The history of human scientific advancement is littered with contributions from societies from around the world, yet Africans strangely rarely get credited in this affair. Ancient Africa was home to world class experts in mathematics, astronomy, aeronautics and even medicine. The continent’s progressive ideals often led to the ability for scientific developments to prosper, resulting in a global technological presence whose consultancy was sought after around the world in places like Greece and Rome. Contributions from Africans in other nations may have acted as a spark for innovation— the effects of which can still be felt today. Ultimately, the continent was a leader in it’s time.
Hypatia of Egypt provides a prime yet tragic example of how a progressive atmosphere propelled certain Africans to success. Hypatia was a woman mathematician who led a prominent life that was distinct from the lives of women in Greece who were “not permitted to move about in public without a ‘kourios’ or male escort.” Her story was not unique, as many prominent Egyptian women contributed much to science, as they were enabled by a culture that saw them as equals in the eyes of the law, in the household and in royalty. Yet, Hypatia’s story was unfortunately cut short by the patriarchal agenda of an invading Rome, as she would not convert to Christinaity and was executed for it. This was a power whose ideology directly prevented women from contributing to society, and collaterally prevented science from progressing.
Another example of how the ancient Africans made notable contributions to mathematical history lies in the Egyptians approximations of pi. Pi (denoted as 𝜋) is a mathematical constant that relates a circle’s diameter to its circumference. It is a special type of number (though not necessarily rare) in that it cannot be expressed algebraically— it is “transcendental.” For societies whose mathematical tools stopped at algebra, a precise calculation of 𝜋 would not be possible until calculus, and instead relied on approximations. Some believe that 𝜋 was first approximated by Archimedes in the 3rd century B.C.E. However, the Egyptians approximated =227=3.142857, while Archimedes’ could only narrow it down to within the range of 3.1429 to 3.1408. To demonstrate the accuracy of Egyptian mathematics, the Egyptian estimation is only 0.04% higher than the actual value. Additionally, the Egyptian approximate predates Archimedes by nearly two thousand years— yet, some still doubt African prowess in mathematics. These examples clearly demonstrate that Egypt— and Africa by extension— was a powerhouses of mathematics.
The scientific accomplishments of Africa are severely understated in favor of their Greek and Roman neighbors, despite themselves having, for example, a superior grasp of medical knowledge. A sophisticated understanding of the human body was not limited to the Mediterranean. In Africa, witch doctors from various tribes around the continent performed difficult surgeries ranging from removing blinding cataracts to Caesarean section delivery, all the while making use of local fauna to anesthetize patients, cauterizing wounds to prevent blood loss, and sterile technique. Africans were performing advanced and difficult operations that were unheard of by Europeans at the time, until many years later when they were rediscovered. Perhaps Homer said it best in the Odyssey, where he wrote “”In medical knowledge, Egypt leaves the rest of the world behind.”
In fact, Egyptian medical expertise was so well known that they were looked to as examples of excellence, and modelled after. As Egyptologist and doctor Charles S. Finch says, “The city-state of Athens used to import Egyptian physicians, as did most of the kingdoms of the Near East.” This was likely because of Egypt’s extensive documentation on pharmaceuticals, rigorous and structured physician training (which closely resembles modern medical specializations), and libraries of recorded medical literature. It is likely that the Egyptian organization of medical care spread to other societies, like in Greece and Rome, where it became commonplace, and later falsely thought to originate in Europe.
Another field of science— astronomy— gives poignant light to this phenomenon of African intellectualism. In 1947, the Dogon council of elders and the most important priests gathered to reveal their expertise and vast scientific knowledge of the celestial world to two French anthropologists. The expertise of the Dogon is supported primarily by their meticulous records of the star Sirius B. The Dogon utilized an extensive orthography which was used to record observations, from which a form of mathematics and calendars evolved. Clearly, this supports an extremely strong case proving that the Dogon are astronomical experts.
Additionally, the Dogon made use of the scientific method in their refinement of their understanding of Sirius B and its orbiting satellites, which is not consistent all the time. This finding was confirmed independently by European astronomers, proving that the Dogon recordings of the star were no mistake. This employment of a technique that required an entire Renaissance for Europe to begin to fully grasp demonstrates the capability for African scientific research.
Additionally, to further the evidence towards Egyptian expertise, Egyptian engineers were experimenting with flying machines as early as the 4th or 3rd century B.C. A model that was recovered in Egypt resembled that of a monoplane, and upon examination from a flight engineer, was found to resemble the aerofoil: a design that took years of refinement by modern engineers to optimize for maximum flight capability. The aerofoil design seeks to minimize drag, which allows planes to go faster and further. The Egyptian model plane was no mistake either, as there were no decorative feathers or otherwise to indicate that the object might be a toy.
When the model was recreated by the same flight engineers, it was found to fly or glide when thrown into the air. Dr. Khalil Messiha, an egyptologist who worked on the excavation and analysis of the model, speculates that this could be archaeological evidence of a blueprint for a flying machine that was conceived thousands of years before the likes of Leonardo DaVinci. This is a very strong demonstration of the engineering prowess of the nation of Egypt at its prime, as it had the potential to work on experiments that were not expanded upon until many years after the last of the Pharaohs.
Given a closer look than what basic education might provide, ancient Africa held some of the best thinkers and scientists of the classical world. From surgeons to engineers to astronomers to pure mathematicians, African expertise stretched across a broad number of fields. African doctors distinguished themselves as some of the best in the classical world, acting as a role model for other societies. Ancient Africa’s surgeons and astronomers left behind extensive proof of their work, leaving no doubt behind their passion and prominence in their respective fields, while Africa’s mathematicians worked on theories that acted as the milestone for contemporaries for many years. African engineering in aeronautics remains hidden in archaeological evidence, but hints at a society that could explore paths of engineering that were not traversed until centuries later. The connecting factor between all of these fields is an African excellence in their long-lasting contributions to humanity’s collective scientific literature.
Arndt, Jörg, and Christoph Haenel. Pi Unleashed. Berlin: Springer, 2012.
Finch, Charles S. “The African Background Of Medical Science” In Blacks In Science: Ancient and Modern, edited by Sertima, Ivan Van. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994.
Havelin Adams, Hunter III. “African Observers Of The Universe: The Sirius Question.” In Blacks In Science: Ancient and Modern, edited by Sertima, Ivan Van. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994.
Lumpkin, Beatrice. “Hypatia and Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt” In Black Women in Antiquity, edited by Sertima, Ivan Van. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1984.
Messiha, Khalil, et al. “African Experimental Aeronautics” In Blacks In Science: Ancient and Modern, edited by Sertima, Ivan Van. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994.
Verner, Miroslav, Steven Rendall, and Zahi Abass Hawass. The Pyramids: the Mystery, Culture, and Science of Egypt’s Great Monuments. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2004.