Technology in sub-Saharan Cultures

by Khaleel Shaikh Published on: 5th June 2017

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Genetic and paleontological findings have concluded that Africa is the birthplace of the entire human race. Africa is often thought of as a continent rich in natural beauty and culture. However, little is known or…


Genetic and paleontological findings have concluded that Africa is the birthplace of the entire human race.[1] Africa is often thought of as a continent rich in natural beauty and culture. However, little is known or understood about the technology and innovation which was present throughout its history and the role in which it contributed to what we have today.

There are a limited number of resources on significant, evidential technology in sub-Saharan cultures. However one noteworthy study is that of Graham Connah’s “African Civilisations: an Archaeological Perspective”[2]. This short article relies heavily on this archaeological work.

Technology is an important part of developing cultures and is usually introduced as a result of the needs and wants of a progressing society. If it is accepted that the human pedigree originated in Africa, then naturally we should expect that tools, and hence technology, which accompanied human development, must have also originated from there. This article looks at pre-colonial, sub-Saharan Technology, dating as far back as the second millennium BCE and spread across the entire region of the African continent.

Figure 1. A map of early human migrations (Source)

Metallurgy and Quarrying

Metallurgy and quarrying must be the single most important technology in the African continent before the occurrence of European Colonisation. The methodology and knowledge that surrounded this lucrative industry varied depending on the different cultures and locations where metals were found.

Figure 2. The Nubia region today (Source)

The Nubians were experts in the fields of metallurgy and quarrying. They existed in what we call today Sudan and southern Egypt[3] (3700 BCE – 1504 CE). Countless examples of regional quarrying, suggest that the Nubians were a people who understood the processes of surveying and the science of engineering. Meroë, one of many Nubian capitals, was described as a “great city” by Herodotus[4] and excavations of iron slag suggest that there was a substantial industry surrounding the culture of metallurgy. The Nubian metallurgy industry was on such a scale that inscriptions on the Theban tomb of Huy testify that this region was Ancient Egypt’s main supplier of metal works.[5] Apart from iron, bronze was also mass produced during the Middle Kingdom (2050-1800 BCE) and used in the production of goods ranging from cutlery and jewellery to weaponry and musical instruments. The Level of brass production was equal to that of the Greco-Roman civilisations.[6] 

The Aksum civilisation (100 – 700 CE)[7] of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Highlands seem to be the most innovative in terms of quarrying. They had extensive knowledge extraction of granite. The quarries in Aksum have exposed the expertise of this process. When a section of stone was desired, cuts were made in specific areas and jammed with either iron or wooden wedges which were then heated or soaked in water causing them to expand and split the rock away. Some of the stelae in this region still have the markings of this process proving that this was a preferred quarrying method.

Figure 3. Aksum Quarry for Obelisks (Source)

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Djenne-Djenno (250 BCE – 50 CE)[8], in Mali, suggests that metallurgy arrived in the West African savanna around the first millennium BCE. However, during the first millennium CE, in the Mema region of Mali, evidence suggest that iron production was on too large a scale to be restricted for domestic purposes only and it was therefore likely that it was being exported. The West African Savanna must have specialised in industrial metallurgy as over 60,000 furnaces have been excavated dating back to approximately 1000 CE. Apart from smelting, the discovery of gold, silver and copper jewellery indicates that the people of the Savanna had the means and knowledge to produce pieces that date back to the 8th century CE.

[Soninke/West African farmers] were among the first to take advantage of the iron-working technology that developed in West Africa by about 500 B.C.E to 400 B.C.E.” [9]

The West African forests had also contributed to the metallurgy of this region. The Akan people (15-19th Century CE)[10] of Ghana solely influenced the mining and trading of gold in West Africa during the 15th and 19th centuries.[11] The levels of sophistication reached in the gold industry can be seen in the copper-alloy weights that the Akan people used to measure gold dust.

The inhabitants of the East African Coast and the islands that surround the region also had a lucrative metallurgy industry. There are many examples of iron smelting and forging across the entire eastern coast including the Comoro Islands and Madagascar. These metals were numerously traded with the Arabs, Indians and south east Asians. However, the most intricate examples of metallurgy in this region came in the form of gold, silver, copper and lead coins. The minting of coins in this region suggests that the eastern coast was a geostrategic trading location. Al-Idrisi, the 12th century geographer, spoke of metallurgy on an industrial scale at this region. Such coins, from Kilwa, have even been recently excavated in the Australian continent.[12]

Timber and iron were listed by Idrisi and other geographers among the exports of East Africa, not merely to Islamic lands but also, significantly to India – the home of fine quality weapons.”[13]

Figure 4. Idrisi Cairo Manuscript; depicting East Africa (bottom), Socotra (left) and Kanbalu (right) (Source)

Metallurgy was also present in Zambesia and Central Africa. During the first half of the second millennium CE, archaeological excavations have revealed the extensive mining and metal works that exited in Zambesia. In Great Zimbabwe, gold, iron, copper and tin can be found in in the form of tool, weapons and jewelry. In Central Africa, there is only evidence of iron and copper with the possibility of steel production in Tanzania because of the discovery of preheated air blasts.[14]

Due to the vast amounts of wooden fuel accessible to the people of Southern Africa, the region became an exporter of metal works to the African continent during the beginning of the second millennium. Various agricultural tools, weapons and jewellery are found in archaeological site of this region. Tin was also mined in Southern Africa and alloyed with copper to form bronze.

Architecture and Infrastructure

Architecture and infrastructure are indications of the progression of a society, encompassing both the sciences and the arts. The countless examples of buildings, megaliths and monoliths constructed across the entire African continent are a testament to the technological feats of those that inhabited these lands. From the time of Ancient Egypt up until European colonisation, archaeological excavations have exposed the aged and diverse tradition of architectural and infrastructural heritage in Africa.

North Africa has perhaps the most extravagant and grand examples of architecture and infrastructure due to the civilisation that surrounded Carthage. Dating back to the beginning of the first millennium BCE. Evidence suggests that Punic and post Roman cities of North Africa were developed and suited with the needs of growing populations. These cities along the Mediterranean coast, according to Connah (2016), had drainage and sanitation systems. Intricate aqueducts, transporting water to major North African hubs were beginning to be constructed just before the advent of Christ. However, Connah (2016) states that the most aesthetic and notable aspect of architectural technology in this region was the work of the local stonemasons and sculptors of beautiful mosaic pavements that usually depicted scenes of daily life and Punic mythology. The Romans had named these works as Pavimentum Punicum.

Figure 5. Carthage; 5th-6th Century Mosaic pavement (Source)

Apart from Ancient Egypt, the oldest evidence of urbanisation and civic statehood can be discovered in many sites along the Middle Nile. Today this region is located in the country of Sudan but from 3700 BCE to 1504 CE it was inhabited by the Ancient Nubians.[15] This region was home to many cities and gave birth to diverse and complex civilisations. Exceptional knowledge of architecture can be seen in the tombs of Kerma, Ballana and Qustul in the form of Ashlar Masonry using fired and mud bricks. During the Neolithic A-Group periods (3800-3100 BCE), excavations reveal the existence of funerary and religious architecture. These structures were designed in oval and circular shapes but in Afyeh, rectangular shapes are common and the infrastructure consisted of stone.[16] In the fifth century CE, Christianity was introduced in the Nubian region and this gave birth to many churches, chapels and monasteries. Hardly any of these buildings exist today but there archaeological remains are present in the form of frescoes, gravestones and other ruins.[17] Interestingly these new Christian themed structures held their ancient Nubian traditions of arched doorways, windows and vaulted ceilings.[18]

Figure 6. Kerma ancient city (Source)

The Ethiopian and Eritrean highlands have an exceptional heritage of ancient architecture. Connah (2006), states that the most technologically sophisticated advancements in tropical Africa, are those of the Aksumite civilisation. The Aksumites were proficient in the construction of large monoliths and luxurious residences which date back to the first millennium BCE. The designs of these buildings incorporated brick arches and barrel vaults into their structure and were made completely of fired bricks. Despite the evidential abundance of brick work in Aksum, there was also an ancient stone using people in Gobedra and Lalibela in the first millennium. Interestingly construction using stone can be dated back to the tenth millennium BCE in Baahti Nebait, Aksum.[19]

Figure 7. Old Towns of Djenné (Mali) (Source)

Connah (2016), mentions that the West African Savana consisted of ancient and sophisticated civilisations, which left behind examples proving this region to be technologically advanced for its time. In the ancient city of Jenne-Jeno, Mali, mud architecture date back to the first millennium CE and potsherd pavements are found around the region of the Inland Nigerian Delta. In Dhar Tichitt, Tegdaoust, Koumbi Saleh and Essouk-Tadmakka stone based constructions survive in the form of large megaliths and tumuli that must have required sufficient knowledge and engineering expertise.

The East African Coast has perhaps the most interesting technologies surrounding architecture and infrastructure. From as far back as the tenth century, architecture along the East African coast consist mainly of stone exteriors and Coral, lime plaster based interiors. Porites coral were extracted from the sea while it is still wet can be fashioned into any shape before incorporating it into the interior design of the walls. The lime based plaster was made by calcining coral (burning it) and then mixed with sand and water to make a paste.[20] Connah (2016), reveals that as these buildings often included multiple levels, the use of early scaffolding existed in the form of lashed mangrove poles that were precisely placed around the buildings.[21] The roofs of these buildings were made with mangrove rafters, stone and lime mortar and were supported with columns and beams. Domes and barrel vault were also a common feature in these buildings. It is also important to highlight the sanitation concerns of this region as most of these tenth century buildings were constructed with interior and exterior bathrooms.[22]  

Ibn Battuta, described Kilwa [present day southern Tanzania] as ‘one of the most beautiful and best built towns’ that he had witnessed on his many travels throughout much of the world.”[23]  

The ancient city of Great Zimbabwe incorporated many architectural feats into its design. The eleventh century city is entirely made from stone and almost completely devoid of any right angles causing a uniquely random element to the city’s design. The walls of Great Zimbabwe are thick at the base and thin nearing the top. They were also hollow but filled with excess rubble. Both techniques must have been to economise on materials and ease the labour process. Archaeologists maintain that the exteriors and interiors were most likely plastered with mud or Daga, a type mud used for plastering ceilings, walls and floors.

Figure 8. Aerial view of Great Enclosure and Valley Complex (Source)

Lastly, In South Africa archaeological evidence of infrastructure and architecture is more recent but extremely advanced considering the time. Excavations have revealed that the residences dating back to the 1800’s were very aesthetic in design. Made from reeds, mud and thatch, these unique houses even incorporated wooden sliding doors into their designs and had grooves in the doorways to hold them in place.[24] 

Agricultural and Textiles Technology

Due to variable and bountiful environments in the African continent, many examples of technology in the industry of agriculture and textile production have been discovered.

Figure 9. Threshing sledge, 1937 (Source)

During the Punic period of North Africa, the production of natural dyes, Garum (a fermented fish condiment) and olive oil reached to an industrial level. Thanks to the remains of  many olive oil presses that partially exist today in southern Tripoli, archaeologists assume that the Punic and Roman North Africans were exporters of such goods.[25] Animal powered ploughs and other wheeled devices were in use by North Africans. One particular piece of technology that is Carthaginian in decent, is the threshing cart or Plostellum Punicum as called by the Romans. This device was an early and perhaps one of the first forms of a modern combine harvester. The inhabitants of North Africa would have used such a device to remove the husk off of different cereals that were cultivated regionally.

Throughout the Meroitic, X-Group and Christian periods, the Nubians seem to have produced cotton on an industrial scale. Cotton, linen and animal fibre textiles were found in the Ballana and Qustul tombs during these periods. Cotton and linen were also excavated in the Meroitic town of Karanog. It is important to consider that cotton production requires substantial amounts of water and therefore some sites from these periods suggest that mechanical irrigation technology were used by the Nubians however it is thought to be from outside influence. Evidence of skilled cotton production can be found in Qasr Ibrim, just south of Aswan along the Nile.[26] Leather working and palm-fibre basketry were also a common practice and therefore likely that the Nubians would have had knowledge of animal husbandry and irrigation.

In West Africa, manuscripts were an important part of the culture and required many aspects of the agricultural industry. Although these manuscripts are found throughout this region, the highest density of texts found are in Timbuktu, where one million are currently recorded. Some sources also estimate around five million to be in existence.[27] Papermakers, stationers, scribes, scholars, bookbinders, tanners, gilders and farmers would have all been important specialists in the production of West African books.[28] Therefore it is important to recognise the large economy that would have surrounded this art of book making and the various specialists required to produce the end product.

Figure 10. A manuscript showing a table of astronomical information, Timbuktu (Source)  

Wine was another mass produced African commodity. The Aksumites of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Highlands were large scale producers of this sought after drink. Depictions of grape vines on third century carvings in the Tomb of the Brick Arches, the recovery of grape seeds from the Kidane Mehret site and the existing rock cut storage tanks used for pressing wine grapes, seem to support this theory. Connah (2016) also states that water storage may have been of a concern because of the Kohaito dam and the reservoir at Aksum.

Salt was also produced in East African Coast and Central Africa. In Mkadini, Tanzania, evaporating sea water to create salt is thought to have been practiced in the middle of the second millennium BCE.[29] While in Kibiro, Uganda, salt was produced to 97.6% purity in the beginning of the second millennium.[30]

The Black men come up from their country and take away the salt from [Taghaza]. In the town of Malli [Mali] it sells for twenty to thirty mithqals, and sometimes as much as forty. The negroes use salt as a medium of exchange, just as gold and silver is used [elsewhere]; they cut it up into pieces and buy and sell with it.” [31]

Military and Transportation Technology

Military and transportation was the cause of many new innovative technologies in ancient times. The African continent, with the exception of North Africa, appears not to have an economy based on military expeditions, however there are a few examples where technology has played a crucial historical role, militarily and in transport in this expansive continent.

Figure 11. Dufuna Canoe (Source)

As a result of the Punic Wars (264 BCE to 146 BCE)[32] between Carthage and Rome, military technology was becoming an essential part of North African culture. Carthage was known for its Military Navy and its construction of warships to fight the Romans. Military precision and tactics are exampled in the warrior Queen Amina of Zazzau, northern Nigeria. Her conquered territories expanded from Bauchi in the east to the Niger River in the south. She was renowned for building walled towns, protected from invaders, wherever she conquered.[33] Boats with sails were also used by the Nubians for reasons of commerce along the Nile. Interestingly Connah (2016) mentions of an 8000 year old boat discovered in Dufna, Northeast Nigeria.[34]

Although little archaeological evidence, relating to military and transport, remain in the East African Coast, it is from sources of information such as the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (60 CE) and other historical accounts that lead to evidence of a seafaring people that existed in this region. Boats with sewn hulls and matted sails were mentioned by the Portuguese and it is most likely that the mtepe, a boat associated with the Swahili people, is of this region. Such boats are even depicted on the walls of houses and mosques revealing the importance of this mode of transport for the locals of that region. Not only were East Africans proficient in the building of boats, they also appeared to have a sound understanding of navigational skills and seamanship as there is evidence of their contact with Madagascar, the Comoro Islands, and South and South-East Asia.[35]

Figure 12. Mtepe on the beach at Zanzibar, circa 1890 (Source)


  • Connah, G. (2016). African Civilisations: an Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
  • translated by Powell, E. (1949). Herodotus. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 121-2.
  • (1999). The African Heritage. Vol.3. Zimbabwe Publishing House.
  • Bianchi, R.S. (2004). Daily Life of the Nubians. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp.2-3.
  • Falconer, S.E. and Redman, C.l. (2009). Polities and Power: Archaeological Perspectives on the Landscapes of Early States. University of Arizona Press.
  • Meltzer, L. Hooper, L. Klinghardt, G. (2008). Timbuktu Script & Scholarship; a Catalogue of Selected Manuscripts from the Exhibition. [online catalogue]. (Archived). p.34-35.
  • Williams, L. Shenley, M. (2012). Bradt Guides: Nigeria. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 304.
  • Lobban Jr. R.A. (2003). Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia. Scarecrow Press.
  • (1988). Old Towns of Djenné. Available at: [Accessed: 22/05/2017].
  • Stevens, C.J. et al. (2016). Archaeology of African Plant Use. Routledge.
  • Scarre, C. (1995). The Wars with Carthage. London: Penguin Books, 24–25.
  • Hamdun, S. King, N.Q. (2005). Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. Markus Wiener Publishers.
  • Conrad, D.C. (2009). Empires of Medieval West Africa. Infobase Publishing. p.23.
  • Hobson J.M. (2004). The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Cambridge University Press. pp. 41-42.

Further Reading

  • Pacey, A. (1991). Technology in World Civilisation: a Thousand-year History. MIT Press.
  • Selin, H. (2013). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in non-Western Cultures. Springer Science & Business Media.


[1] The Genographic Project: Map of Human Migration. Available at: [Accessed: 22/05/2017].

[2] Connah, G. (2016). African Civilisations: an Archaeological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Bianchi, R.S. (2004). Daily Life of the Nubians. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp.2-3.

[4] translated by Powell, E. (1949). Herodotus. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 121-2.

[5] Connah, G. African Civilisations, p. 101.

[6] Lobban Jr. R.A. (2003). Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia. Scarecrow Press. p. 82.

[7] The British Museum: The Wealth of Africa; The Kingdom of Aksum. Available at: [Accessed: 22/05/2017].

[8] (1988). Old Towns of Djenné. Available at: [Accessed: 22/05/2017].

[9] Conrad, D.C. (2009). Empires of Medieval West Africa. Infobase Publishing. p.23.

[10] (1999). The African Heritage. Vol.3. Zimbabwe Publishing House.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Connah, G. African Civilisations, p. 247

regarding, trading and currency see; Kermeliotis, T. (2013). Ancient African coins that could change history of Australia. [online] Available at:

[13] Postan M.M. (1996). The Cambridge Economic Histoy of Europe: The agrarian life of the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. p. 470.

*The quote from al-Idrisi himself can be found in: Freeman-Grenville, G. (1962). The east African Coast: Select Documents from the First to the Earlier Ninteenth Century. Oxford Clarendon Press. p.20.

[14] Ibid, p. 322.

*Gold mining in Zimbabwe see; Hobson J.M. The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. p. 41. 

[15] Bianchi, R.S. Daily Life of the Nubians, pp.2-3.

[16] Lobban Jr. R.A. Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia, p. 38.

[17] Ibid. p. 2.

[18] Ibid. p. 116.

[19] Connah, G. African Civilisations, p. 137.

[20] Falconer, S.E. and Redman, C.l. (2009). Polities and Power: Archaeological Perspectives on the Landscapes of Early States. University of Arizona Press.

[21] Connah, G. African Civilisations, p. 249.

[22] Ibid. p. 249.

[23] Hobson J.M. (2004). The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. Cambridge University Press. p. 41.

[24] Ibid. p. 314.

[25] Ibid. p. 60.

[26] Ibid. p. 101.

Lobban Jr. R.A. Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia, p. 215-216.

Stevens, C.J. et al. (2016). Archaeology of African Plant Use. Routledge.  p. 172

[27] Meltzer, L. Hooper, L. Klinghardt, G. (2008). Timbuktu Script & Scholarship; a Catalogue of Selected Manuscripts from the Exhibition. [online catalogue]. (Archived). p.34.

[28] Ibid. p. 35.

[29] Ibid. p. 250.

[30] Ibid. p. 322.

[31] Hamdun, S. King, N.Q. (2005). Ibn Battuta in Black Africa. Markus Wiener Publishers.

[32] Scarre, C. (1995). The Wars with Carthage. London: Penguin Books, 24–25.

[33] Williams, L. Shenley, M. (2012). Bradt Guides: Nigeria. Bradt Travel Guides. p. 304.

[34] Connah, G. African Civilisations, p. 176.

[35] Connah, G. African Civilisations, p. 249.

see; Hobson J.M. The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. p. 41. 

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