6 Innovations you probably didn’t know came out of ancient Africa /// Part 2

Architecture and engineering

Various past African societies created sophisticated built environments. Of course, there are the engineering feats of the Egyptians: the bafflingly raised obelisks and the more than 80 pyramids. The largest of the pyramids covers 13 acres and is made of 2.25 million blocks of stone. Later, in the 12th century and much farther south, there were hundreds of great cities in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. There, massive stone complexes were the hubs of cities. One included a 250-meter-long, 15,000-ton curved granite wall (9). The cities featured huge castle like compounds with numerous rooms for specific tasks, such as iron-smithing. In the 13th century, the empire of Mali boasted impressive cities, including Timbuktu, with grand palaces, mosques and universities.

Medicine

Many treatments we use today were employed by several ancient peoples throughout Africa. Before the European invasion of Africa, medicine in what is now Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa, to name just a few places, was more advanced than medicine in Europe. Some of these practices were the use of plants with salicylic acid for pain (as in aspirin), kaolin for diarrhoea (as in Kaopectate), and extracts that were confirmed in the 20th century to kill Gram positive bacteria. Other plants used had anticancer properties, caused abortion and treated malaria — and these have been shown to be as effective as many modern-day Western treatments. Furthermore, Africans discovered ouabain, capsicum, physostigmine and reserpine. Medical procedures performed in ancient Africa before they were performed in Europe include vaccination, autopsy, limb traction and broken bone setting, bullet removal, brain surgery, skin grafting, filling of dental cavities, installation of false teeth, what is now known as Caesarean section, anaesthesia and tissue cauterization. In addition, African cultures preformed surgeries under antiseptic conditions universally when this concept was only emerging in Europe.

Navigation

Most of us learn that Europeans were the first to sail to the Americas. However, several lines of evidence suggest that ancient Africans sailed to South America and Asia hundreds of years before Europeans. Thousands of miles of waterways across Africa were trade routes. Many ancient societies in Africa built a variety of boats, including small reed-based vessels, sailboats and grander structures with many cabins and even cooking facilities. The Mali and Songhai built boats 100 feet long and 13 feet wide that could carry up to 80 tons. Currents in the Atlantic Ocean flow from this part of West Africa to South America. Genetic evidence from plants and descriptions and art from societies inhabiting South America at the time suggest small numbers of West Africans sailed to the east coast of South America and remained there. Contemporary scientists have reconstructed these ancient vessels and their fishing gear and have completed the transatlantic voyage successfully. Around the same time as they were sailing to South America, the 13th century, these ancient peoples also sailed to China and back, carrying elephants as cargo.

Edited for the DI, source Sydella Blatch.