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Wheeled transport in pre-colonial West Africa*

  • Robin Law
Extract

One of the most important differences in technology between Africa south of the Sahara during the pre-colonial period and many other areas of the world, it is frequently suggested, was the almost complete absence in the former of any form of wheeled transport. The transport of goods overland in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa was normally done by pack animals, where these were available, or more generally by human porterage. This lack of wheeled transport, it might be argued, had crucial implications for the history of sub-Saharan Africa, since the high cost of transport by pack animals and human porterage has often been presented as one of the principal constraints upon the expansion of trade, and hence of economic growth generally, in pre-colonial times. The lack of wheels in sub-Saharan Africa, it is clear, cannot have been due simply to ignorance, since many areas of the continent had been in contact with wheel-using civilizations outside Africa for several centuries before the colonial conquest at the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, as this article will show, there is abundant evidence that, in West Africa at least, the technology of wheeled transport was quite widely known, though put to only very limited use, in the pre-colonial period. The reasons why this technology, although readily available, was nevertheless not generally adopted are, however, very far from being clear.

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Africa
  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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