Celebrate Black History Month with these lesser-known facts about the contributions to world history of Africans and people of African descent.
When some people think of black history, they often think of civil rights and the challenges of combating the consequences and legacy of slavery. These are part of the global African experience, but there is so much more. For thousands of years, people of African descent have been making history—both within Africa and far beyond its shores. Black history is world history.
African World Heritage Day (May 5), proclaimed by UNESCO, is a global invitation for Africa and the world to commemorate the continent’s unique heritage. Many countries also observe an annual black history month to celebrate the contributions of people of African descent. In the United States and Canada, Black History Month takes place during February; in the European Union and the United Kingdom, people observe Black History Month during October.
Black History Facts: African Contributions to the World
Wherever you may celebrate black history, the following list of black history facts touches on some of the many notable accomplishments that can help you recognize and commemorate the enduring global legacy of Africans and those of African descent.
Perhaps as early as 35,000 years ago, African mathematicians developed mathematical concepts still in use today. Egyptians used algebra and geometry—even wrote textbooks on the subjects—and used the principles to predict Nile River flood patterns. The Yoruba people developed a complex number system 8,000 years ago that still impresses scholars today.
African metal workers developed their own iron technology millennia ago. Ancient metallurgists in what is now Niger created unique and efficient ways of processing ore at high temperatures, sometimes in furnaces hollowed from the trunks of banana trees. The furnaces of Tanzanian metalworkers burned hundreds of degrees hotter than Roman furnaces of the same era.
There is evidence that African explorers may have traveled to Asia and South America as early as the 1200s BC. The Mali and Songhai people built sturdy enough ships to transport heavy cargo, including elephants brought back to Africa from Asia. Much later, an experienced sailor perhaps of African descent, Pedro Alonso Niño, piloted the Santa Maria during Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’s initial voyage to the Western Hemisphere.
Innovations in Farming
Long ago, farmers in modern-day Senegal and surrounding regions learned to channel their region’s periodic floods (both fresh water and salt water) to produce abundant crops. Portuguese explorers in the 1400s noted these practices with awe, and agricultural experts today still admire them. Many of the crops eventually grown by Europeans in the Americas, including cotton, rice, sugar cane and coffee, came from Africa, along with the knowledge to cultivate them successfully.
Well before recorded history, Africans made accurate, detailed astronomical observations. Egyptians understood solar and lunar movements and developed a 12-month calendar. The Dogons of present-day Mali observed the rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s moon, the shape of the Milky Way galaxy and more.
The architectural skills of many African cultures are legendary, beginning with Egyptians who constructed massive stone temples, tombs, pyramids, and sculptures. Impressive ancient structures were also built in Ghana, Nubia, Ethiopia, West Africa, and beyond. African architects eventually incorporated influences from Roman and Islamic builders into African buildings.
Especially famous are the rock-hewn and adobe Coptic churches in Ethiopia, some of which are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. Some African builders took their skills into exile—architects of African descent may have helped build cathedrals in South America and the towns of Kingston, Jamaica and Newport, Rhode Island.