Transmission of knowledge: the development of astronomy and navigation

Qibla indicatorQuibla indicator, comprising a round brass box with a hinged lid and an inset magnetic compass. 18th century, maker unknown. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Georges Prin Collection Early African astronomy differed from region to region. Like many early peoples, Africans used the heavens mainly for time telling, year division and astrology, but with each region attaching different myths to their constellations.

The earliest written astronomical records in Africa originated in Egypt. From these records of observations, techniques could then be improved by looking to see what had been done before.

As Islam spread across Northern Africa from the 7th century, the purpose of astronomy changed. For example it was now needed to produce accurate tables of prayer times.

European astronomers first came to South Africa to catalogue uncharted stars. Rather than build on local knowledge the Europeans invented entirely new constellations. In South Africa today, new interest is being taken in the early African constellations and astronomy.

Astronomy today is the product of centuries of development, transmitted across continents. The evolution of astronomy in Africa illustrates how different cultures have each brought something new to the subject.