More Than a Celebration of Struggle, Arts & Culture
By Michael De Gale
January 23, 2007
If I didn’t know better, during the month of February I will be left with the distinct impression that the Civil Rights struggle, crafts and music mixed with a dazzling display of dance and a variety of cultural activities represents the sum of Africa’s contribution to civilization. In spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence and the existence of numerous artifacts, little is ever mentioned in the mainstream about Africa’s contributions to civilization in the fields of science and technology. With the exception of inquiring minds, the proliferation of numerous books and scholarly articles on the subject has done little to dispel the truncated view of Africa as simply a land of exoticism in the consciousness of the greater public.
As the editor of the book, “Blacks in Science – Ancient and Modern”, Professor Ivan Van Sertima of Rutgers University, USA, refers to the lost sciences of Africa, ranging from astronomy as practiced by the Dogon of Mali, to the writing systems of the Akan people on the west coast of Africa and the Mande or Manding-speaking people who flourished in the Sahara during its period of fertility. In the past few decades, archeologist and historians have made astonishing discoveries shedding new light on Africa and it centers of science and technology. However, these discoveries have been slow to penetrate the mainstream and even slower to become integrated into the science and technology courses of education systems. Among the African sciences identified are architecture, aeronautics, engineering, mathematics, metallurgy and medicine, navigation and physics to mention a few.
Van Sertima makes the point that historically, anthropologists have chosen to focus on the primitive, in particular the African Bushmen, and to forgo the complexities in the primary centers of large African nations. These are the areas where, according to contemporary archeologist and historians, the technological and scientific life of Africa was located. They include steel-smelting in Tanzania 1,500-2000 years old, an astronomical observatory in Kenya 300 years BC and an African glider-plane 2,300 years old. Using microwave beams to probe beneath the sands of the Sahara, an American radar satellite revealed cultures 200,000 years old and the traces of ancient rivers running from this African center. Some of these buried stream-valleys they concluded are ancient connections to the upper Nile tributaries, where blacks migrated and later populated Nubia and Egypt.
Given the proliferation of wars, famine, refugees in constant flight and the disturbing images of hungry children with swollen bellies, dying – with mouths and eyes infested with flies; it is understandably difficult to envision Africa as a land where science and technology once flourished. To shed some light on this dichotomous phenomenon, Prof. Van Sertima explained how science and technology may rise and fall with a civilization and why the destruction of a center could lead almost to the instant evaporation or disappearance of centuries of knowledge and technical skills.
According to Van Sertima, not unlike modern cities prior to the Industrial Revolution and to a great extent today, centers of science and technology tended to be highly concentrated in areas such as scholastic institutions, among the priest cast, trading posts or in royal capital cities. However, science and technology was slow to reach the peripheries and in many areas were entirely absent. With such a high concentration in selected areas, a nuclear war for example could shatter the primary centers of 21st century technology in a matter of days. The survivors on the peripheries, although they would remember the airplanes and the television sets, the robots and the computers, the satellites now circling our solar system, would not be able for centuries to reproduce that technology. In addition to the wholesale slaughter of the technocratic class, the interconnection between these shattered centers and the equally critical interdependency between the centers and their peripheries would be gone forever. Like the strands of a web which once stretched across the world, it will be left torn and dangling in a void, and a dark age would most certainly follow.
Given this scenario, one can understand why centuries afterwards, the technological brilliance of the 21st century would seem dreamlike and unreal. Future generations in centuries to come will obviously doubt what has been achieved in the centuries preceding the disaster. This happened before in the world. Not in the same way, but with the same catastrophic effects. Van Sertima stated emphatically, that this is what happened in Africa.
He contends that no human disaster with the possible exception of the biblical flood can equal in dimension or destructiveness, the cataclysm that shook Africa. Beginning with the slave trade and the traumatic effect of this on the transplanted blacks, it is difficult to appreciate what horrors were unleashed on Africa itself. Vast populations were uprooted and displaced. Whole generations disappeared. European diseases descended like a plague, annihilating both animals and people with impunity, cities and towns were abandoned, family networks disintegrated, kingdoms crumbled, the thread of cultural and historical continuity were so savagely torn asunder that henceforth, one would have to think of two Africas; the one before and the one after the Holocaust. Anthropologists have said that 80% of traditional African culture survived. What they mean by traditional is the only kind of culture the world has come to accept as African – that of the primitive on the periphery – the stunned survivor.
Nevertheless, in spite of the oppressive and inhospitable circumstances faced by Africans on the continent and throughout the Diaspora, there was no loss of black ingenuity and technological innovation. The thread of African genius unraveled like light speeding through spools of the glassfibre lightguides that black scientist Dr. Northover developed. Or like impulses traveling along the transatlantic cable Dr. Richardson helped to lay down, channeling voices from one continent to another, one time to another, bridging the chasm between the ancestral African and the modern black, between root and branch, seed and flower, an old heart and a new brain continued to spark with ingenuity.
The destruction of Pompeii and the ongoing efforts to locate the lost city of Atlantis is common knowledge worldwide despite the fact that the existence of Atlantis is still questionable and mired in mythology. By contrast, Africa’s history of scientific and technological innovation, though meticulously documented and scientifically proven, is less familiar than both Pompeii and Atlantis. The perverse resistance to acknowledge Africa’s contributions to civilization has deep historical roots and would require another paper to explore its genesis and perpetuation. Nevertheless, to quote Dr. John Henrick Clarke – the great African thinker and ardent promoter of Pan-Africanism, “…African history is the missing pages of world history”. When this truth becomes universally accepted and is integrated into the general history of human civilization, the need for Black History Month will no longer be necessary. Africa’s numerous and continuing contributions to the development of civilization will finally be known, opening the door to honest debate of other pressing issues and possibly, to the realization of Dr. King’s dream.