, Khami, and Thulamela uses the Zimbabwean style. Tsotho/Tswana architecture represents the Transvaal Free State style. ||Khauxa!nas stone settlement in Namibia represents both traditions. The Kingdom of Mapungubwe (1075–1220) was a pre-colonial Southern African state located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers which marked the center of a pre-Shona kingdom which preceded the culmination of southeast African urban civilization in Great Zimbabwe.
Griots are repositories of African history, especially in African societies with no written language. Griots can recite genealogies going back centuries. They recite epics that reveal historical occurrences and events. Griots can go for hours and even days reciting the histories and genealogies of societies. They have been described as living history books.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
Africa's first writing system and the beginning of the alphabet was Egyptian hieroglyphs. Two scripts have been the direct offspring of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Proto-Sinaitic script and the Meroitic alphabet. Out of Proto-Sinaitic came the South Arabian alphabet and Phoenician alphabet, out of which the Aramaic alphabet, Greek alphabet, the Brāhmī script, Arabic alphabet were directly or indirectly derived.
The other direct offspring of Egyptian hieroglyphs was the Meroitic alphabet. It began in the Napatan phase of Nubian history, Kush (700–300 BCE). It came into full fruition in the 2nd century, under the successor Nubian kingdom of Meroë. The script can be read but not understood, with the discovery at el-Hassa, Sudan of ram statues bearing meroitic inscriptions might assist in its translation.
With the arrival of Islam, came the Arabic alphabet in the Sahel. Arabic writing is widespread in the Sahel. The Arabic script was also used to write native African languages. The script used in this capacity is often called Ajami. The languages that have been or are written in Ajami include Hausa, Mandinka, Fulani, Wolofal, Tamazight, Nubian, Yoruba, Songhai, and Kanuri.
N'Ko script developed by Solomana Kante in 1949 as a writing system for the Mande languages of West Africa. It is used in Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and neighboring countries by a number of speakers of Manding languages.
Nsibidi is ideographic set of symbols developed by the Ekpe people of Southeastern coastal Nigeria for communication. A complex implementation of Nsibidi is only known to initiates of Ekpe secret society.
Niger-Congo languages are tonal in nature. Talking drums exploit the tonal aspect of Niger-Congo languages to convey very complicated messages. Talking drums can send messages 15 to 25 miles (40 km). Bulu, a Bantu language, can be drummed as well as spoken. In a Bulu village, each individual had a unique drum signature. A message could be sent to an individual by drumming his drum signature. It has been noted that a message can be sent 100 miles (160 km) from village to village within two hours or less using a talking drum.
Most of tropical Africa did not have a cavalry. Horses would be wiped out by tse-tse fly. The zebra was never domesticated. The army of tropical Africa consisted of mainly infantry. Weapons included bows and arrows with low bow strength that compensated with poison-tipped arrows. Throwing knives were made use of in central Africa, spears that could double as thrusting cutting weapons, and swords were also in use. Heavy clubs when thrown could break bones, battle axe, and shields of various sizes were in widespread use. Later guns, muskets such as flintlock, wheelock, and matchlock. Contrary to popular perception, guns were also in widespread use in Africa. They typically were of poor quality, a policy of European nations to provide poor quality merchandise. One reason the slave trade was so successful was the widespread use of guns in Africa.
Fortification was a major part of defense, integral to warfare. Massive earthworks were built around cities and settlements in West Africa, typically defended by soldiers with bow and poison-tipped arrows. The earthworks are some of the largest man made structures in Africa and the world such as the wall of Benin and Sungbo's Eredo. In Central Africa, the Angola region, one find preference for ditches, which were more successful for defense against wars with Europeans.
African infantry did not just include men. The state of Dahomey included all-female units, the so-called Dahomey Amazons, who were personal bodyguards of the king. The Queen Mother of Benin had her own personal army, 'The Queen's Own.'
Biologicals were extensively used in many parts of Africa, most of the time in the form of poisoned arrows, but also powder spread on the war front or in the form of the poisoning of horses and water supply of the opponents. In Borgu, there were specific mixtures to kill, for hypnosis, to make the enemy bold, and to act as an antidote against the enemies' poison. A specific class of medicine-men was responsible for the making of the biologicals. In South Sudan, the people of the Koalit Hills kept their country free of Arab invasions by using tsetse flies as a weapon of war. Several accounts can give us an idea of the efficiency of the biologicals. For example, Mockley-Ferryman in 1892 commented on the Dahomean invasion of Borgu, that "their (Borgawa) poisoned arrows enabled them to hold their own with the forces of Dahomey notwithstanding the latter's muskets." The same scenario happened to Portuguese raiders in Senegambia when they were defeated by Mali's Gambian forces, and to John Hawkins in Sierra Leone where he lost a number of his men to poisoned arrows.
Northern Africa, Nile Valley, and the Sahel
Ancient Egyptian weaponry includes bows and arrow, maces, clubs, scimitars, swords, shields, and knives. Body armor was made of bands of leathers and sometimes laid with scales of copper. Horse-drawn chariots were used to deliver archers into the battle field. Weapons were initially made with stone, wood, and copper, later bronze, and later iron.
In 1260, the first portable hand cannons (midfa) loaded with explosive gunpowder, the first example of a handgun and portable firearm, were used by the Egyptians to repel the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut. The cannons had an explosive gunpowder composition almost identical to the ideal compositions for modern explosive gunpowder. They were also the first to use dissolved talc for fire protection, and they wore fireproof clothing, to which Gunpowder cartridges were attached.
Aksumite weapons were mainly made of iron: iron spears, iron swords, and iron knives called poniards. Shields were made of buffalo hide. In the latter part of the 19th century, Ethiopia made a concerted effort to modernize her army. She acquired repeating rifles, artillery, and machine guns. This modernization facilitated the Ethiopian victory over the Italians at the Tigray town of Adwa in the 1896 Battle of Adwa. Ethiopia was one of the few African countries to use artillery in colonial wars.
The Sahelian military consisted of cavalry and infantry. Cavalry consisted of shielded, mounted soldiers. Body armor was chain mail or heavy quilted cotton. Helmets were made of leather, elephant, or hippo hide. Imported horses were shielded. Horse armor consisted of quilted cotton packed with kapok fiber and copper face plate. The stirrups could be used as weapon to disembowel enemy infantry or mounted soldiers at close range. Weapons included the sword, lance, battle-axe, and broad-bladed spear. The infantry were armed with bow and iron tipped arrows. Iron tips were usually laced with poison, from the West African plant Strophantus hispidus. Quivers of 40–50 arrows would be carried into battle. Later, muskets were introduced.
At the Battle of Isandhlawana on 22 January 1879, the Zulu army defeated British invading troops.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, South Africa pursued research into weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Six nuclear weapons were assembled. With the anticipated changeover to a majority-elected government in the 1990s, the South African government dismantled all of its nuclear weapons, the first nation in the world which voluntarily gave up nuclear arms it had developed itself.
Numerous metal objects and other items were used as currency in Africa. They are as follows: cowrie shells, salt, gold (dust or solid), copper, ingots, iron chains, tips of iron spears, iron knives, cloth in various shapes (square, rolled, etc.). Copper was as valuable as gold in Africa. Copper was not as widespread and more difficult to acquire, except in Central Africa, than gold. Other valuable metals included lead and tin. Salt was also as valuable as gold. Because of its scarcity, it was used as currency.
Northern Africa and the Nile Valley
Carthage imported gold, copper, ivory, and slaves from tropical Africa. Carthage exported salt, cloth, metal goods. Before camels were used in the trans-Saharan trade pack animals, oxen, donkeys, mules, and horses were utilized. Extensive use of camels began in the 1st century CE. Carthage minted gold, silver, bronze, and electrum(mix gold and silver) coins mainly for fighting wars with Greeks and Romans. Most of their fighting force were mercenaries, who had to be paid.
Islamic North Africa made use of the Almoravid dinar and Fatimid dinar, gold coins. The Almoravid dinar and the Fatimid dinar were printed on gold from the Sahelian empires. The ducat of Genoa and Venice and the florine of Florence were also printed on gold from the Sahelian empires.
Ancient Egypt imported ivory, gold, incense, hardwood, and ostrich feather.
Nubia exported gold, cotton/cotton cloth, ostrich feathers, leopard skins, ivory, ebony, and iron/iron weapons.
West Africa and the Sahel
Cowries have been used as currency in West Africa since the 11th century when their use was first recorded near Old Ghana. Its use may have been much older. Sijilmasa in present-day Morocco seems to be a major source of cowries in the trans-Saharan trade. In western Africa, shell money was usual tender up until the middle of the 19th century. Before the abolition of the slave trade there were large shipments of cowry shells to some of the English ports for reshipment to the slave coast. It was also common in West Central Africa as the currency of the Kingdom of Kongo called locally nzimbu. As the value of the cowry was much greater in West Africa than in the regions from which the supply was obtained, the trade was extremely lucrative. In some cases the gains are said to have been 500%. The use of the cowry currency gradually spread inland in Africa. By about 1850 Heinrich Barth found it fairly widespread in Kano, Kuka, Gando, and even Timbuktu. Barth relates that in Muniyoma, one of the ancient divisions of Bornu, the king's revenue was estimated at 30,000,000 shells, with every adult male being required to pay annually 1000 shells for himself, 1000 for every pack-ox, and 2000 for every slave in his possession. In the countries on the coast, the shells were fastened together in strings of 40 or 100 each, so that fifty or twenty strings represented a dollar; but in the interior they were laboriously counted one by one, or, if the trader were expert, five by five. The districts mentioned above received their supply of kurdi, as they were called, from the west coast; but the regions to the north of Unyamwezi, where they were in use under the name of simbi, were dependent on Muslim traders from Zanzibar. The shells were used in the remoter parts of Africa until the early 20th century, but gave way to modern currencies. The shell of the land snail, Achatina monetaria, cut into circles with an open center was also used as coin in Benguella, Portuguese West Africa.
The Ghana Empire, Mali Empire, and Songhay Empire were major exporters of gold, iron, tin, slaves, spears, javelin, arrows, bows, whips of hippo hide. They imported salt, horses, wheat, raisins, cowries, dates, copper, henna, olives, tanned hides, silk, cloth, brocade, Venetian pearls, mirrors, and tobacco.
Some of the currencies used in the Sahel included paper debt or IOU's for long distance trade, gold coins, and the mitkal (gold dust) currency. Gold dust that weighed 4.6 grams was equivalent to 500 or 3,000 cowries. Square cloth, four spans on each side, called chigguiya was used around the Senegal River.
In Kanem cloth was the major currency. A cloth currency called dandi was also in widespread use.
The Akan used goldweight that they called "Sika-yôbwê"(stone of gold) as their currency. They used a system of computing weight consisting of 11 units. The value of the weight were also numerically represented using two signs.
Aksum exported ivory, glass crystal, brass, copper, myrrh, and frankincense. The Aksumites imported silver, gold, olive oil, and wine. The Aksumites produced coins around 270 CE, under the rule of king Endubis. Aksumite coins were issued in gold, silver, and bronze.
The Swahili served as middlemen. They connected African goods to Asian markets and Asian goods to African markets. Their most in demand export was Ivory. They exported ambergris, gold, leopard skins, slaves, and tortoise shell. They imported pottery and glassware from Asia. They also manufactured items such as cotton, glass and shell beads. Imports and locally manufactured goods were used as trade to acquire African goods. Trade links included the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, and China. The Swahili also minted silver and copper coins.
Current scientific research in Africa
Currently, forty percent of African-born scientists live in OCED countries, predominantly NATO and EU countries. This has been described as an African brain drain.
Sub-Saharan African countries spent on average 0.3% of their GDP on S&T (Science and Technology) in 2007. This represents a combined increase from US$1.8bn in 2002 to US$2.8bn in 2007. North African countries spend a comparative 0.4% of GDP on research, an increase from US$2.6bn in 2002 to US$3.3bn in 2007. Exempting South Africa, the continent has augmented its collective science funding by about 50% in the last decade. Notably outstripping its neighbor states, South Africa spends 0.87% of GDP on science and technology research. Although technology parks have a long history in the US and Europe, their presence across Africa is still limited, as the continent currently lags behind other regions of the world in terms of funding technological development and innovation. Only seven (7) countries (Morocco, Botswana, Egypt, Senegal, Madagascar, Tunisia and South Africa) have made technology park construction an integral piece of their development goals.
Science and technology by African region
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