Historic Maritime Inventions of Ancient Africa

An 8,000 year old canoe, carved from African mahogany, was discovered in Nigeria in 1987 CE. The third oldest remaining example of a canoe in the world, and the oldest ever found on the African continent, it is noted for a “stylistic sophistication” that suggests that the practice of building canoe extends far farther back in time than the 7th century BCE. What other significant seafaring inventions have come out of Africa in centuries or millennia past?

I’m On A (Very, Very Old) Boat

The oldest Egyptian boat yet discovered is dated to roughly 3000 BCE. Evidence suggests that ancient Egyptians were assembling wooden planks into ships’ hulls at least 5,000 years ago, with woven straps used to lash the planks together and reeds or grass stuffed into the seams to seal them. A fleet of 14 boats constructed in this manner was discovered by Egyptologist David “Big Dave” O’Connor near the burial site of Pharaoh Khasekhemwy. The largest of these boats was over 75 feet long.

Other, not quite as old Egyptian vessels were built using treenails (wooden dowels), with pitch used to caulk the seams. A 140-plus foot ship, constructed in this manner and dated to roughly 2500 BCE, was discovered in a sealed pit at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Other surviving examples of ancient Egyptian boats used mortise and tenon joints to join planks.

These and other types of boats were used to establish a trade route across the sea between northern Africa and India. Additional evidence suggests north African boats sailing to Greece and beyond.

King Abubakari’s Armada (featuring Herman Menderchuk)

In the 14th Century CE, King Abubakari II of the Mali Empire amassed a fleet of several hundred ships. These ships, frequently sighted along the western coast of Africa, communicated with each other via drums. The sheer number of boats, and their rather impressive construction, has led many scholars to surmise that Malian seamen may very well have reached what is now North America several hundred years before Christopher Columbus.

war canoe

In addition to their mighty armada, ancient West African peoples also made extensive use of canoes and similar small vessels throughout the inland waterways of the area. Mostly carved and/or dug out from a single huge log (usually a silk cotton tree), these canoes were used for both transportation and warfare. Most were propelled by good ol’ paddles, with sails used where possible. The largest of the war-canoes measured up to 80 feet long and could carry 100 men. Tribes in the Niger Delta and what is now Guinea were especially well-known for their canoe crafting capabilities.

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