Jan 25, 2016
Aspects of Indigenous Science, Mathematics and Technology
Science, Mathematics and Technology
Science and technology in Africa has a history stretching to the beginning of the human species, stretching back to the first evidence of tool use by hominid ancestors in the areas of Africa where humans are believed to have evolved. One significant collection of documents known as the Timbuktu manuscripts, have established that "sub-Saharan Africans were studying mathematics and astronomy over 300 years ago." This was just 14 translations out of 700,000. Scholars note that more manuscripts exist in a wider geographical zone of West Africa to Sudan to northern Mozambique in east Africa. One of the major achievements found in Africa was the advance knowledge of fractal geometry. The knowledge of fractal geometry can be found in a wide aspect of African life from art, social design structures, architecture, to divination systems. Board games such as oware and textile patterns are other areas of mathematical knowledge among Africans.
Mathematics is the art or technique used to explain, understand and manage reality specifically by ciphering, counting, measuring, classifying, ordering, inferring, and modeling patterns in the environment. In this regard it may be said that every organized society has some mathematics to help explain, understand and manage the reality of the society.
Various ethnic groups in Ghana count, classify, order and model mathematical patterns in their every day activities. Some fishing folks and plantain and orange sellers count on base five. Cocoa farmers and sharecroppers use percentages and fractions (abunu, abusa, and nkotokuano) in the distribution of the money from the sale of cocoa.
In Ghana, the kente, woven by the Ewe and Asante, is encoded with mathematical patterns such as even and odd numbers, triangular numbers, “Pascal's triangle” and the binomial theorem. The Asante kente weaver lays out the warp threads using base four counting system. Each four threads are called oba and ten oba is called oha (Rattray, 1927). One writer known as K shows that some of the kente designs encode the Fibonacci series - 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 as well as the Pascal's triangle.
The knowledge encoded by the Akan cultural symbols cover a wide array of disciplines. A cursory look at several of the symbols reveals that they encode mathematics not just as geometric shapes, but also high levels of mathematical abstraction. Several kente and adinkra symbols, for example, lend themselves to tessellation and transformation. The gold weights were also used as counters as well as fractions in every day accounting transactions.
Rattray’s classic volume on the Asante culture of Ghana includes a chapter on owari, but unfortunately it only covers the rules and strategies of the game. Recently Kofi Agudoawu (1991) of Ghana has written a book of the owari game “dedicated to Africans who are engaged in the formidable task of reclaiming their heritage,” and he does note its association with reproduction: awari in the Ghanaian language Twi means “he/she marries.” Herskovits (1930), noting that the “awari” game played by the descendants of African slaves in the New World had retained some of the pre-colonial cultural associations from Africa, reports that awari had distinct “sacred character” to it, particularly involving the carving of the board. Owari boards with carvings of logarithmic spirals can be commonly found in Ghana today, suggesting that Western scientists may not be the only ones who developed an association between discrete self-organiziing patterns and biological reproduction.
One of the major achievements found in Africa was the advance knowledge of fractal geometry and mathematics. The knowledge of fractal geometry can be found in a wide aspect of African life from art, social design structures, architecture, to games, trade, and divination systems. With the discovery of fractal mathematics in widespread use in Africa, Ron Eglash had this to say,
"We used to think of mathematics as a kind of ladder that you climb, and we would think of counting systems – one plus one equals two – as the first step and simple shapes as the second step. Recent mathematical developments like fractal geometry represented the top of the ladder in most Western thinking. But it's much more useful to think about the development of mathematics as a kind of branching structure and that what blossomed very late on European branches might have bloomed much earlier on the limbs of others. When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganized and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn't even discovered yet."
The binary numeral system was also widely known through Africa before much of the world. It has been theorized that it could have influence western geometry which would lead to the development of the digital computer.
The Akan architect used his mathematical knowledge to build houses with very steep roofing not only to prevent water from collecting on and seeping through the thatch roofing material, but also to prevent winds from blowing the roof off.
West Africans were probably the first people to start using the method of fish lines and hook in fishing. The hooks were made of bone, hard wood, or shell between 16,000 to 9000 BCE. Fishermen on the coast have advanced knowledge of astronomy.
Food Science and Food Preservation
Traditional production of Ghanaian foods and beverages (kenkey, tuo zafi, gari, akrakro, epitsi, banku, aprapransa, waakye, shito, pito, etc) depends on micro-organisms, especially yeasts and bacteria which producers utilize in appropriate processes. High post-harvest food losses, arising largely from limited food preservation capacity, are a major factor constraining food and nutrition security in the developing countries of West Africa, where seasonal food shortages and nutritional deficiency diseases are still a major concern. Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) and the various micronutrient deficiency disorders including vitamin A deficiency (VAD), nutritional anemias due to deficiencies of iron, folic acid and vitamin B12, and iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) remain important public health problems. PEM and IDD have profound consequences on growth and mental development of children and VAD, apart from its damaging consequences on the eye (xerophthalmia and night blindness), is a major contributory factor to the high rates of child and maternal morbidity and mortality. It is estimated that about 50% of perishable food commodities including fruits, vegetables, roots and tubers and about 30% of food grains including maize, sorghum, millet, rice and cowpeas are lost after harvest in West Africa. Ineffective or inappropriate food processing technologies, careless harvesting and inefficient post-harvest handling practices, bad roads, moribund rail systems, bad market practices and inadequate or complete lack of storage facilities, packing houses and market infrastructures are some of the factors responsible for high post-harvest food losses in West African countries. The production of indigenous foods forms a major part of agro-industries that accounts for over 50% of value-add- ed manufacturing, exports and employment in most African countries including Ghana. Fermented maize and cassava products such as maize dough, cassava dough, and kokonte (dried cassava powder) contribute significantly to the food security situation in Ghana due to their availability, affordability, nutritional quality and inherent preservative properties.
Traditionally, these foods are well-preserved through bio- chemical processes involving alcoholic and acidic fermentation that lower pH and prevent the growth of disease- causing micro-organisms. The science that underpins traditional food industry needs to be further researched and documented.
The knowledge of inoculating oneself against smallpox seems to have been known to West Africans, more specifically the Akan. A slave named Onesimus explained the inoculation procedure to Cotton Mather during the 18th century, he reported to have gotten the knowledge from Africa. In 1706, Mather's slave, Onesimus, explained to Mather how he had been inoculated as a child in Africa. Mather was fascinated by the idea. By July 1716, Mather had read an endorsement of inoculation by Dr Emanuel Timonius of Constantinople in the Philosophical Transactions. Mather then declared, in a letter to Dr. John Woodward of Gresham College in London, that he planned to press Boston's doctors to adopt the practice of inoculation should smallpox reach the colony again.
The first instances of domestication of plants for agricultural purposes in Africa occurred in the Sahel region c. 5000 BCE, when sorghum and African rice (Oryza glaberrima) began to be cultivated. Around this time, and in the same region, the small Guinea fowl was domesticated. Other African domesticated plants were oil palm, raffia palm, black-eyed peas, groundnuts, and kola nuts. Yam was domesticated 8000 BCE in West Africa. Between 7000 and 5000 BCE, pearl millet, gourds, watermelons, and beans, and farming and herding practices were spread westward across the southern Sahara.
African method of cultivating rice was used in North Carolina introduced by enslaved African. African rice cultivation was a factor in the prosperity of the North Carolina colony.