The Concept of Space and Time: An African Perspective


Author

Ediho Lokanga, EUCLID (Euclid University), United Kingdom

Abstract

Understanding the concept of space and time is critical, essential, and fundamental in searching for the all-encompassing theory or the theory of everything (ToE). Some physicists argue that time exists, while others posit that time is only a social or mental construct. The author presents an African thought system on space and time conception, focusing on the African (Bantu) view of space and time. The author argues that before the advent of the Western linear view of space and time, Africans had their own vision regarding these two concepts. Their conception of time appears to be holistic, highly philosophical, nonlinear, and thought-provoking. The author hopes that exploring these two concepts from an African perspective will provide a new and more in-depth insight into reality's nature. A scientific investigation of space and time from an African-centered perspective is a worthy and necessary endeavor in the quest for the ToE.

Keywords

Africa, African, Bantu, Consciousness, Hantu, Julian calendar, Space, Theory of everything, Time, Water calendar.

 

1.     Introduction

 

Several authors claim that Africa is the cradle of humanity and civilization and that it can teach us about our common origins and early achievements [1][2]. The attainments and progress made by earlier Africans, such as ancient Egypt's advancement of science and technology [3], the story of industries in the Benin Kingdom, the development of mathematics in the form of the binary number system in Nigeria over 12,000 years ago [4], the successive discoveries of the two oldest mathematical artifacts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and eSwatini [5], and the advanced research conducted in the field of astronomy in Timbuktu, Mali [6], have been discussed in various publications.

 

Unfortunately, at the same time, several writers have claimed that Africa has never contributed to anything in mathematics, science, and technology and has nothing to offer to humanity. As shown, such claims have no scientific basis because the real history of Africa’s contributions to society has been distorted. Moreover, the discovery of old manuscripts from Africa [7] revealed astonishing exploits. We now know that mathematics, science, and technology originated and flourished several centuries ago in Africa.

 

In this article, the author discusses the African view of space-time called “Hantu.” Furthermore, he clarifies the Africans’ understanding of consciousness, which is linked to their worldview, particularly the idea of space and time. This is important because Africans claim that there is an entity called consciousness that is not influenced by space and time and exists in living and non-living beings and in a space less and timeless dimension.

The concept of space and time has been well developed in Africa and was the key to the progress that was made by some of the strong earlier empires in Africa over several centuries, such as Egypt, Ghana Empire, Mali Kingdom, Kongo Kingdom, and the Mossi Kingdoms. This article discusses the scientific aspect of space and time because the social, economic, and philosophical aspects of space and time have been discussed by several researchers previously (see [8] [9] [10]). These articles state that it is possible from the onset to argue that Africans have a conception of both space and time and a strong sense of the future.

 

Before delving deeper into the subject of space and time from an African perspective, it is important to remind our readers of the presence of various old scientific manuscripts that have been written by Africans on mathematics, physics, astronomy, and technology. For instance, Prof. Medupe [11] points out that more than 200 private libraries documented these subjects, in addition to more than 700,000 manuscripts that were written in pre-colonial Africa. In one of the books in the library, the following exciting discovery was made: a record of a meteor shower in 1583.

 

Furthermore, Prof. Thebe Medupe describes the existence of stone observatory structures that were built in the Sahara Desert, which were erected more than 6000 years ago, one thousand years before any pyramids in Egypt were built. Furthermore, it is well documented that the Dogons of Mali knew about various constellations. A detailed discussion by Toni Feder, which was published in Physics Today, is particularly informative. As Professor Medupe (2006, p. 31) states: I went to look at the stars with two older people one evening. I asked them which constellation was the most important to them. They mentioned the Pleiades, a star cluster that is very important throughout Africa. The stars are used in agriculture and planting. I asked this guy about star positions, and he told me about rising times and positions at various times of the year. I double-checked with my laptop, and he was correct. That proved to me that he knew what he was talking about.

 

What is space and time to an African (Muntu, plural Bantu)? Bantu people are speakers of Bantu languages and are found in sub-Saharan Africa. The paper aims to study the meaning of space and time in an African setting and analyze whether it could contribute to the quest of the theory of everything (ToE). The author believes that this work is essential and a worthy endeavor in the pursuit of the ToE.

 

The writer’s methodology for understanding the African (Bantu) concept of space and time examines several African scientists’ and philosophers' literature reviews, video discussions, and dialogues that were held with friends and colleagues of African descent. In a nutshell, an exploratory research methodology was used for this paper by analyzing the answers that were provided and the possible outcome. The research provides a basis for understanding a new, holistic, highly philosophical approach to the Africans' physics.

 

Therefore, to uncover the Africans’ (Bantu’s) minds, data were collected regarding the meanings of space and time and their link with consciousness. The author tackled and answered the following questions:

 

§  How do the Africans define space and time?

§  Is African time linear, non-linear, cardinal, or mechanical?

§  Why do Africans have a holistic viewpoint of space and time?

§  What can we learn from the African concept of space and time? What can this perspective add to the current and overwhelming view of the so-called linear Western perspective of space and time?

§  Why do Africans stress that consciousness lives in a spaceless and timeless universe? What are the implications of this holistic viewpoint for physics?

§  Why do Western countries model everything they do on a fundamental variable called time?

§  What are the implications for physics regarding the Judeo-Christian (Western), linear, cardinal, and mechanical views of time?

 

The Africans (Bantu) posit that the notion of space and time is intimately linked to them and their society. They have deployed several arguments to answer these questions. In the following, we aim to show how Africans respond to the concept of space and time. In doing so, we offer the African thought system's existence, starting from the ancient Egyptians and discussing the Bantu concept of space and time, then moving on to the idea of “Hantu:” the unity of space-time.

 

Furthermore, the African holistic view of space, time and consciousness is discussed. Finally, we conclude with the implications of an Africa conception of space and time, revealing that the African’s view of space and time is multidimensional. If this is true, then it is imperative and vital that theoretical physics look for a new approach to the concept of space and time and integrate some of the findings from this paper.

 

2.     An African Perspective of Space and Time

 

2.1.   Space and Time in Ancient Egypt

 

During antiquity, the Egyptians already had a good understanding of the concept of space and time. They divided time into eternity, durability, years, fortnights, months, weeks, days, hours, and minutes. The Egyptians’ conception of time as eternity referred to a cycle of years, which consisted of a journey towards Horus. Horus (known as Hor or Heru in the Egyptian language) was considered a god in the ancient Egyptians’ religion. He was usually depicted as a falcon-headed human [12] [13], and he was regarded as the alpha and omega, the most powerful of all. Everything started and ended with him.

 

The Egyptians conceived a 12-month calendar before writing was invented. Each month was divided into 30 days and three weeks of ten days. That made 360 days. The Egyptians added five days for their New Year's holiday, which resulted in 365 days. It is important to stress that the ancient Egyptians were the first to divide a day into 24 hours of 12 hours of the night and 12 hours of the day [14]. Further discussion has been elaborated in the work of Dr. Mathole Motshekga [15] entitled “THE AFRICAN WATER CALENDAR.”

 

The idea of the water calendar originated from a thorough analysis of the Nile River by Egyptian scholars. The African scholars counted the number of days that passed between the start of one Nile flood and the next. For over hundreds of years, the records of these activities showed 365 days between the floods' first appearances. According to astronomical evidence, the Egyptians had established a 365-day calendar by 2773 BC [16]. This discovery resulted in the creation of the water calendar.

 

Furthermore, Egyptian astronomers made another exciting discovery. They observed that the Sirius, the bright star, reappeared in the sky as the Nile floodwaters moved closer to Memphis in Egypt. The same thing repeatedly happened after 365 days. After Julius Caesar, the Roman general and statesman (12 July 100 BC–15 March 44 BC) visited Egypt to meet Cleopatra, and he became aware of the 365-day Egyptian calendar. He took it to Europe upon his return, and it spread to the rest of Europe and was adopted by the entire world. It is a fact that the Julian calendar was derived from the Egyptian calendar. Unfortunately, its African origins were forgotten. This calendar and its source are discussed in Algebra Activities from Many Cultures by Prof. Beatrice Lumpkin [17].

 

As pointed out by Prof. Obenga (1990, p. 108): “time is essentially the return of the year; the new year”[18]. The first impression upon reading this definition suggests that the Egyptians had a circular trajectory of time. However, the reason for this was simply that Horus was conceived as the alpha and omega: the beginning of an eternity, which must end with him. This can also be seen with the year, which is eternally on its own. However, it should not be understood as an eternal repetition of the same events. In Egypt, space and time were linked to the idea of a season, which means that space and time were intimately linked to everything that was done regarding agriculture and other economic activities. They knew that the origin of space and time corresponded to the source of the universe.

 

Several attempts by the ancient Egyptians to seek eternity and master space and time can be seen in various practices, such as the mummification of the dead and the periodic renewal of the Pharaoh’s power and strength. Commenting on this, Prof. Obenga argues that the Egyptians knew about the unity of space and time, as “the unification of space and time becomes the unity of the self and the world, in solidarity, consubstantial.” The Egyptians wanted to control, master, and tame time. They went on to develop astronomy, the study of the sky.

 

The African understanding of time teaches us that space and time are inseparably linked; from the beginning to the end, space and time are connected. Even though time is related to movement, it is nonetheless different from it. The term space, on the other hand, refers to a specific location. It is now clear that the ancient Egyptians understood and were familiar with the concept of space and time, which played an essential role in everything they did to master the universe.

 

2.2.   The Bantu Concept of Space and Time

 

Looking at space and time from the Africans’ viewpoint aims to find out what we can learn from the Bantu. It is essential to look at various definitions of these two concepts to unlock the Africans’ thinking regarding these concepts. The writer hopes that looking at alternative descriptions of these concepts might illuminate the field of physics, specifically theoretical physics. Could this approach of thinking about space and time teach us something new? Could it provide us with potential solutions for the issue of time concerning the quest of ToE? Is there anything special about the Africans’ thought systems? Let us find out.

 

A summary of the definitions of space and time that were discussed by some African scholars [19] is presented below:

 

What is space?

 

§  “Space is the original void that has always existed, in which we find the planets, the earth, etc.”

§  “Space is the void, the vacuum, which is occupied by different objects, such as air, people, and plants.”

§  “Space is separated by different objects or points in space; it is the original void. And it cannot be dissociated from time.”

§  “The universe was created from the original void, in which movement is imprinted.”

§  “Space is emptiness, and time is invisible. We fill the space with objects.”

§  “Man cannot exist outside space-time. He evolves over time and in a given space.”

 

What is time?

 

§  “Time is that initial data, original that always runs and will never stop.”

§  “Time is the invisible existence.”

§  “Time is that space in which several movements are inscribed.”

§  “The time is the same for everyone; people use it in different ways.”

§  “The time is divided into morning, evening and the next day.”

§  “We cannot dominate time. Man grows up, gets old, cannot control time, but his existence depends on space.”

 

Furthermore, Osita Gregory Nnajiofor [20] defines time as “an observed phenomenon, by means of which human beings sense and record changes in the environment and the universe.” (2016, p. 254).He argues that the absence of any activities or phenomenon does not affect the reality of time. Moreover, changes, actions, processes, or events do not constitute the African awareness of time. In Nnajiofor's words, time is an objective metaphysical reality within which events, processes, and changes occur, different from a Western composition of events.

 

From the discussed definitions of time, Africans understand that contrary to the Western view, that time is an ephemeral concept that exists only in the observer's mind. Time is a mental construct and is derived from our daily activities, and it is something that is inseparably connected to events, activities, daily chores, and objects, which helps us carry out our duties and make sense of the world around us.

 

These definitions show that Africans have a holistic view of space and time. At the same time, to run their society, administer works, etc., they have tied time to events. Therefore, time is inseparable and connected to events. For instance, the following words sum up Africans’ thoughts on how time is inseparably tied up to events, areas, or places. Space and time are inseparable.

 

Osita Gregory Nnajiofor and Babalola and Alokan [21], [22], [23] pointed out some of the expressions that Africans use to explain how, in this metaphysical reality of Africans, time is tied up to events. They are as follows:

 

§  “Okonkwo worked daily on his cock until the chicken went to roost.”

§  “The drought continues for eight market weeks…”  

§  “Ikemefuna was ill for three market weeks.”

§  “Ikemefuna came to Umiofia at the end of the carefree season, between harvest and planting.”

 

Furthermore, Africans posit that time is independent of events, which is why there are many expressions in African languages that marry and support this line of reasoning. Common daily phrases are as follows: time is like the wind, time flies, nobody can stop time, time is invisible, time is irreversible, you cannot control time, etc. The author stresses that from this analysis, time is independent of any event, process, or change within the universe. This suggests that Africans believe that time exists as a continuous reality.

 

From this analysis, one can see why clocks do not rule Africans’ lives, as Africans have a holistic understanding of time. Time is beyond a person’s control. Therefore, Africans recognize that what we call time is not time; what cannot be done today can be done another day. Since immemorial time, Africans have had their own distinct, conceived, and precise ideas about time. As pointed out by Babalola and Alokan, “their time conception is highly philosophical and thought-provoking. It stretches beyond the physical world of reality even to the time of eternity.” (2013, p. 1)

 

However, some scholars have suggested that African time is cyclical because, in Africa, people tend to do everything according to a cycle of seasons, natural behavior, and events that take place according to a known division of time, such as the morning, midday, afternoon, and evening, which everyone knew. African time is measured by nature or the biological clock. Readers should be reminded of the fact that we have been given the impression that Africa has a cyclical universe; although this shows a similarity with ancient Egypt, it should not be understood as an eternal repetition of the same events.

 

The impression of this so-called cyclical view or natural concept is a holistic, multifaceted concept of space and time. It does not mean that Africans do not have an idea of the future, as wrongly assumed by Prof. Mbiti [24]. Without looking to the future, they would not have built unique civilizations or have long-term achievements. Additionally, African languages have vocabularies for different time dimensions, such as earlier, presently, after, or later.

 

 

Figure 1. The Lebombo bone is the oldest mathematical artifact; it dates back to more than 35,000 years and was discovered in the Lebombo Mountains in eSwatini (Swaziland) (copyright free).

In this holistic and multidimensional concept of space and time, the Africans designed a lunar calendar called the Lebombo bones (Figure 1). Inspired by human beings’ ten fingers, Figure 2 divides a week into eight (8) days, which are the eight gaps between our fingers. Every activity or event conducted throughout the year is associated with the weather, a natural phenomenon, the position of the moon, hot, cold, or rainy seasons, etc. For instance, when Africans speak of a five-day market cycle, the days are referred to or called by the marketplace's names where the business is taking place.

 

Maths

 

Figure 2. A smart African way of counting the number of weeks.

 

Furthermore, agricultural activities and other important events are done according to a specific season of the year. In this holistic and intricate model of space and time, a year is not made up of a specific number of days. Instead, it is referred to as the repetition of the seasonal or lunar cycles or agricultural activities. Most of the time, we remember what took place in one specific year, such as 1995, due to what the weather was like, the color of something we touched, the smell of the food, or something else. The exact year may mean absolutely nothing; it is just a number. It is the natural events of that day that make sense, which is a truly holistic way of managing space and time. It follows that a reference to a specific time in the past is linked to a well-known event from that time, such as if a tree fell, somebody died, or the weather was freezing.

 

Having discussed the holistic and multidimensional African concept of space and time, the author notes that there might be some issues with the conceptual understanding of space and time in the Western model of physics. First, there is a problem with the linear conception of time and the three-dimensional conception of time (present, past, and future). This Western approach might be a stumbling block in the quest of the ToE. Along the same lines, Prof. Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani [25] argues that: 'The Enlightenment' gives us a linear view of time and a three-dimensional view of space. Time is analogous to a ‘number line' in the linear concept of time, in which one begins at a point of origin or birth or ‘zero time' and moves inextricably towards a ‘end time.' Only through memory it is possible to travel back in time. (2012, p. 102).

 

The linear and cardinal Western view of the past, present, and future poses a problem. This exclusive, linear, straight, and sequential manner tells us that the past is wholly disconnected or utterly different from the present. However, the African perspective states that the past is an invasive past, which is ever impinging on the present, and that what we call the future is simply the sum of the past and the ever-presence of the present. The past is not disjoined from the present, and the future is the sum of the past and the present. The so-called future comprises the present intertwined with the past. For instance, the DNA in living beings and the atoms and electrons that make up the universe contain past experiences (actions, properties, characteristics, and colors, etc.), which creates a blueprint of our present or what we are today. What we do and who we are cannot be separated from our past. From this perspective, the present, past, and future are interlinked.

 

Africans believe that under certain conditions, the past enters the present. As argued above, our DNA contains the genetic information of our ancestors. Likewise, the atoms and electrons in our body and the whole universe are a sum of these elements' past components. This reasoning implies that the past lives in both our body and the universe (present). The future is the sum of the past and present. In that way, the present, past, and future become one. This approach teaches us the ever continuity in the conception of time. The present is partially a product of the past. Therefore, the future is simply a sum of what went on in the past and the present.

 

The problem, therefore, appears in the conception of time between the following two cultures: the Western concept of space and time (linear, cardinal, and sequential) and the African holistic, multifaceted conception of space and time. Africans have a holistic, whole, conceptual view of space and time and believe that we are all interconnected, an idea which is similar to the holographic universe theory. The Western or Eurocentric perspective of space-time has several limitations and drawbacks. It is perhaps imperative for physicists to explore the African paradigm of space and time. They should think about integrating the African understanding of the cosmos with what they have known since the beginning of space and time. Reconnecting to the original knowledge may increase our sense of wholeness.

 

2.3.   Hantu: The Unity of Space and Time

 

As shown throughout this article, advanced physical and mathematical concepts were developed in Africa by the Bantu people several centuries ago. Scientific and logical thought systems were designed in antiquity and pre-colonial Africa. Likewise, nowadays, most archaeologists and progressist historians believe that today's mathematics evolved from ancient mathematics that was developed in Africa [26]. Examples are the aforementioned Lebombo bone and the Ishango bone (the Ishango bone is the oldest table of prime numbers ever discovered. An example of the first ten prime numbers is shown in Figure 3), in addition to the origins of the binary system and prime numbers, as pointed out by [27] and [28].


2

3

5

7

11

13

17

19

23

29

 

Figure 3. The first ten prime numbers. It is adapted from Beyond Eurocentrism: The African Origins of Mathematics and Writing by Ediho Lokanga (2020, p. 67).

 

The African (Bantu) speak of Han-Ntu, which is the concept of space-time. They use this expression to mean that space and time come together; they merge to form one mass or time and space fuse into a single continuum. The Bantu concept of space-time, as one entity, has been around for a millennium, even before its discovery in the Western world. The concept that recognizes the union of space and time was only proposed in 1908 in the Western world by the mathematician Hermann Minkowski, following Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which was developed in 1905. In a nutshell, in the Western world, this concept was first developed by Albert Einstein and integrated in physics less than 100 years ago.

 

Obatala [29] informs us that Hantu, or “being-spaced-timed,” is one of Bantu philosophy's four fundamental concepts. The three others are as follows: Muntu (man), Kintu (things), and Kuntu (determination or style). Although there are more than four fundamental concepts, most researchers refer to these four most important concepts of Bantu science and philosophy.

 

Hantu, therefore, operates as a non-linear concept of space and time. For instance, Ukwamedua [30] states that Hantu aids in the location of spatial and temporal phenomena and every event and motion.(2011, p. 257). The Bantu stress that all beings are forces and continuously in motion, and it is this “Hantu” that takes charge of all the events. In this way, they believe that time and space have the same boundaries. Time predisposes us to the event in a location or space and is also within a specific time or range of time.

 

3.     Space, Time, And Consciousness

 

3.1.   African Holistic View of Space and Time

 

The other crucial fundamental concept of Bantu science and philosophy is consciousness. Elders in Africa speak of parallel universes, which can be accessed through the sleeping consciousness and other methods. Although they distinguish several types of consciousnesses, human beings' two most common consciousnesses are the waking and sleeping consciousnesses.

 

Therefore, we can refer to the “waking consciousness” and “dreaming consciousness, as pointed out by Ullman [31]. Both forms of consciousness are found in human beings and other entities, such as animals, who experience them differently. That is why during sleep, our sleeping consciousness can see, hear, and move. In a dream, the need for a physical body is not a requirement.

 

Africans make a parallelism between the issues of space, time, and consciousness and state that one way of understanding space and time is through the knowledge of consciousness. They insist on the paramount role of consciousness as the source of everything, the fundamental entity. During sleep, our sleeping consciousness can move freely in a spaceless and timeless universe. There is, in a sense, no such thing as space or time, and we live in a spaceless and timeless universe. We are all connected at the fundamental level; we are connected through the holographic universe. This knowledge extends to quantum mechanics and can explain entanglement, non-locality, and other weird quantum mechanics effects. Table 1 compares the African understanding of space and time to the Western knowledge of space and time.

 

Table 1: Comparison of the African knowledge of space and time and the Western understanding of space and time.

 

Space and Time (African Knowledge System)

Space and Time (Western Knowledge System)

Africans have a holistic and multidimensional view of space and time.

Part ofthe whole view of space and time. Mechanical view.

Hantu: space-time as one entity.

Unity of space and time.

The origin of space and time corresponds to the origin of time.

The origin of space and time corresponds to the origin of time.

Under certain conditions, the past enters the present and future.

The past is the past, andthe present is the present.

The past, present, and future are intertwined.

Linear and sequential.

Consciousness is fundamental.

Consciousness is not fundamental

Consciousness is independent of space and time.

The materialist view of consciousness. They are not studied in relation to space and time.

Physical and metaphysical knowledge.

Evidence-based and limited within the physical world.

Calendar (seasons, water, lunar).

Calendar (Lunar).

Respect for all things. Knowledge is integrated and used in daily life.

Skepticism. Discipline-based subjects, such as quantum mechanics and biology. Mathematical models.

 

4.     Conclusion: The Implications of the African Conception of Space and Time

 

The concept of space and time contains two facets of realities that are intimately linked and inseparable to human beings. Africans, like other cultures, have developed several arguments leading to the understanding of space-time. The study's findings revealed that the African's perspective of space and time is holistic and multidimensional. If this is true, then it is imperative and vital that we understand this concept. Africa is letting us know that there are other options for managing the so-called space and time. A more holistic approach is necessary, and we should look at different methods of solving our problems, including the search for the ToE.

 

Concepts of space and time are first and foremost socio, cultural, and philosophical and are tied to how people live and conceive the world. We have learned from the Africans that time is independent of any natural, socio, political, or cultural phenomena. Although the concept of space-time was only discovered in the 20th century in the Western world, it has been well known for several centuries in Africa. Africans have known for several centuries that space and time are linked and inseparable.

 

This paper's outcome suggests that Africans have a unique, holistic approach to dealing with the concept of space and time, as Africans view time holistically. This affects how we should view physics. Additionally, Africans experience time differently according to their economic, social, and cultural needs. It is essential to view time from the African perspective. Africans understand that time is beyond anybody's control, and they know that time as we know it does not exist; it is something that we have created to fit in with whatever we do.

 

The author's arguments for the African concept of space and time may generate new ideas, enable us to make progress and lead us to discoveries. African science has been deliberately omitted. Africa offers a unique, authentic philosophy. The Africans' knowledge combines contrasting and mutually exclusive knowledge from Africa and the West, which are two contrasting paradigmatic approaches to the understanding of space-time.

 

This research is unique in that it brings together two different worldviews of space and time. Moreover, this study's outcome provides an insight into the African perspective of space and time that physicists could use in the quest of the ToE. These ideas can be used to teach us an alternative view of space and time, which may result in new ideas or discoveries. Both the Africans’ knowledge and science should be incorporated into academic curricula, as it can provide a platform for us to learn new scientific concepts, gain a unique perspective of the same problem, or solve some of the issues that science is facing.

 

Despite the progress in the quest for the ToE, many physicists are beginning to recognize the limitations of a single (Western) approach to education. As a result, a new approach is required. African conceptions of time are different from the Western concept of clock-based time. Through sleeping consciousness, we have also learned that the fundamental entity of a human being, which is called consciousness, can move freely in a spaceless and timeless universe.

 

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