The Role of Technology in the African past
The Role of Technology in the African past
Author(s): Ralph A. Austen and Daniel Headrick
Source: African Studies Review, Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (Sep. - Dec., 1983), pp. 163-184
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/524168
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THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST Ralph A. Austen Daniel Headrick The study of African technological history cannot bt pursued without first considering two fundamental problems. The most fundamental of all is the relationship between technology and the broader social process. It is quite obvious that the two are linked but it is not at all clear, even in a study focused on technology, where to begin the explanation of this relationship. Second, there is the more specific question of African "backwardness": why are certain kinds of technology which spread throughout Europe and Asia not found south of the Sahara before the colonial era? How can we relate this apparent lag to changes which did take place in African technology? What are the consequences of such a technological differential for the eventual integration of Africa into economic and political systems which include these external societies. METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES In dealing with the first problem, Africanists can draw upon the debate within the well-established sub-discipline of European and American technological history.1 Within this work (as well as some of the more general writings on African technological history) three approaches to the relationship between technology and society have been developed: an internalist approach which studies technology in isolation from society; a technological determinist approach which uses certain inventions or innovations to explain major social changes; and a dialectical approach which explains technological and social changes as mutually interacting. The internalist approach characterizes the practice of some specialists whose main concern is to describe the technology of particular periods and explain the links between one system and another in terms of the diffusion of specific techniques and devices. An effort of this kind is obviously essential if we are to have a reliable empirical base from which to study the relationship between technology and society. Yet for historical analysis, such an approach is ultimately insufficient. Technological advances, even in the West, have usually been the products of anonymous craftsmen and, more recently, of corporate and government research laboratories. Inventors free from social pressures and able to create innovations for their own sake were a rare nineteenth-century aberration. Yet they persist as a powerful myth that has too often distorted our understanding African Studies Review, vol. 26, nos. 3/4, September/December 1983. 163This content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
164 AFRICAN STUDIES REVIEW of technological history. Without attention to society, the history cataloguing of tools and machines. Particularly valuable but does not explain the conditions adoption of various technologies. Rather than need to inquire why technological changes were consequences were of their subsequent presence The boldest efforts at such explanation come from the technological determinists, historians who found in the introduction of some new technique the key to an entire era of human development. In a sense we all fall into this category when we characterize epochs of human existence by such technological terms as neolithic, iron age, or industrial revolution. The determinist approach has also produced the most exciting arguments about the role of technology in history, including assertions that European feudalism derived from the horse collar, moldboard plow, and stirrup (White, 1962); that European overseas expansion grew out of transport, military, and medical innovations (Headrick, 1981; Parry, 1961); and that African state systems are shaped by the military use of horses and firearms (Goody, 1971). The explanation of general historical change through technology appeals to us partly because it fits general liberal paradigms of social theory. We can believe that all men are essentially equal an yet rank societies according to technological capacities because the latter are tangible, measurable, and supposedly value-free. We can also assume that in any historical situation men and women have established a rational equilibrium between their needs, resources, and efforts and it is only when new technology changes this equation that social reorganization should be expected.2 The problem with such arguments is that while they call attention to the importance of technology in historical change, they generally claim far more than the correlation of empirical evidence can support. In some cases, such as White's (1962) famous thesis on the origins of feudalism, the distribution of the new technology extends far beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of the social patterns it is supposed to explain (Hilton and Sawyer, 1963; Waites, 1972). Elsewhere changes such as European imperialism and African state development occur despite the limited role of all or some of the technologies which they presumably required.3 The conclusion, which is suggested by none other than Lynn White (1962: 28) himself, is that the social role of an innovation "depends as much upon the condition of society and upon the imagination of its leaders as upon the nature of the technological item itself." Can we then reverse the equation and assume that technological capacities are more or less free-floating and the critical variables are in the structure of social relations? Some social scientists, particularly Marxists, have taken this position although they are somewhat embarrassed by the tendency of Marx and Engels to argue at times like technological determinists.4 In its extreme form, a social-determinist argument could appeal only to certain types of Marxists who insist on the dominance of one level of logic in all social explanation and feel compelled to locate this logic in the realm of class antagonism. At the minimum, however, it is necessary to recognize that the social formations and cultural values linked to any given technological system inhibit the adaptation of a technology demanding different social relations. Moreover, it is not possible to get around this point by assuming that any given socio-culturalThis content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST 165 order originally developed in response to the technology are too many socio-cultural variables associated with any given technology (especially in the fragmented ethnic map of Africa) to support such a contention except within very broad boundaries (Sahlins, 1976; especially 206-208). Moreover, while it may seem absurd to speak of technology as free-floating in the past, it often proves to have been more diffused than we expect. In fact, the theme which will dominate much of this paper, the failure of Africans to adopt various technologies which were available to them, has also preoccupied historians of ancient Greek and Roman technology (Finley, 1965; Pleket, 1973). Thus social variables are as critical for understanding how certain devices are adopted as the intrinsic character of the technology in question. In implying that our own approach to technological history is dialectical, we make no claims to any rigorous method or formula for analysis. Instead, we simply seek to keep in mind factors of both material conditions and social-cultural structures which determine the adaptation and impact of any technology. While we can thus neither discover a clear pattern in the past nor predict the future, we do hope to clarify some specific historical problems and indicate the conditions under which future technological changes may take place. AFRICAN TECHNOLOGY: THE EMPIRICAL RECORD While we may deplore the neglect of Africa by general historians of technology, Africanists from various disciplines have done a good deal to fill this gap. We can construct a fairly good synthesis of the African technological past by reviewing (with some critical revisions) the work of archeologists, anthropologists, economic and military historians and development economists. Their findings suggest three stages of technological development in Africa: first, the fairly rapid and autonomous emergence and spread of what may be called classical African agricultural and metal-using technologies; second, a long period of contact with the outside world in which various elements of European and Asian proto- industrial technology (most notably the wheel and the plow) were not adopted; and finally, the last century of colonial and post-colonial regimes, when imported advanced industrial technology entered Africa without being effectively integrated into locally-based systems. The following section describes the range and limitations of African technological development, largely during the first two of these stages, restricting the analysis of obstacles to change to relationships among the technologies themselves. The subsequent sections attempt a more systematic comparison of African and other pre-industrial technologies and an explanation for the differential African development in terms of broader geographical and historical factors. Discussion of more recent confrontations with industrial technology occurs mainly in the last section of the paper. The introduction of agriculture and metallurgy to Africa took place a millenium or so later than in the Middle East and Europe but it was nonetheless a prehistoric, autonomous, and revolutionary process. It was prehistoric because its occurrence beginning in the second millenium B.C., was too early to be connected through either oral tradition or writing to the continuous memory of any modern society. Like similar developments in other parts of the world, it must therefore be reconstructed through the archeological recovery and analysis of the remains of utensils, habitats, animals and plants.5This content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
166 AFRICAN STUDIES REVIEW One of the questions which such research raises Africans are truly "those who never invented sequence and evidence of some contact between metallurgical innovation and the Mediterranean, diffusion from the north cannot be dismissed. However the first domesticated plants in Africa (sorghum, millet, rice, yam, oil pam) are indigenous to the sub- Saharan region. Climatic conditions did not allow Africans to adopt the wheat and barley of early Mediterranean agriculture. Moreover there was little incentive to take up domesticated food production before 3,000 A.D., when African populations were able to support themselves comfortably- often in relatively large, sedentary communities-by foraging plant foods and game and especially by fishing (Sutton, 1974). After 3,000 A.D. the dessication of the Sahara seems to have provided the major motivating force for shifts to farming and animal husbandry. Ironmaking developed not much later than agriculture, in areas of the continent which were not in close touch with the outside world. This craft rapidly reached a level of sophistication which rivaled contemporary European and Middle Eastern metallurgy in at least its smelting processes. The earliest sites of these developments are located north of the equator in West Africa, Ethiopia, and the Great Lakes area, although the connections between these regions are no clearer than their links to the outside world. From about the first century A.D. people using domesticated animals and iron implements spread southward to take over areas previously occupied by hunting and gathering populations. Also during the entire precolonial period new crops from Asia (bananas, cocoyams, domesticated cotton) and the New World (maize, manioc, peanuts, sweet potato) were added to the African food production systems, allowing them to provide better nutrition and clothing for growing populations.7 Finally, the productive capacities of commercially favored regions were expanded by the concentration of large servile populations to work in agriculture (Lovejoy, 1983). Despite the rapid spread of iron making agricultural and herding peoples, once these technologies were established in Africa they underwent fewer changes than comparable systems in the surrounding regions of the Middle East, Europe or South Asia. In African agriculture the basic instrument was the hand-held hoe, often made entirely of wood, but in many regions also equipped with a metal blade. Even after the intrusion of modern plantations, much cultivation, especially in the commercially most active region, West Africa, is still carried on by handhoeing. Historians have only recently noticed the widespread shift to ox-plow agriculture in colonial southern and eastern Africa, an oversight which suggests a limited historical role for the users of this intermediate technology.8 Cotton and its manufacturing tools, the loom and the spindle-whorl or distaff (but never the spinning wheel), were imported from Asia early in the Middle Ages (Pitts, 1978; Watson, 1977). Until the building of colonial railroads, land transportation in Africa relied principally on human porterage. Only in regions free from trypanosomiasis, as in parts of the Sahel, were pack-animals used. On water, the most common craft was the dugout canoe, the size of which was limited only by the size of local trees. Thus we hear of canoes up to 80 feet in length capable of carrying 100 men or more. Although such canoes were mainly used on inland waters, inhabitants of the Guinea and Gold Coasts used them to fish several miles out at sea and to trade along the coast (Robert Smith, 1970).This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST 167 Other types of craft had a more limited diffusion. There Chad, plank boats on the Niger River, and dhows on the East the Niger, boats up to 60 feet in length and six ton capacities hewn boards accurately rabetted together" (Forbes, 1933). also built of boards but sewn together, were smaller yet 1963). While some African craft reached the size of Viking galleys, none were as seaworthy because they lacked inside was used on East African dhows and on some canoes on the West African coast. Elsewhere boats were propelled not by rowing but by paddling or punting. Iron played a more revolutionary role in African than in other pre-industrial societies because of the absence of the transitional copper and bronze ages (Cline, 1937). The beginnings of African iron metallurgy date back to around 500 B.C. in Mero? (Sudan), Tayuga (Nigeria), and Buhaya (Tanzania), about five centuries after the beginning of the iron age in the eastern Mediterranean (Fagg, 1972; Schmidt, 1978). The manufacture of iron by pre-industrial methods involves two separate processes-smelting and forging-a fact which scholars have often neglected, leading to some degree of confusion. African smelting was done in cylindrical furnaces, of which there were many types, some very small, and others as much as seven meters high; most were between one and two meters. Depending upon the type, they were either ventilated by hand-operated bellows or by the natural draft of tall chimneys. The air entered the furnace through tuyeres which penetrated up to forty centimeters beyond the furnace walls, thus preheating it, which resulted in higher temperatures and greater fuel efficiency. The product of African furnaces was a spongy bloom, some of which had a higher carbon content than European blooms. This high-carbon bloom has been referred to by Goucher (1981), van der Merwe (1980) and others as "steel" or even "intentional" or "deliberate steel." This is a problematic use of the word steel, which is normally associated with the finished metal, not with an intermediate product. African smelting was technologically in advance of European, Middle Eastern, or South Asian smelting techniques, although backward compared to ancient Chinese or early-modern European power-driven blast furnaces which produced a molten pig-iron. African smelters usually operated on a small scale for short periods of time, then moved on; this may have some bearing on the migrations of ironmaking Bantu-speaking peoples. Smelters produced less than 100 pounds of iron per firing. As Candice Goucher (1981) has shown, iron-smelting was severely constrained by the furnaces' voracious appetite for hardwoods. Another constraint was the high cost of transporting wood, charcoal, and iron ore by human porterage or by canoe or pack animal once local supplies were exhausted. These ecological and technological constraints made imported European bar-iron increasingly competitive, despite its lower quality. The other problem with African metallurgy was in the forging process, which was generally quite rudimentary compared to the smelting. In the forge, the blacksmith heated and hammered the bloom repeatedly until all impurities were squeezed out and the metal was beaten into its intended shape. In the process, however, much of the carbon was also expelled, leaving either a mild steel with a carbon content of less than 1 percent, or a wrought iron with between 0.1 and 1 percent carbon. Wrought iron and mild steel were malleable, but they were neither as hard as cast iron (1.5 to 4.5 percent carbon), nor as elastic as high-This content downloaded from 184.108.40.206 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
168 AFRICAN STUDIES REVIEW carbon steel (1 to 1.5 percent carbon). To make steel without a power-driven smelting time-consuming acts such as quenching, annealing, evidence that African blacksmiths were capable little indication that they regularly did so to produce products of African blacksmithing were iron and arrow and spear heads. Steel was most important in pre-modern societies (including Africa) for incorporation into sword blades and armor, which had to be both hard and elastic. The apparent motivation for developing steelmaking techniques in the early iron age in the Mediterranean and South and East Asia was the need to replace earlier bronze weapons (Maddin, et. al., 1977). Bronze is costlier than iron, but is easily made into sharp and elastic swords. Blacksmiths in these regions thus experimented over many centuries to make steel swords that were as good as bronze but cheaper. Africa, on the other hand, went directly from the stone to the iron age. In the first stages of this technology there was much incentive to make iron take the place of stone and wood, but none to make it replace bronze. Steel swords and armor eventually became a major item of importation into Africa, but the cost of replacing them with domestic production always seems to have been prohibitively high, especially once Muslim sources of supply were displaced by the cheaper manufacturing techniques of early modern Europe. The same limitations applied to the later importation of guns, whose barrels required even greater control of bronze or steel manufacture than swords (Headrick, 1981: 101-09). The above hypothesis or course begs the question: why no Bronze Age in Africa? This is even more speculative, being counterfactual. One reason may be the very existence of iron, which made further experimentation with copper and its alloys economically unattractive. The paucity of tin and the difficulties of transportation within Africa may have had an influence also; Eastern Mediterranean bronze depended, we may recall, on imports of tin from as far away as Cornwall, one of the first instances of truly long-distance shipping. Portions of West Africa did, of course, develop impressive brass casting industries in the middle ages, but these were specifically restricted to ritual objects incorporating expensive, imported copper while utilitarian commodities were already being manufactured from iron.10 EXPLAINING THE AFRICAN PATTERN Discussions of pre-colonial African technology often go beyond what existed, and ask why such familiar Eurasian devices as the cart, the the potter's wheel did not transfer to Africa even after the centuries with outsiders who used them. While it is possible to consider each of these devices in turn and the obstacles to its adoption, a more fruitful line of inquiry is to apply the concept of technological systems. A technological system includes a set of commonly used materials, sources of energy, types of labor and social organizations, tools and techniques, and outputs of goods and services. Well- known examples of such systems include the old stone age and the early industrial revolution. Viewed this way, the history of technology ceases to be the study of hardware and inventors and becomes instead the study of whole systems, how their parts interrelate, how they originate and are transformed, and how they interact with other aspects of society such as culture, politics, and demography.This content downloaded from 220.127.116.11 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST 169 Although historians often refer to technological particular material then in common use, such as stone, for present purposes to define them by their predominant of energy. Labor productivity in pre-industrial society harnessing non-human energy sources and increasing their transformation of linear or reciprocating motion into rotary and manufacturing, such changes allow a greater output thus creating larger potential surpluses; in transportation human effort costs of carrying surpluses between regions, concentration on the production of goods.11 The urbanization of the ancient Middle East was made energy sources in plows and sailboats and their combination carts, potter's wheels, pulleys, grindstones, and irrigation civilizations of Greece and Rome used even more inanimate ships, aqueducts, and (to a limited extent) water wheels. prospered by maximizing the advantages which the sailing ships in inter-regional trade. Although they replaced camels in late Roman times, the peoples of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa never gave up the pulley, the water wheel, the animal-powered wheel, or the potter's wheel. Medieval Europe surpassed the Mediterranean empires economically by using improved means of tapping animal and inanimate energy such as the horse-collar and the full-rigging sailing ship. To the classical rotary mechanisms, medieval Europeans added the windmill, the spinning wheel, the crank, the winch, and the immensely wider application of water power to grinding grain and for new industrial uses such as crushing ore, pumping the bellows of metal-making furnaces, and fulling cloth. Although we do not have direct evidence for the motivations of the ancient innovators, we can safely attribute the ubiquity of non-human powered devices and rotary mechanisms to the productivity gains they brought to various areas of technology.12 In pre-colonial Africa the predominant source of energy was human. Some areas used non-human energy for transportation: sailing dhows on the Indian Ocean, canoes on various rivers, pack animals in the Sudan. But agriculture and manufacturing were everywhere strictly human. Even in regions with the longest and closest contacts with Eurasia and North Africa, Africans eschewed all rotary mechanisms and most forms of non-human energy before the nineteenth century. The question this raises is not why particular devices were not invented or known by Africans, but rather why Africans developed a technological system based so largely on human energy and linear-reciprocal motion, and retained it so long during the centuries of contact. Explanations for this difference can be grouped into four categories: barriers to contact; ecology; demography; and cultural inertia. Sub-Saharan Africa's relative isolation from other parts of the world-the desert to the north, the relatively unindented coastlines, the unnavigable rivers from the interior-has frequently been cited from the time of Adam Smith (1776/1910: 19) to explain a variety of indigenous development problems. It does not, however, provide a direct explanation for the pattern of technological change. Contact with the outside world was sufficient to expose African societies to proto- industrial technologies which nonetheless were not adopted. Plow agriculture is practiced in North Africa, Egypt, the Nilotic Sudan, and Ethiopia. It is thus not from lack of contacts that the practice did not spread toThis content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
170 AFRICAN STUDIES REVIEW adjacent parts of the continent. The areas of eventually took up plowing in the colonial in earlier external contact, which may help continent as a whole, however, other factors significant for the absence of plow agriculture. Although the Arabs did not use wheeled vehicles employ wheels for irrigation and pottery-Sudan, these devices did not spread to sub-striking is the technological history of the shore islands and coastlands of West Africa commercial cotton manufacturing during centuries. We do not know whether Europeans in this period attempted to introduce plows and spinning wheels but they certainly knew about them; yet, the technologies in local use continued to be the African ones of hoe cultivation and distaff spinning.14 Nineteenth century missionaries made technological diffusion one of their conscious goals, but before the establishment of colonial regimes, their successes were limited to small enclaves of converts and the servicing of the one new device fully appreciated by autonomous African elites: firearms.15 On the East African coast local populations had taken up the dhow sailing techniques of their Arabian, Persian, and South Asian trading partners. Once European navigators made their momentous entry into the Indian Ocean, Asian shippers adapted their boat construction and naval armaments to meet the challenge (Johnston and Muir, 1962), but African dhows remained restricted to smaller sizes and traditional forms, again for reasons which do not include ignorance of alternatives (Prins, 1965; Nicholls, 1971: 83, 262-63). The evidence therefore leads us to conclude that isolation was not the real hindrance to technology transfer, for Africans were selective, not ignorant, in their relationship toward foreign methods. The ecology of the African continent contributes to the difficulties of contact with the outside world, but it has a more direct and important role in explaining the technological lag. It has been argued quite convincingly that many innovations which contributed to greater efficiency in agriculture and transport elsewhere in the world simply do not work very well in sub-Saharan Africa. This argument is valid but requires some qualifications. The reluctance of African cultivators to take up plowing can thus be accounted for by two sets of circumstances: the nature of the soils and the costs of integrating large domesticated animals into farming. These arguments explain a good deal about West and Equatorial Africa, where they have mainly been applied, but less for East and Southern Africa, where plowing ws eventually adopted. In the light sandy savanna soils and the thin topsoils of many forest areas, plowing not only risks damage by exposing the fields to leeching, but it also concentrates risk in a way that is avoided by the hoe cultivation of varied and interplanted smaller patches. In most of Africa north of the equator, horses are difficult to raise and cattle are concentrated in relatively arid zones north of the major agricultural concentrations. There is a long history of partial integration of these activities in the West and Central Sudan, where cattle are moved south during the dry season to feed off cereal stalks and provide farmers with manure. However to keep cattle in this region during the cultivation season would risk the exposure of animals to disease, particularly trypanosomiasis, and also require major rearrangements of land use, crops, and labor for their feeding and care.This content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST 171 Thus even under conditions of colonial and post-colonial technical assistance, plow cultivation has made little progress in West Africa (Hart, 1982: 73-6). In East and Southern Africa, on the other hand, there are abundant areas of heavy clay soil suitable for plowing and cattle are herded within the same geographical and social units as cereal civilization. Here the failure to take up plowing before the colonial era cannot be explained by ecology. The same set of ecological factors limiting the use of animals in cultivation apply to the use of carts. It has already been noted that in the Sahara and the Middle East, wheeled vehicles were abandoned at the beginning of the Christian era in favor of the camel (Bulliet, 1975). From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, Europeans repeatedly introduced wheeled vehicles to the West African coast. These vehicles, and copies thereof made by African carpenters, were used for ceremonial purposes and, to a lesser extent, as gun-carriages. Wheeled vehicles, however, never became useful or widespread, because of the lack of draft-animals. Colonial regimes found themselves limited to head porterage until they were able to build railroads or import automobiles (Headrick, 1981; Law, 1980b). Likewise, for water transport, sub-Saharan Africa lacked the inland seas, extensively navigable rivers, and natural harbors that sheltered Middle Eastern, European, and Far Eastern shipping in their early centuries. Ecological factors are thus useful in explaining both African technological achievements and resistance to specific foreign ideas. Although more significant than geographical isolation, this explanation is still not sufficient. In recent literature on African technology, ecology has taken second place as a source of explanation to demography (Boserup, 1981). A variety of factors-disease, self-limitation of foraging populations, easy access to migration for growing agricultural groups, the later emergence and expansion of such groups, the slave trades, and so forth-produced situations in which the average density of inhabitants in all arable regions of Africa has consistently lagged far behind that of comparable portions of Eurasia (Edinburgh, 1977; 1981). Limited populations inhibit investments in more intensive subsistence cultivation methods or in the more efficient production of exchangeable surpluses. It is clear that in most of pre-colonial Africa land was not a scarce resource. Thus productivity per unit of relatively scarce labor could be maximized by extensive methods of long fallow cultivation, and there was little incentive to adopt systems which used new technology to increase yields per unit of land (Boserup, 1965). The other incentive, the use of surpluses for exchange purposes, also assumes easy contact with populations specializing in some other kind of product. Here it is difficult to separate environmental barriers to transportation from the effects of smaller populations within a given space. The need to rely on human energy to carry goods over long distances inhibited metal manufacturing processes, as already indicated, and perishable agricultural and handicraft products could not be marketed effectively over wide areas, even if potential buyers were present. One historical test for the significance of demographic as opposed to other factors inhibiting the adoption of more efficient technology is the evidence from those areas which contained major population concentrations in the pre-colonial period. Unfortunately, several such centers must be eliminated from consideration either because (like the Laks region of East Africa) they were truly isolated from exposure to new technologies, or because they were too exposed to seagoing traffic from abroad bringing imported goods at relatively low prices. We are thus left with two zones in which a market for more developed technology existed: theThis content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
172 AFRICAN STUDIES REVIEW major cities of the Western and Central Sudan Kano from the thirteenth to the nineteenth 1980; Miner, 1953; Tymowski, 1974), and Kilwa and Great Zimbabwe in Southeast Africa from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries (Chittick, 1974; Garlake, 1973; Huffmann, 1972). In all these places the technological profile is different from the rural norm: monumental architecture is the most striking feature, but at a more humble and pervasive level there are handicraft industries (spinning, weaving, dying, leatherwork, glassmaking and metallurgy) comparable to their Middle Eastern counterparts. In European and Asian terms, however, these are still ancient rather than medieval technological systems: the sources of energy in manufacturing and agriculture is still human and rotary motion is not employed. The absence of spinning wheels and water-powered bellows in the textile and metal production of these towns may be explained by the lack of such techniques in the Middle Eastern and South Asian regions with which they were in immediate contact as well as the lack of reliable streams for water-power in the Sudan. The lack of animal power in agriculture derives partially from ecological conditions but also from an inversion of demographic factors: the presence of large numbers of slaves around all the cities but Great Zimbabwe (where human and cattle population growth apparently put great stress on the local ecology) provided an alternative to technological change in agriculture. In theory, slaves could more easily be coerced than free populations into entering new forms of labor organization incorporating new technology, as was the case in the regimented and mechanized sugar and cotton plantations of the New World (Fogel, 1980). However, in Africa, it proved easier to increase productivity by adding slave units to the existing forms of labor. The introduction of new technology, as already indicated, was expensive and risky while African slaves, when working conditions became too harsh, were often able to revolt or escape to new settlements (Lovejoy, 1983; 147-58, 275).16 Ecology and demography clearly go a long way toward explaining technological conservatism in Africa but they are ultimately insufficient. The factors which remain may be labeled "cultural." Culture here refers to conceptions and patterned behaviors which bear no immediate relationship to material or social utility but have a very great influence over institutionalized responses to material needs, particularly the maintenance or alteration of technology. It is obvious that many cultural factors affecting technology can be traced back to historical or contemporary material or social conditions such as those already cited to explain African technology more directly. What we are arguing, however, is that these cultural forms are not entirely predictable from a given set of material conditions, that in any case they shape responses to subsequent opportunities for change and that they must therefore be considered independently in understanding the history of technology (Sahlins, 1976). The cultural factors relevant to African technological history are complex, given the ethnic pluralism of the continent, but several issues seem generally relevant and have also been explored with some effectiveness in existing scholarship. These include economic strategies favoring risk aversion over profit maximization; broader world views which suppress innovation; lack of literacy; preference for political and military rather than economic solutions to social problems; and patterns in the sexual division of labor and child-rearing. Risk aversion strategies are obviously quite closely related to material needs and, in fact, are often cited by utilitarian economic historians as an alternative toThis content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST 173 more idealistic explanations for such practices as open-European peasants (McCloskey, 1976). In the African argued that this posture has been inscribed deeply association of all major technological innovations with high hesitancy to take on other changes, even if they are not Thus the most revolutionary shift in the past-the transition domesticated forms of food production-took place under and demographic stress rather than through the positive complex lifestyle. Subsequent experiences of exchange with more powerful external economies often at desert and oceanic frontiers which did not provide secure conditions for farming, reinforced this tendency which helps explain why so little technological adaptation followed from these cultural contacts (Austen, forthcoming). In a very controversial comparison of "African Traditional Thought and Western Science," Robin Horton (1967) has argued that African culture systematically provides a rationale suppressing all but the most immediately necessary innovations. The arguments generated by Horton's assertions are too complex to enter here, particularly since most of them center around the conservative and innovative dimensions of western culture (Horton and Finnegan, 1973), but what remains is a conviction that a cultural/cognitive "great divide" of some kind is significant for understanding variance in precisely those aspects of society related to technological change. In a recent contribution to this argument, Jack Goody (1977) has attempted to explain the cognitive distinctions between "them" and "us" in terms of the technology of communication: more specifically, as a function of the recording of ideas through writing. Goody's essay provides some valuable insights into the relationship between literacy and critical-innovative modes of thought. However, the causal implications of his argument are contradicted by recent psychological research in Africa (Scribner and Cole, 1981) as well as historical evidence that writing, like other technologies discussed above, was available to African societies long before they chose to integrate it into their internal systems for dealing with the world. It is Goody himself in his work on Islamicized areas of West Africa (1968), who has provided the best description of what he calls "restricted literacy." However, this situation still needs documentation, and Goody's cultural explanation for its persistence-the inhibiting effect of religion-is hardly adequate. Writing, in both West and East Africa, was essentially the property of Muslim clerics and regarded by the majority of the population as a magic skill rather than one applicable to their realm of empirical competence. However, it was used by its practitioners for secular purposes in recording their own secular experiences and perceptions and also for communication with political and commercial partners outside tropical Africa. It is certainly necessary to consider that part of the African resistance to writing derived from practical considerations; literacy does not automatically confer greater control over social and economic organization under the adverse ecological and demographic conditions which have already been described, particularly when these have inhibited the adaptation of other technologies of production and transport which seem to belong to the same system as literacy. In eighteenth and nineteenth century West Africa, there appears to have been a major breakthrough in the use of writing, now applied to vernaculars as well as Arabic and incorporated into internal political and economicThis content downloaded from 184.108.40.206 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
174 AFRICAN STUDIES REVIEW affairs. The immediate impetus behind this religious-the propagation of a more militant must in turn be interpreted in some relationship particularly economic growth.17 In summary, the a technology and a key to the cultural factors controlling simply reveal how inextricable and mutually reflexive process of change. Many scholars have noted the tendency for situations of stress and opportunity to restrict military realm rather than the economy, where more pervasive. Some observers have treated this rather mystical force in itself, a "primacy of politics" explained (Spiro, 1966; Uzoigwe, 1971). Jack Goody to take the other extreme and link the dominance of the instruments of destruction over the instruments of production by arguing that abundance of land and scarcity of labor gave little scope for the latter. An interesting test of these arguments is a case where an entire African society (and one in some degree of contact with Europeans), the northern Nguni South Africa, actually confronted a situation of land shortage. Their chosen response was not the intensification of production systems (and the Nguni combined cattle and agriculture which later allowed them to take up plow farming) but rather new forms of state-building, military tactics, and weaponry, as expressed in the well-known Zulu mfecane. Jeff Guy, a Marxist historian, is even able to argue from this case (1980) that demography is a variable dependent on cultural-social processes, since the Zulu age-regiment system helped postpone marriage and this, along with death in warfare, kept down reproduction rates. The African propensity for political solutions and investment of technology in state, especially military, instruments would be reinforced by the colonial conquest and the various military regimes which have followed on independence. Several other cultural factors have also reinforced the conservative nature of African technology. One of these was the sexual division of labor. There appears to be a correlation, deserving of further investigation, between tasks assigned to women and the retention of human, non-rotary, forms of energy. Tending fields and spinning cotton are women's work in most African societies, so that the introduction of plows or spinning wheels have been resisted partially because of their consequences for the substance and conception of sex roles.18 Similarly, African child-rearing practices appear to reinforce technological conservatism. Psychological researchers have noted that by carrying and holding their infants off the ground more than other people, African mothers limit their babies' contacts with the world of objects. Later on, African children grow up with few toys, almost none of which are made for them by adults. In other words, child-rearing is human-energy-intensive and anti-materialistic. For the growing child, the results are a higher degree of inter-personal relations but less experience in manipulating the physical world than one finds among European children. Although the history of child-rearing is itself in its infancy, it is likely that African practices date back to the agricultural revolution, if not earlier, and may have been an adaptation to ecological pressures such as diseases, insects, and heat. Whatever their origins, the traditional African child-rearing practices reinforce technological conservatism at the very earliest levels of acculturation.19This content downloaded from 220.127.116.11 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST 175 The cultural factors we have just mentioned-ideololgy, women, child-rearing (and there are many others) -need attempting to explain the contrast between, on the one hand, the successful spread of iron-smelting, cotton manufacture, and new food crops and, on the other hand, the very limited diffusion of the plow, the sail, wheeled vehicles and other labor-saving, rotary motion devices. The positive attitude which Westerners have toward such technology is after all as much a cultural trait as the corresponding African skepticism. In strictly mechanical terms, many more technological changes may have been possible than actually took place, but because of various mutually-reinforcing material, social, and cultural factors, African technological conservatism was overdetermined and therefore hard to overcome when deliberate attempts were made to introduce more modern technologies into Africa. TECHNOLOGICAL GAPS AND EXTERNAL DEPENDENCY The long attachment to technological systems based on human energy and or reciprocal motion resulted in a particularly deep chasm between traditional modern methods in twentieth century Africa. By jumping from their own systems to new ones using fossil-fuels, electric power and electric or electronic controls and communications, Africans bypassed the technologies based on animal, and direct water power, transformed only by wheel and gear, in other words, classical and medieval systems of Europe and Asia. The historical discontinuity is particularly obvious to Western observers contemporary Africa can witness the contrast between head porterage and trucks, short-handled hoes and tractors, mortars and pestles and electric grinders, tradition and tape recorders; but see no remains of wind and water mills, drawn carts or plows, and few precolonial books or manuscripts. Because modern technology is so dependent upon imported machines, fuel, and experts, made the passage to an industrial era in Africa particularly abrupt and difficult domesticate. Hence the yearning for intermediate or appropriate technology reminiscent of the medieval than the modern system; hence also its failure. The previous sections of this paper have argued against the internalist- diffusionist view of technological change as a process essentially generated information about more efficient techniques for manipulating the forces of Instead, it has been demonstrated that even when Africans were exposed to technologies of supposedly more advanced societies, they had material cultural reasons for not adopting most of them. This last section goes farther and argues that with the existence of this initial gap between African technology and the proto-industrial/industrial technology of the West, a situation arose which created new difficulties for achieving significant kinds of technological change within Africa. The argument is about dependency from the perspective of the African periphery. It is not necessary for this line of analysis to show that the reduction restriction of African technology to a limited level was necessary or intended the viewpoint of industrial Europe. It is the opinion here that it was not, although the debate on this question belongs to another realm of historical discourse the present one.20 It is notable that the technology which was most relevant imposition of Europe upon Africa--modern oceanic and terrestrial transport,This content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
176 AFRICAN STUDIES REVIEW advanced firearms, global exchanges of information-purposes of dealing with Africa. The one form with such an aim, tropical medicine, turns out not to have played an important role in the medicine began to have an impact (undoing the the first colonial decades) it was because it chemical research which had developed earlier industry (Cohen, 1982). The problem for Africa was not the feeding but rather the form in which this technology expanded African productive capacities without the system to which they were now linked. It local state-dominated infrastructures which themselves complexity of the productive systems they theoretically This process begins with precolonial contacts world through the impact of three systems construction; semi-finished textiles and metals; masons were the one group of technicians whom African rulers-such as the medieval emperors of Mali or the sixteenth century Kongo kings-consistently sought to import from the metropoles of their trading partners (Levtzion, 1973: 201; Vansina, 1966: 47-53). The impact of this transfer can be seen in the monumental buildings-palaces, mosques, churches-decorating the capital cities of the respective states. Such technological achievements, however, served only to raise the prestige of foreign lifestyles and indigenous rulers associated with them, while contributing little to the methods by which food and ordinary handicraft items were produced. In principle, construction skills could have been transferred from large buildings to common dwellings, as well as to road or to irrigation systems; but all this assumes a general level of wealth and systemic technological change than was generated by the impact of luxury trade and a few buildings. It is a cliche of modern development economics that the construction industry in a low-linkage, elite-consumer oriented enterprise which draws upon resources which might otherwise contribute more to growth. This problem of misallocated or enclave technology has its precedents in precolonial Africa. The cloth and metal syndrome in precolonial Afro-European relations provides an example of technological symbiosis which promotes growth without comparable development. By supplying Africans with already spun yarn and dyed cloth unravelled into yarn by local weavers and with iron and copper bars, Europeans overcame major bottlenecks in African textile and metallurgical technologies. Weaving of cotton cloth could proceed at a much faster rate than hand-spinning of yarn on distaffs, while relatively few sources of fast color (usually only indigo for blue) were available to African cloth manufacturers. Likewise iron and copper could be worked into artifacts more easily than they could be mined and smelted and brought to centers of market and manufacturing from African sources. Once Europeans supplied the basic materials at a lower price, Africans could vastly expand their manufactures of utilitarian as well as aesthetic implements, often elaborating the products considerably but never seriously altering the technology (Pitts, 1978; Johnson, 1978; Cline, 1937). Finally there are weapons-horses brought across the Sahara to Sudanic Africa, swords coming from all over, and guns coming mainly by sea to various parts of the continent. Horses were also bred in the Sudan but never veryThis content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST 177 satisfactorily due to the disease ecology and because the feeding, water-supply, care, and controlled reproduction importation (Law, 1980a; Harris, 1982). Steel sword blades with handles, but not replicated by local smiths (Jagger, could be repaired, supplied with local ammunition and in the late nineteenth century case of Samory) manufactured the limitations of local metallurgy even more severely for any significant import substitution (Headrick, 1981: were not used for production but rather for the assertion elites, whose needs to pay for such resources turned them into massive instruments of predation, with slaves as the most common currency of exchange for imported weaponry. Colonial governments often claimed that their greatest contributions to African material welfare were the opening up of new markets through transport technology and the teaching of new skills through the establishment of schools. Neither of these sets of innovations ever had the expected effect of transferring its embodied technological capacity to Africans. From oceanic sailing ships through steam vessels and railroads, the transport technology which Europeans brought to Africa was simply too "lumpy" -consisting of massive items which could not be reproduced in any but an advanced proto-industrial system-to be incorporated by Africans. Sails could be placed upon East African dhows or West African canoes but even the wood construction required for ocean-going vessels in the pre-steam era was far beyond the techniques employed in any African carpentry. At best, a few African rulers and merchants purchased such craft.21 The steamship or railroad was too big, costly and complex for any African even own, let alone construct, thus establishing an early arena of dominance for major international firms and government enterprise in the African economy. most that colonial Africans could achieve in such capital-intensive undertakings was a position as skilled laborers-part of a small "labor aristocracy" or petty bourgeoisie which comprised railway workers, dock workers, and commercial government clerks (Arrighi and Saul, 1973). Automobiles and trucks, whose use colonial regimes often inhibited in order to protect their railway investments, proved more accessible to Africans. Local entrepreneurs could manage to own maintain them although, like guns in the previous era, their basic parts could not be manufactured by African artisans.22 Only with southern African oxcarts did Africans take up a new technology which came fully under their own control, this enterprise reached its peak in a context of mining wealth which in turn depended upon levels of extractive technology that inevitably brought in its wake the fatal railroads and automobiles (Bundy, 1979; Ethrington, 1978). Modern education has contributed to a massive spread of literacy in Africa, which may be considered as a major diffusion of technology. However restrictions which surrounded earlier Islamic literacy have not been entirely overcome. As missionary and government authorities responsible for education have noted since the early nineteenth century, western schools prepared students-often in greater numbers than were needed-for careers in the externally-dominated sectors of the new social order, particularly bureaucracies and export/import commercial firms. Yet, despite repeated efforts at "vocational education" formal classroom training has had little impact on agriculture, or locally-based manufacturing and transport. Such enterprises have largely remainedThis content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
178 AFRICAN STUDIES REVIEW in traditional forms or evolved within the urban informal sector where relevant skills are more efficiently learned on the job rather than in school (Foster, 1965: 53-98; Bacchus, 1980; Gardiner, 1982; Mwagbaraocha, 1982). This last development is at once a testimony to the energy and ingenuity of African artisanship and a frustration to policy-makers who see no way to integrate it more positively into the advanced technology of the internationally-linked formal sectors of the national economies (King, 1977; Bromley and Gerry, 1979). CONCLUSION The African past demonstrates both the mutual interdependence of technology and socio-cultural factors and the degree to which differential patterns technological development have shaped a one-sided dependency of Africans external economic partners. This latter pattern would now appear to be more pronounced than ever as the frontiers of high technology and even research into middle range appropriate technology seems to require the kinds of formal scientific resources which are only available in the confines of advanced industrial societies.23 Possibly the greatest hope for Africa lies not in retracing the missed steps of proto-industrial technology but in exploiting the relatively cheap and portable products of the most sophisticated modern engineering. Unlike steel mills, railroads, and steamships, the electronic toys of the computer age are not "lumpy": they can be and are widely distributed and may conceivably bring Africans of all ages into the same global village as the Europeans, Americans, and Japanese (Servan-Schreiber, 1980: 214-215, 252-56). The role of technology in African history does not necessarily suggest such a futuristic outcome but it at least leaves open the possibility. Africans have demonstrated a capability for developing their own technology and adapting imported devices where these seemed compatible with local needs and perceptions. The limitations of this process in the past have left a cultural legacy of neo-colonial state-centered economies which may use any technology to perpetuate their own elitist structures rather than bring about more broadly-based change. However, the patterns of history are not inexorable laws: new technology may also provide the basis for new social systems, given sufficient tensions within the old ones. The African past and future cannot be understood without serious attention to technology, but neither can the impact of technology be understood outside the larger context of historical continuity and change. NOTES 1. The evolution of technological history from an internalist to an integrated approach well documented in the pages of Technology and Culture. It is also evident in difference between an early standard text (Singer, et al., 1954-1958) and a more general work (Kranzberg and Pursell, 1967). 2. This is essentially the approach to technology employed in such valuable, but purposes, limited works as Hopkins (1973) and especially DeGregori (1969). 3. See Law (1980a) and Harris (1982) for a critique of Goody. For a critique of Headrick, see Cohen (1982). 4. The canonical text is: "The hand mill will give society with the feudal lord, the steam mill, society with industrial capitalism" (Marx and Engels, 1976: 166); a lengthy discussion of the theoretical and historical implications can be found in Dockes (1982: 33-46, 174-196). For a Marxist social deterministic approach more directly relevant to Africa, see Nell (1979).This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
TECHNOLOGY IN THE AFRICAN PAST 179 5. Harlan, et al., (1976); on iron see Posnansky (1981: 542-47), Shinnie (1971: 93-94), Schmidt (1978: 292-96). 6. The significance of this line from the Black West Indian poet Aime at some length in DeGregori (1963a: 61ff); see an African archeologist's the autonomy of early technological developments in Andah (1981: 7. On Asian food crops see Oliver and Fagan (1978: 402ff); on crops, Purseglove (1976); on evidence for the domestication and Mauny (1961: 245). 8. Bundy (1979); Kitching (1980); for more contemporary studies agriculture in those regions, see Knight (1974); Weinrich (1975). 9. Goucher, private communication. Goucher, whose judgement insists that locally-produced steel was effectively available to African 10. Archeological evidence on the sources of tin and copper for industry is still limited (Goucher, private communication). 11. On the concept of technological systems or stages, and the role such systems, see White (1949); Forbes (1950); Mumford (1934); Cipolla (1978). 12. On the ancient and classical periods, see Childe (1964), and Forbes (1964); on the Islamic Middle East, see Ashtor (1976); Wulff (1967); and Bulliet (1975); on medieval European technology, see White (1962), and Gimpel (1976). 13. One problem with the transmission of Islamic technology may have been its relative stagnation in the Middle East during the period of closest contact with subsaharan Africa; see Rabie (1981) and Ashtor (1981). 14. Duncan (1972: 218-22). See also, DeGregori (1969: 120-39, 145-50); this somewhat exaggerated and unsystematic account of "skills that eventually diffused to the indigenous population [of West Africa]" is useful for its omission of references to plowing or other agricultural techniques. 15. For an uncritical account of missionary efforts to diffuse technology, see DeGregori (1969: 152-58); a better indication of the technological transfers which actually took place is given in such works as Crummey (1972: esp. 119); Low (n.d.: 1-2). 16. It should be noted that Lovejoy himself is somewhat ambivalent about the transformative as opposed to stagnating effects of what he calls "the slave mode of production." For concrete evidence supporting the position argued here, see Hogendorn (1977) and Mason (1981). 17. The historiography of the religious movements in this period has largely centered on their cultural dimensions; see Hiskett (1976); the economic dimensions are suggested in Lovejoy (1974). 18. On the interplay of "culture and practical reason" in sex roles, Guyer (1981: 100-01, 155); on sex roles as a specific obstacle to plowing, Austen (1968: 193). 19. On child development in Africa, see Ainsworth (1967: 94); Beart (1955); Centner (1962); Dasen (1973); Goldberg (1977); Leacock (1976); LeVine (1977); Whiting (1964: 514-15). For a fuller description of the implications of these child development patterns for African technology, see Headrick (1981). 20. For a development of the dependency argument based on metropolitan imperatives, see Wallerstein (1980); for the opposing view, O'Brien (1982); for a dependency argument focusing on the problems of technology transfer, see Langdon (1981). 21. Nicholls (1971: 262-64); Porter (1963: 112); Molony (1965: 128) (in this last case African artisans were able to construct a large number of forty to sixty ton schooners for river and coastal navigation); Kopytoff (1965: 178). 22. Hopkins (1973: 196): Njoku (1978: 492-94); Hazelwood (1964: 38-56, 197-98). Small steam and gasoline riverboats occupied a niche in colonial transport technology similar to, but much more limited than, the automobile. 23. The role of metropolitan institutions in the search for intermediate technology was amply illustrated by the contribution ("Science and Technology in Africa's Future") of Charles Weiss of the World Bank to the African Studies Association panel (Washington,This content downloaded from 184.108.40.206 on Thu, 11 Apr 2019 06:11:44 UTCAll use subject to https://about.jstor.org/terms
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