Unlike stereotypes to the contrary, DEA Culture correspondent, CAROL GACHIENGO, goes on an investigative beat and finds Africa has a long history of and in diplomacy
Africa has been known as the “Cradle of Mankind” for a while now. The oldest known skeletal remains of modern humans have been found in East Africa. The human remains found at Omo in Ethiopia are 195,000 years old, the oldest known in the world. Besides, evidence has been found of pre-humans in Africa at least 4 million years ago.
Few will argue that mankind indeed took the first upright steps in Africa, and that it was here that the complex task of taming and mastering our environment began. But was that the beginning and the end of accomplishments in this part of the world? A look into Africa’s past reveals it to be the continent of many “firsts” and the birthplace of great architecture, science, medicine and literature that few know about.
Indeed, diplomacy has a history in Africa as well. According to Robin Walker’s book When We Ruled, in 1414 the Kenyan coastal city of Malindi sent ambassadors to China bearing an unusual gift — a giraffe. In West Africa, the Songhai Empire had a Minister for Etiquette and Protocol in the 16th Century.
Given the stunning facts about Africa’s accomplishments in a wide variety of fields, it is surprising that the continent is not better known as the “Cradle of Intellect”. Here are just a few of Africa’s amazing but little-known accomplishments from ancient times.
The Dancing Stones of Ng’amoritung’a, an archaeological site near the Western shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, certainly gives one pause for thought.
At first glance, one would think the cylindrical pillars, about a metre high, merely interesting. Indeed, the Turkana people in the area have a story explaining the cluster of stones that has been there long before their time. The stones have been dated to 300BC. Legend has it that some strangers came upon local people dancing at the site one day. Perhaps their dancing skills were wanting, for despite the dancers’ pleas, the strangers burst into laughter. The result; the dancers instantly turned to stone.
While the legend is entertaining, the truth is astonishing. The alignment of the pillars with the stars suggests an accurate and complex calendar system based on astronomical calculations. A 2,000-year-old calendar would suggest that the knowledge of astronomy existed in East Africa at least that long ago.
East Africa is not unique in this respect. The Dogon people of Mali have apparently had knowledge of astronomy for more than 500 years. They had drawings of the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy, they knew that the moon was “dry and dead, like dried blood”, and they observed and estimated the nature of the star today known as Sirius B, which cannot be seen without a powerful of telescope, and which was not discovered by Western astronomy until the 18th Century.
Ask anyone to name the father of modern medicine and they will no doubt say Hippocrates. Today, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to practice medicine ethically. But before Hippocrates, the Greek founder of Western medicine (460BC-370BC), there was Imhotep — the Egyptian.
Scientists from the University of Manchester discovered medical documents written by Imhotep in 1500BC, a thousand years before Hippocrates was born. The document, along with the writings in ancient Egyptian and Greek texts, show that Imhotep diagnosed and treated over 200 diseases, including 15 diseases of the abdomen, 11 of the bladder, 10 of the rectum, 29 of the eyes, and 18 of the skin, hair, nails and tongue. Imhotep treated tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout and arthritis. He also performed surgery and practiced some dentistry. Imhotep extracted medicine from plants. He also knew the position and function of the vital organs and circulation of the blood system.
It is no wonder that Imhotep was worshipped as a god in ancient Egypt after his death.
Pyramids, Palaces and Bridges — Imhotep apparently did not believe in confining his genius to one field of knowledge. If he was the father of medicine, he might also deserve the title “Father of Architecture”, for he was the chief architect of the step pyramid at Saqqara in Egypt, one of the most brilliant architectural wonders of the ancient world. The pyramid is the oldest complete hewn-stone building complex known in history.
Architectural prowess was not unique to ancient Egypt. Moving forward in time and southward in the continent, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe have proven that great architects lived here too.
Built in the 14th Century, the stone city, complete with a palace for the king, was home to about 18,000 people. Amazingly, the stone walls, up to 5 metres high, were built without mortar.
In Kenya and closer in time, a British engineer spoke of suspension bridges built with vines by the Kikuyu which equalled in engineering skill and potential durability any comparable bridges of wood he had seen in his own country.
Evidence of the early use of numbers in the Congo is found in the 8,000-year-old Ishango bone. The engraved marks on the Ishango bone led scientists to conclude that it was used as a lunar calendar.
In Yoruba and Benin in Nigeria, a complex number system has been used for a long time. Yoruba numerals demonstrated a capacity for abstract reasoning.In Egypt, mathematical papyri from 1800 BCE were discovered. They had formulas for the study of number theory, geometry, trigonometry and algebra. These were perhaps the first mathematics textbooks ever.
It has been common knowledge for a long time that the earliest writing, hieroglyphics, had its roots in Africa. However, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the true inventors of this writing system were known. On March 1, 1979, an article in the New York Times revealed new scientific knowledge indicating that the origin of the Egyptian hieroglyphic system was a black kingdom, known as Ta-Seti, at a place called Qustul, which preceded the first Dynasty in Egypt by twelve generations.
Certainly, no discussion on the three R’s in Africa is complete without a mention of the University of Timbuktu, founded in the 12th Century in North Africa. There, Islamic scholars taught from manuscripts covering an array of subjects including astronomy, medicine, mathematics, chemistry, judicial law, government, and Islamic conflict resolution. At its peak, the University had 25,000 students.
Over 1,500 years ago, Africans living on the western shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania produced carbon steel using blast furnaces. The temperature achieved in these furnaces was higher than any achieved in a European machine until the Industrial Revolution.
Lions Cavern in the Kingdom of Swaziland is the oldest mine in the world. This ancient mine found in an iron-ore mountain in Swaziland is at least 43,000 years old!
Ancient African Inventions and Discoveries You May Not Know About
The earliest known occurrence of plywood was in Ancient Egypt around 3500 BC. The ancient Egyptians, perhaps suffering from a shortage of wood, glued thin sheets of high quality wood over a substrate of lower quality wood for cosmetic effect.
Palm oilwas discovered in West Africa in the native palm trees as early as 5000 BC and was used to make Palm Oil wine, to fry food, and to make candles.
Glass tools for shaving were invented by 2000 AD in Kenya. They were made from volcanic glass found along the Njoro River.
In the 10th Century in Ghana, a cheque for 42,000 golden dinars was written to a merchant in the city of Audoghast by his partner in Sidjilmessa.
AFRICAN INVENTIONS OF THE MODERN WORLD
Paul Kaine, a Nigerian engineer, invented a pocket electronic map that was patented in France and is now used all over the world.
In South Africa, the entrepreneur Rajan Harinarain’s response to the housing of disaster stricken populations was to invent a foldaway house — complete with door, windows and electrical fittings — that can be erected in five minutes.
The Ushahidi software, developed by Kenyan Ory Okooloh, is a platform that allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualise it on a map or timeline for use in crisis response. It has been used to help in the Haiti and Chile disasters
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