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The use of technology and science in pre-modern Africa

[This article does not claim superiority of black African peoples over European peoples or other peoples. Nor does it aim to discount the achievements of non-Africans. Its purpose is to highlight some lesser-known achievements of Africans.]

If one asks individual modern ethnic Europeans if they think Africa remained in the Stone Age until the European colonial period, most whites probably have not really thought about it. But even if 90s PC-ness dictates that Europeans express non-offensive opinions, this idea of "primitive" black Africa is not contrary to centuries of European/Euro-American public perception.

Black Africa was not considered capable to developing its own civilizations. Materially sophisticated civilizations in Africa, such as the Nubians and the Ethiopians, and particularly the Egyptians, were always attributed to an outside impetus, such as colonization by "whites" from Asia, or ancient European influence. Although Egypt is now believed to have been an Afroasian racial melting pot, the Egyptian language and culture were undeniably African. Egyptian is part of the Afroasiatic language family, which has 222 surviving member languages.1 The overwhelming majority of these 222 languages are spoken in black Africa, which strongly suggests a black African origin for the Afroasiatic language family. Even ancient European sources record a tradition that claims that the Egyptians were descended from the Ethiopians.

The bias of white scholars is evident in their theories concerning archeological findings of art and technology in undeniably black parts of Africa. Basil Davidson writes:

"Over the past 50 years or so, whenever anything remarkable or inexplicable has turned up in Africa, a whole galaxy of non-African (or at least non-black) peoples are dragged in to explain it... Yet every one of these achievements and phenomenon is now generally agreed to have had a purely African origin."2

In the following sections, we present a brief overview of the use of technology in premodern sub-Saharan Africa. Readers may wish to do more in-depth reading on their own.

Eastern Africa

A former Commissioner for British East Africa said in 1958: "in the last 60 years.... East Africa has developed from a completely primitive country, ... more backward than the Stone Age ..."3 Yet the Stone Age blacks of Khartoum (in Sudan) manufactured pots before the inhabitants of Jericho, the world's earliest known city.4 The Khartoum Mesolithic culture is dated about 7000 B.C.5 Prehistoric Egyptian artifacts dated a thousand years later would reflect a Khartoum influence.6

Metal working

Between 5th century B.C. and 3rd century A.D., Meroe in Sudan was an iron-smelting center.7 12th century Arab writer Edrisi reported numerous iron mines in Malindi and Sofala. Edrisi rated Sofala iron better than India iron. At that time, southeastern Africa exported smelted iron to India.8 (Malindi and Sofala are in modern Kenya and Mozambique respectively.)

Irrigation and land preservation

East Africans used terraced hillside cultivation for erosion prevention and irrigation. A 19th century European described Yeha in Ethiopia: "Nowhere in Greece or Asia Minor have I seen such an enormous extend of terraced mountains..."9 Europeans would later apply African principles of cultivating steep hillsides without erosion in Africa as their own invention.10

Architecture and material culture

Qustul, a Nubian site in Egypt just north of the Sudanese border, contained 33 tombs dated at about 3800 to 3100 BC.11 The tombs contained "trade goods from every corner of the known world" - native pottery, Egyptian storage containers and Syro-Palestinian vessels which suggested a direct trade route between Nubia and Asia.12

Ibn Battuta, who visited the East African coast in 1331 AD, reported that "Kilwa is one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world. The whole of it is elegantly built."13 This is the opinion of a man who has traveled all over Europe and Asia, as well as Africa. Traditional Swahili houses have separate accommodations for each family with its own bathroom/toilet. Water comes from wells and cisterns.14 Even in ancient houses, including those in the earliest ruined settlements, there are elaborate internal aqueducts to fill the cisterns.15

Western Africa

A former Governor of Nigeria said "For countless centuries, while all the pageant of history swept by, the African remained unmoved -- in primitive savagery."16 Actually, African doctors performed cataract surgery in 14th century Mali.

Metal Working

Europe may have exceeded Africa in the use of technology today, but such a condition is neither unchangeable nor biologically predestined, as some have been to think. In fact, sub-Saharan Africa has not always lagged behind Europe where technological advances are concerned. Jared Diamond points out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel:

...historians often assume that knowledge of metallurgy reached sub-Saharan Africa from the north. On the other hand, copper smelting had been going on in the West African Sahara and Sahel since at least 2000 B.C... the iron-smelting techniques of smiths in sub-Saharan Africa were so different from those of the Mediterranean as to suggest independent development: African smiths discovered how to produce high temperatures in their village furnaces and manufacture steel over 2,000 years before the Bessemer furnaces of 19th century Europe and America.

Iron-making began in central Nigeria more than two thousand years ago and was common knowledge in the savannahs of West Africa by the last centuries of the pre-Christian era.17

In 1897, "several hundred bronze plaques ... of really superb casting" and "magnificently carved tusks" were found in Benin. Europeans speculated they were of European influence.18 A palace in Ife a hundred miles away yielded vast quantities of brasswork and terra cotta. The works of Benin and Ife are now accepted as entirely African and most are thought to have been made between the 13th and 18th centuries.19

Urban Material Culture

Kumbi Saleh on the Niger is the excavation site of a large elaborate city dated 800-900 years old.20 The city's estimated population of 30,000 was impressive for the world then.21 Iron objects excavated included weapons, farm tools, nails, and one of the finest pairs of early medieval scissors ever found in any country.22

Timbuktu, which is the English idea of a remote destination far from anywhere that matters (hence the expression "shipped off to Timbuktu"), was a center of commerce, learning and religion. King Mohammed Askia of the 16th century Songhay empire had many judges, doctors and clerics on his payroll.23

Southern Africa


The Great Zimbabwe medieval stone ruins in south central Africa included a 300' by 220' building with walls 30' high and 20' thick. Europeans could not believe Africans built it. However, archeologist David Randall-MacIver concluded "there is not a trace of Oriental or European style" in the ruins.The stone dwellings were "unmistakably African".24

Water management technology

Randall-MacIver described water diversion technology in Nyanga, Zimbabwe. A conduit carried water from a dammed stream alongside the hill so that it descended more gradually than the parent stream. He writes: "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 equaled by modern engineers ..."25

In pre-modern times, the average Africans' quality of life was comparable to, and even surpassed at times, the quality of life of their average European contemporaries. Why, then is there the modern stereotype of the backward and savage African? Much of the blame falls on European racism. However, Africans themselves also have some part to play in propagating myths about "savage Africa". Since ancient times, coastal mercantile East Africans would circulate fantastic stories about the dangers of the African interior to frighten off non-African traders, thus defending the Swahili's trade monopoly with inland Africans. 26

Pulitzer Price winner Jared Diamond expresses the following opinion in his seminal work Guns, Germs and Steel:

A historian who had lived at anytime between 8500 B.C. and A.D. 1450, and who had tried then to predict future historical trajectories, would surely have labeled Europe's eventual dominance as the least likely outcome, because Europe was the most backward of those three Old World regions for most of those 10,000 years.

The history leading up to the current European/Euro-American economic and cultural dominance does not demonstrate the superiority of European races. All we can gather from history is: Past ascendancy is not a guarantee of future superiority. There is no proven biological predisposition towards success in any specific human 'race'. Culturally and technologically disadvantaged societies, such as the medieval Europeans, eventually caught up and overtook the Asians and Africans. In all likelihood, we may see another reversal of fortune in the future - the next center of world power may be in Africa, or another part of the "Third World", and Europe and America may be left in the dust.

[Technology is only one aspect of "civilization" and certainly not the defining factor for determining the degree of "civilization" a society has. The other aspects of sub-Saharan African civilizations like statesmanship, social and political structure, moral codes, military organization, intercontinental and transcontinental trade, and literature are beyond the scope of this article.]

  1. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, p. 383
  2. Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa, p. 11
  3. Davidson, p. xv
  4. Davidson, p. 12
  5. Richard Poe, Black Spark White Fire, p. 429
  6. Poe, p429
  7. Davidson, p. 49
  8. Davidson, p. 70
  9. Davidson, pp. 219-220
  10. Davidson, p. 238
  11. Poe, p. 421
  12. Poe, p. 421
  13. John Middleton, The World of the Swahili, p. 40
  14. Middleton, p. 63
  15. Middleton, p. 210
  16. Davidson, p. 11
  17. Davidson, p. 69
  18. Davidson, p. 139
  19. Davidson, p. 139
  20. Davidson, p. 86
  21. Davidson, p. 86
  22. Davidson, pp. 86-87
  23. Davidson, p. 93
  24. Davidson, pp. 247-255
  25. Davidson, p. 278
  26. James de V. Allen, Swahili Origins, p. 71