Africa's Amazing Contributions To The World

When we think of Africa, the image that often comes to mind is one of poor starving children and women, or chaotic, hostile males killing each other. Or, we think of a place rich in raw natural resources that can be exploited. There are parts of Africa where each of these is the case, but they provide a very incomplete picture of Africa. 

Most of the world does not know the extent of Africa’s contributions to everyone’s way of life. Many African contributions have been appropriated by western culture, but often with little effort to understand the differences between African and western ways of life, leading to the negative branding of an entire continent as primitive. This negative presentation of Africa has happened not only in public speech and media, but also in the writing of history books and teaching at schools.

Many people feel the urge to distance themselves from any possible connection to Africa because of how the continent has been branded, and many continue to question the autonomy of Africa’s contribution to the world in science, art and other aspects of life.

But if one takes the time to intentionally learn about Africa, one will appreciate its contributions. One of Africa2U’s goals is to take inventory of African cultural heritage, in the spheres of traditions, history and arts, through literature review, personal experiences of Africans and other sources, and share this with the communities we live in. 

Today, I am going to share with you some of the things that Africa has contributed to  the world.

To begin, Africa is of course the world’s oldest populated area, so we all have our ancestry in Africa, and it is safe to assume that all knowledge of survival techniques originated in Africa, even though these techniques have evolved with civilization.  Similarly, the domestication of fire almost certainly took place in Africa, and helped make it possible to migrate to colder regions.
Map source: 24Point

The continent has 30% of Earth’s remaining mineral resources. It has the largest reserves of precious metals, with 40% of gold reserves, over 60% of cobalt reserves and 90% of platinum reserves. Looking at these statistics alone, one could easily wonder why Africa, as a continent, is considered the poorest in economic terms.

Gum Arabica tree
Do you eat gum? If you have a packet with you, take it out and look at its ingredients. Do you see “Acacia Gum” or “Gum Arabica” on the list? It is the substance that makes the gum chewy, a natural gum made from the hardened sap of various Acacia trees, which grow from Senegal to Sudan.  It’s also used as a thickening agent in shampoos, marshmallows, glues, and many other common products.  80% of the world’s supply is produced in Sudan.

The word “Arabica” will also be familiar to coffee drinkers, and coffee was first cultivated in Ethiopia. We believe Ethiopians also were the first to domesticate two of the world’s most popular pack animals – donkeys and camels.

Of course, it is worth noting that the names of these products has the name "Arabica" in them. One might wonder why that is the case, yet their origins is Africa. Well, it is because the Arab traders are the ones who introduced these items to people from other continents.

In one of my earlier episodes, I described how autopsies and caesarean sections were routinely and effectively carried out by surgeons in pre-colonial Uganda, and Masai warriors had mastered the art of surgical procedures for lung injuries.  

When Robert Felkin returned to Britain from Africa in the 1800s, he shared with his peers his account of a successful caesarian birth in the Banyoro kingdom of western Uganda.  At a time when most of the world viewed caesarian sections as a way to save the baby of a mother who would surely die, the Banyoro mother and child both surivived.

Dr. Barnard
Photo source: Gateway. go. za
More recently, the first successful human heart transplant was performed in 1967 at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.  And in 2014, South Africa’s Stellenbosch University was the site of the first successful penis transplant – successful enough that the recipient made his girlfriend pregnant within a few months.

In music, historian John Reader wrote in 1997 that a flute-like drilled bone made more than 45,000 years ago and found in the Haua Fteah cave in Libya was the world’s oldest known musical instrument – to be distinguished from simple one-note whistles, which go back perhaps 100,000 years. More musical instruments from the Neanderthal era have been discovered in recent years, but the Libyan flute would still certainly be one of the earliest. 
Photo source: NewYork Times

It is believed to have been played for leisure or to imitate the calls that would lure birds and animals into traps. It is logical that early humans migrating from Africa through the Middle East and into Europe would have brought their musical practice with them. Perhaps they also brought musical instruments.

Of course, mentioning musical instruments made of bone reminds me of the Ishango and Lebombo bones, which I have also described in a previous episode.  These bones, found thousands of miles apart at the Uganda-Congo border and in Swaziland, date to more than 20,000 years ago. They have notches cut on them, which some historians and mathematicians believe to represent a lunar calendar, a woman’s menstrual cycle, or ways of converting between counting systems. They are believed to be the world’s oldest mathematical tools.

Much of the history of the Abrahamic religions is interwoven with that of northern Africa, with Egypt figuring prominently in Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Christianity took root in Africa as early as the 1st century, in present-day Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, and African Christians influenced Christianity in the rest of the world.

Cities also came from Africa.  From 1500 to 900 BC, the Egyptian city of Thebes – not to be confused with the one in Greece – may have been the most populous in the world, with more than 75,000 residents.

Another Egyptian city, Kahun, was the first planned city in the world, dating to before 1800 BC.  Built to house workers who were constructing a pyramid nearby, it laid out in an orderly rectangular manner with standardized houses. Low-level workers lived in smaller houses in a lower part of the city, while the elites lived in larger houses uphill. 

Speaking of pyramids, did you know there are more in Sudan than in Egypt?  During the ancient Kushite kingdom of Sudan, more than 250 pyramids were built.

In the modern era, Namibia was the first country in the world to incorporate environmental protection into its constitution.  It is considered the third-best stargazing destination in the world, after Hawaii and Chile. Most children among Namibia’s indigenous San people can identify 200 species of plants by age 12, and adults can identify over 300.

I hope you have learned something new about Africa’s contributions to the world.

Vivian Birchall