Technological Developments in Pre-Colonial Africa

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Source: “Ancient African History. The science of chemistry was originated by Africans in the ancient empire of Ghana.” From BM Archives.

Although much of the world refers to Africa as a single country and talks about the people living on the continent as Africans, Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, with 54 different countries, whose borders are reflective of the continent’s division under colonialism. Today, over 1.2 billion people live in Africa’s various climates and geographic landscapes, and the continent has over 1,000 distinct languages spoken by its ethnically diverse inhabitants (Ezeh & Feyisah, 2019). Despite this complexity and diversity of the continent’s peoples and their histories, it is common for Western scholarship and media to represent Africa as a colonial outpost with no worthwhile pre-colonial history. In the 1830s, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel stated that Africa “is no historical part of the world”, a statement that has contributed to the stereotypical image of Black peoples as primitive and lacking culture. The ahistorical representation of Africa also contributes to the way that international organizations approach Africa, that is, as a place that can have immediate solutions developed and funded by external agencies. However, as Green (2020) notes, such approaches only reinforce the idea that Africa requires saving by Europeans and those that can bring science, reason, and history to the ‘Dark Continent’.

Pre-colonial studies have also been increasingly marginalized in mainstream African scholarship due to lack of funding, while ‘modern’ (or colonial) history remains at the forefront of professional research. Thus, what is called African history is no more than a footnote to colonial history, where what happened before colonization is treated as “blank, uninteresting and brutal barbarism” (Kiwanuka, 1972, p. 70). The lack of pre-colonial scholarship should be a cause for concern because it ignores the deeper patterns of change and continuity that have been present on the continent long before European arrival. This article provides a brief discussion on the significant advancements of African pre-colonial science and technology.

Science and Technology in Ancient Africa

While ancient Greece is often cited as being the birthplace of science and technology,  pre-colonial Africa was experiencing a rapid emergence and spread of classical agricultural and metal-using technologies in the second millennium B.C. According to Austen and Headrick (1983), even though agriculture and metallurgy took place in Africa about a millennium later than in the Middle East and Europe, these technologies were autonomous and revolutionary for the peoples throughout the continent. One of the reasons why technologies like domesticating food production emerged later was primarily because African populations were able to support themselves by foraging plants, hunting game, and fishing (Sutton, 1974). Ecological changes, such as the drying of the Sahara after 3,000 A.D., were major factors that contributed to the shifts towards new technologies like farming and animal husbandry, while contact with the outside world encouraged iron-making. The smelting of iron existed in West Africa among the Nok culture of Nigeria as early as the sixth century B.C., and between the years 1400-1600, iron technology is believed to have facilitated the growth of significant centralized political communities in western Sudan and along the Guinea coast of Western Africa (Ross, 2002). Many Nigerian kingdoms, including the Dahomey, Benin and Yoruba expressed spiritual beliefs about iron, where Ogun, the god of iron, is credited with introducing iron and being the first hunter, warrior, and founder of dynasties. Consequently, iron craft was strongly pursued as it was associated with civilization and led to extensive agriculture systems and more efficient hunting and warfare practices that helped build large urban centers (Ross, 2002). Austen and Headrick (1983) even note that iron-making “rapidly reached a level of sophistication which rivaled contemporary European and Middle Eastern metallurgy in at least its smelting processes” (p. 166).

As well as developing scripted mathematic textbooks in Egypt, which was found to include division, multiplication and geometric formulas to calculate the area and volume of shapes (Woods, 1988), the Yoruba people in present-day Nigeria developed their own numeration system based on units of 20 which requires subtraction to identify different numbers. According to Williams (2008), a professor of mathematics, the Yoruba numerals are “amazingly complicated” because the expression of small numbers involves considerable arithmetical manipulation and the extensive use of memory. Documentary evidence also suggests that scholars throughout the Nigerian kingdoms were highly skilled in the science of magic squares, and were consulting Coptic Solar Calendars to develop agricultural science. Williams (2008) states that books which were preserved from the 17th Century contain mathematical charts dealing with agronomic activities, including the right time to harvest; the direction of the wind; time of germination; and which insects appear during different seasons. Lynch and Robbins (1978) also report that the Namoratunga megalithic site in northwestern Kenya, which was built around 300 B.C., has 19 aligned basalt pillars that were purposely built to be oriented towards particular stars and constellations. The existence of such sites and books suggests that an accurate and complex calendar system based on astronomical and agricultural knowledge was in use throughout the continent.

Another craft that was developed in pre-colonial times was various types of boat building, which included the building of canoes, small reed-based vessels, dhows and sailing boats, and grander structures that had cabins and cooking facilities (Blatch, 2013). Some of the canoes used by the Mali and Songhai peoples were between 25 to 30 metres in length and were capable of carrying more than 100 men. Although most of these boats were built to be used in inland waters, the people who lived along the Guinea coast used canoes and dhows to fish several miles out at sea and to trade longer distances along the coastline (Smith, 1970). The importance of fishing along the lagoons for the economies of coastal communities is often stressed in contemporary European accounts of the pre-colonial period. For instance, Bosman (1967) reports that in the Kingdom of Whydah, located in what is now present day Benin, the king placed a toll on the annual number of fish caught in the rivers, which amounted to the value of one hundred slaves. Dupuis (1966) in the early nineteenth century also described the lagoons along the Slave Coast as “the most prolific inland fisheries known anywhere in Soudan [West Africa]”. Lagoon fishing technology allowed dry fish to become an important product of local trade. As Bosman (1967) observed, the people of Benin sent their slaves to Rio-Lagos (the River of Lagos), to buy fish, which they then used to make more profitable trade in-land.

While scholars such as Blatch (2013) have suggested that some African boat-building reached the size of Viking long boats or Greek galleys, these larger structures were not used to sail across large distances into the sea. Law (1989) notes that with the existence of the lagoon system, which was crucial for fishing and lateral communication along Africa’s east coast, lagoon-based navigation was not readily adaptable to harsher sea conditions. In 1717, a Dutch trader reportedly crossed the River Volta in a canoe from the Anlo people and wrote that it was unwise to attempt to explore the entrance of the Volta because the canoe was made in a different manner than the sea canoes of the Gold Coast. He stated, “It would probably not have been able to withstand the turmoil in and beyond the mouth of the river” (Van Dantzig, 1978, p. 201). Nevertheless, the European trade in this region was critically dependent on African navigational expertise and the Indigenous canoes that operated along the coastal lagoons, where without African inputs the European trade on the Slave Coast would not have operated as efficiently as it did.

Exploitation and Modern Underdevelopment

Despite these early developments, European and Arab imperialism and colonization interfered with and obstructed the social and economic relationships that indigenous technologies needed to advance. Unlike European and Asian civilisations, many local industries throughout the African continent never had a chance to mature in time as communities were dealing with the slave trade, European and Arab “legitimate” trade, colonization and now neocolonialism (Akpomuvie, 2011). Onipede (2010) discusses technological underdevelopment in his case study on Nigeria when he states:

“Because by nature imperialism is fortuitous, transferring to the metropolitan states the wealth of the underdeveloped nations, thereby undermining them through capital and human exploitation, colonialism and contemporary neocolonialism. Indeed, the historical and current technology underdevelopment of the country could not be explained without reference to imperialism and European economic domination.” (p. 86)

The imperialist domination and underdevelopment of Africa is a continuing process that affects all aspects of national life. Thus, it can be further argued that even successive governments in various African nations have either deliberately or inadvertently contributed to the decline of indigenous technologies by importing all forms of foreign technology without inputs from locals on the ground. Over time, preferences for foreign technologies have contributed to a culture of inferiority, where foreign imports are seen as superior over locally made products*. What is needed to change this culture is a re-shift in the continent’s narrative that values and promotes local technology, emphasizing the significant scientific and ecological insights of various African societies.

*For more on this note, see Kinyanjui, 1993, p. 276.

#Africa #precolonial #technology #imperialism #colonialism #development

China’s Cultural Tourism- 中国的文化旅游

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Although mass tourism is one of the most lucrative industries in the world due to the growing competition between destinations, and the major source of foreign exchange earnings that tourism gives to countries, increasingly critics have pointed to tourism’s negative social, economic, cultural, and environmental impacts. For example, by overusing scarce water and land resources and failing to regulate rapid population growth in already congested areas, locals in Venice and Barcelona have held anti-tourist protests in the past years calling for a cap on tourist numbers (Kettle, The Guardian, 2017). This has led to a call for alternative forms of tourism such as ‘cultural tourism’. As Scott (1997) noted, the reason for this shift from mass to cultural tourism is that capitalism has moved into a phase “in which the cultural forms and meanings of its outputs become critical if not dominating elements of productive strategy” (p. 323). In other words, the commodification of culture’s material and symbolic resources provides a highly mobile and arguably infinite form of capital supply. 

On the one hand, this model can be considered to be attractive to some local communities. Van der duim, Peters, and Akama’s (2005) study on cultural tourism in African communities reveals that host communities cannot always be seen as victims to predetermined global development processes of mass tourism. Through the initiation of various cultural tourism activities, groups like the Maasai people in Kenya and Tanzania have acted as agents with power to influence tourism projects that have become a key source of livelihood for their communities. These observations reveal that the power dynamics of cultural tourism are not a one-way flow as they often are with mass tourism, and shared power dynamic is reflected by the negotiations that often take place between tour guides and local representatives, as well as between tourists and locals when it comes to buying souvenirs or hosting tourist families. 

For governments too, the cultural tourism model is an attractive alternative to the negative reputation and impact of mass tourism since cultural tourism can easily be tied to the idea of a national ‘brand’. In India, cultural tourism was the main push behind the rise of the tourism sector, with the promotion of India as a land of ancient history and culture in the 2002 Incredible India!campaign. Since launching the campaign, India improved its travel and tourism competitiveness by increasing its position from 65thof 40thin The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017 (World Economic Forum, 2017, p. 4). However, as Reena Gupta (2018) noted in her analysis of the Incredible India!campaign, the use of cultural tourism as national branding has become more of a reflection of an imagined identity rather than reality itself. In some of the most recent Incredible India!advertisements, Indians are not fully present on screen as when they are shown, they mostly represent unknown characters whose purpose is to welcome and dance for the western woman at the centre of the tourist story. Therefore, even in the cultural tourist setting where a place’s history, landscape, and people should take centre stage, ethnicity and culture is presented as the “seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks, 1992, p. 424). In other words, the cultures that are being shown and projected are not neutral: they are related to how governments and the global tourist market construct and understand a place, and the packaging of this is aimed towards a particular western (but increasingly, growing middle class, eastern) market. 

This raises the question about who owns and is able to access culture. In his analysis on cultural politics and tourism, Jim Butcher (2005) states that museums, galleries, and heritage sites are often “regulated through state culture policy, policy that is very much the product of a wider contested cultural politics” (p. 21). This contestation plays out between marginalised and dominant groups in society, and it is usually the case where the dominated group either directly or indirectly fights against or accepts the dominant group’s historical narrative as the natural state of the world. For instance, in Western Europe, the history of state socialism has been externalised to the current neo-liberal socio-economic model, where most museums in former Soviet countries have been revamped to the extent that the nuances (and sometimes positive experiences) of life under communism are rarely shown (Molden, 2016, p. 126). Although pro-communist, pro-Soviet groups still exist throughout Europe, especially in Eastern European countries, it is rare that the positive experiences of Soviet times will be shared in official cultural tourism sites. 

In that case, there is always a connection between cultural experience and the structural context of power relations, especially between those who want to maintain or change the dominant cultural framework and those that just passively live in it. The dominant group establishes this reality through the creation of a distinct language and symbolic imagery that legitimizes the mainstream cultural framework which cultural tourism programs operate in. With India, the fantasy created by the ministry of tourism and culture is that Westerners and upper-class Indians, particularly the diaspora, can consume Indian things without needing to deal with the agency and potential resistance from working-class Indian people, who are increasingly being overworked (Gill, 2018). This represents a form of “internal orientalism” since Indians themselves depict their country as “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (Said, 1970, p. 9) within the framework of tourist capitalism. 

In China, a similar phenomenon is occurring. The celebration and promotion of China’s “Confucian renaissance” is marked by the emergence of the upscale Confucian-themed Nishan Akademia hotel in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius. Opened in 2016, guests can dress up in traditional Hanfu clothing from the Han dynasty, similar to those featured in Chinese television dramas. Once robed, activities offered to the guests include practicing calligraphy, playing traditional games including touhou, and visiting the Confucius museum. Accommodation at Nishan Akademia includes 47 stand-alone houses, some of which cost more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,440) a night (Yau, SCMP, 2018). These representations, marketed at wealthy Chinese and Western audiences, show a very uncritical, uncontroversial side of Confucianism that fits properly into the (national) master narrative of China’s history and culture. 

Beyond Shandong province, China’s cultural tourism is also marketed around the commodification of various “exotic” minority (minzu) cultures. The term minzu, roughly translated as minority or ethnic group, is a political classification that includes the Han Chinese majority and the 55 officially recognised ethnic minority groups throughout China. While all these groups are defined by a common language, territory, and economy, belonging to the greater category of zhonghua minzu (pan-Chinese national identity), non-Han ethnic minorities are both the object of exoticism and fear, which makes them suitable marketable products for cultural tourism. Swain (1990) writes that most of China’s minority groups live in regions that have important natural resources and are on strategic international borders, and that domestic tourists are encouraged to visit these areas for the scenery and to observe the ‘curious’ indigenous people. A China Reconstructs(May 1988) article describes the difference in park accommodations in Tibet between the three state guest houses and the small inns run by Tibetan families, where the inns facilities are described as “limited, but the experience is unique”. Indigenous groups in these areas often become a generic category, marked only by their distinct traditional clothes. In Hainan island, where the centre is being developed for cultural tourism, hotels, minority restaurants, and tours into Wuzhi mountain minority villages feature minority women as hostesses for guests, which is part of the larger “primitive” package that tourists are promised. In the article, “Hawaii of the Other” (Bier, 1998), a researcher is quoted as saying that development in Hainan Island is for show. Away from the tourist sites, “the central government is not providing money to improve standards of living”. A similar finding was also noted by associate professor Trine Brox (2017), who conducted a mixed qualitative and quantitative study on the biggest minzumarket in Chengdu and found that although sold as Tibetan cultural products, many of the shops sold goods not made in Tibet or by Tibetans and most of the shops were not run by Tibetans themselves.

There is also a sexual and gendered factor in China’s cultural tourism. In many mass media images, indigenous girls and women appear next to or communing with animals, picking fruits, and standing near waterfalls and streams. Their carefree nature is depicted by them laughing and they are dressed in decorative costumes that help identify them with their nationality. While the elaborateness of their clothing is associated with adulthood, these women are often featured with physical features of a child, linking nativity to innocence and naivety. The effect is that these women are infantilized and made to be the object of fascination. In the article Gender and Internal Orientalism in ChinaSchein (1997) highlights that these imaginings made minority women a powerful attraction. Also associated with repulsion and fear along with desire, it was not uncommon to be told by a Chinese urbanite that women “there” do not cover their breasts, or that young indigenous people engage in “socially sanctioned orgies” (p. 77). The idea is that the eroticised ‘other’ is placed into the social imaginary as being both dangerous and alluring, especially for upper-class city people. 

Although there can be a difference between mass tourism from other, most focused forms of tourism such as cultural tourism – which can promote economic development for indigenous groups if these groups are in charge of the decision-making and owning the processes of promoting cultural continuity (Swain, 1990) –  in China, the unequal power dynamics between ethnic groups, the central government, and tourist capitalism creates a rather complex picture. It is the state which defines who and what constitutes an ethnic group and the tourist market that defines who is or will be an upcoming cultural commodity. While there are definite economic benefits in promoting cultural tourism, including stimulating the national economy and attracting foreign capital, it is questionable whether these profits flow back into the ethnic communities whose cultural products are being marketed, and whether the cultural picture that is being packaged for tourists is authentic or part of the imagined cultural tourism experience.

By Cindy Minarova-Banjac