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

Video Series: The Performance of Confucian Rites- 儒家仪式的表现

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Video screen capture

In 2014, the Hong Kong School of Creative Media created an interactive application and a linear three-screen video re-enactment of the “Capping Ceremony of a Minor Official’s Son,” from the ancient “Book of Li”. The Book of Li (Etiquette and Ceremonial) is a classical text about social behaviour and ceremonial ritual during the Zhou dynasty.

The video shows that in Confucian philosophy, li as ‘ritual’ is a system of awareness and practice that was created for followers to reflect on Confucian traditions in light of the rapid modernisation that was occurring during the Zhou era. Li as a concept is concerned with aesthetics, ethics and ideology and it is shown to be a technique of the body and mind that is learned and inscribed.

The approach that the actors have taken to re-enact these rites is one historical accuracy in the scripting, movements, clothing, props and environment. The analytical approach to the documentation provides a detailed examination using advanced digital techniques, such as motion capture and augmented-reality annotation of movement, to maximise viewer experience.

Click on the following link to see the full video:

Remaking the Confucian Rites (2014) from Jeffrey Shaw on Vimeo.

The Life of Confucius- An Animation 孔子的生活 – 动画

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Technological advancements have allowed producers to create intelligent storytelling systems that appeal to international audiences. Increasingly, the life story and philosophy of Confucius is being developed through animated imagery that narrates philosophical concepts throughout Confucius’ journey.

The original animation of ‘The Life of Confucius’ can be viewed here.


Video Series: Can Confucianism Save the World? 儒家思想能够拯救世界?

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In this public lecture held in 2014, Professors Daniel A. Bell, Joseph Chan, Tongdong Bai discuss the role of Confucianism in the modern world.

With the difficulty of cooperating over issues such as nuclear warfare, terrorism, and environmental protection, has the time come for a globalised, cosmopolitan adoption of  Confucianism? In this series, the three guest speakers develop Confucianism in rather different ways, and the purpose of this panel is to explore how they do that, and how they think Confucianism can save the world. The panel is moderated by Mathias Risse from Harvard University.