Ancient African Inventions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Africa has been home to billions of people across history, as well as some very important inventions. In this lesson, we'll explore the inventions of ancient Africans and see how they changed human societies.

Inventors of Ancient Africa

The human species evolved on the continent of Africa. This means that Africa has been inhabited longer than any place on Earth. So it's not surprising to learn that some of the greatest inventors in human history were living on this continent. The history of African inventors dates back to before modern humans technically existed. It was our genetic ancestors like Homo erectus who invented stone tools and discovered how to make fire. As soon as anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa, they started creating things too. The fishing hook, bow and arrow, and even boats were first invented by Africans long before the advent of written history. Even as humans started migrating out of Africa, those remaining on the continent just kept on inventing.


Let's talk about some of the great inventions that ancient Africans produced, starting with medicine. Human groups likely had some sort of medicine since the earliest days of the species; but what we're talking about here is the development of a systematic medicinal culture. The ancient Egyptians have one of the oldest institutionalized cultures of medicine the world. Professional healers not only used routine treatments for a variety of ailments, but recorded their knowledge as well. This let them establish schools of medicine, with each generation building upon the accomplishments of the last.

As a result, the ancient Egyptians could do some pretty advanced stuff. They were able to complete complex surgeries, mend broken bones, and deal with maladies of the digestive, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. These treatments required medical tools and healing herbs/minerals, as well as magical spells.

Medical tools of ancient Egypt


Along with complex systems of medicine, ancient Africans also developed systems of mathematics. Ancient Egyptians institutionalized the learning of math which resulted in monumental architecture like the pyramids. Further evidence of mathematics stemming from Africa is the finding of tally sticks, long segments of bone or wood incised with markings to denote quantities. These simple devices have been found around the world, but the oldest may be the Lebombo bone that was discovered in Swaziland of southern Africa. At roughly 43,000 years old, it represents the oldest indication that ancient humans were using organized systems of mathematics to account for various quantities. In this case, it's widely believed that the markings relate to the number of days in a lunar month.

The Calendar

That brings us to another notable invention: the calendar. Ancient African societies had advanced knowledge of astronomy and had learned from very early dates how to present the movements of the Earth, Sun, moon, and stars into an organized system. The earliest evidence of this dates back to a mysterious structure in southern Africa made up of stone circles, called Adam's calendar. It's a large collection of stone structures, assembled into what appears to be an astronomical calendar. It's basically like Stonehenge, but much older. While this remains one of the most controversial sites in Africa, some scholars have proposed that it may be up to 75,000 years old. If this date is accurate, it would be the oldest human-made structure in the world.


Metal is pretty useful. Ancient Africans seem to have realized this early on. While humans in other parts of the world did not start fully utilizing metal until much later, Africans were smelting iron nearly 2,500 years ago. Metal tools can be found across Africa where ancient societies began exploiting rich mineral deposits millennia ago. Some of the most impressive ancient metallurgists may have lived in what is now Tanzania 2,000 years ago. Archeological evidence from this region suggests that ancient peoples may have actually been able to make carbon steel by at least 500 CE, if not earlier. The secret was in the advanced furnaces created by African peoples of this region which burned hotter but used less fuel. In fact, the ancient Tanzanians seem to have been systematically producing steel of a quality that would not be matched until England's Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.

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