African Culture

Have you ever wondered how Africans told time when there was no clock?

Telling the time accurately looks like a very easy thing in the modern world, but have you ever thought about the challenges ancient and timid Africans passed, trying to determine time?


How did they tell the time when there was no clock? Sunlight!

We all know that the Sunlight shifts over a day, moving from the east in the morning and from the west later in the afternoon and early evening, hitting the Earth directly around noon. For centuries, when the world was asleep, Africans have told time-based on sunlight’s changing directions and its effects on shadows. At different times of the day, your shadow gets longer and shorter or may disappear. You can tell the time based on your shadow’s current length and positions. The most common tool used as gnomons.

A gnomon
A gnomon



One of the first time tracking devices and inventions in the world can be dated back to the ancient Egyptians who erected tall rectangular structures, known as obelisks, which took advantage of the shadow-creating effect of the Sun to track time. The obelisks were pointed, and as the Sun moved across the sky, they cast a large shadow on the ground. The path of the shadow could be mapped out with intervals that represented the hours of the day.

An obelisk
An obelisk

The ancient Egyptians soon realized that while the obelisk could be counted on during the day, something needed to be created to keep time at night. Then they invented merkhet, which was served as the solution to this dilemma and possibly became the world’s first astronomical tool. The device consisted of a string with a weight attached to one end, enabling a straight line to be measured. When two merkhets were aligned with the North Star, they formed a celestial meridian in the sky. The time could then be determined by counting how many stars crossed this line.


Later on, the Egyptians invented the water clock, which dates back to 16th century B.C. Babylon. It is another clever invention that uses the steady flow of water to track time. A large bowl would be filled with water and allowed to slowly drain from a spout at the bottom. The inside of the bowl was marked with time intervals, and you could determine how much time had passed by the water level in the bowl. However, this method wasn’t very accurate because as the bowl emptied, the flow of water slowed and towards the end, the water barely trickled, no longer keeping accurate time.

Egyptian water clock
Egyptian water clock

And, now we have the clock.


Francis Chidera
the authorFrancis Chidera
Popularly known as Chokolate is a content creator. A lover of simplified words making it easy to get to a wider audience. It pains to see that Africans are forgetting and neglecting who they are, hence, I am passionate about reminding us of our culture. I work with 54history on the African culture category, to achieve this aim.

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