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How did Africa get its name?

These maps show surprising juxtapositions of ancient and modern toponyms of the Mother Continent.

View across Tunis from Hotel Africa. Tunisia was once the central part of the Roman province of Africa, which gave its name to the entire continent.

Image: Hansueli Krapf, CC BY-SA 3.0
  • "Africa" is just one of the ancient names that competed to define the entire continent.
  • Geographical terms like Sudan, Maghreb, and Guinea have remarkably wide and changeable areas of application.
  • Newly independent African nations sometimes adopted names of former kingdoms – even faraway ones.

Vast and varied

The place-name pairs come in three categories: ancient, geographical and pre-colonial

The place-name pairs come in three categories: ancient, geographical and pre-colonial.

The names of continents are so well-established that we forget how obscure their origins really are. America is named after an Italian explorer, but not the one historically credited with its discovery. Europe and Asia may derive from the Akkadian words for "sunset" and "sunrise," but there are a host of other etymologies.

And, as these maps show, Africa is just one of the many names that have been used to describe this vast and varied land mass. The maps come in three categories – names of ancient, geographical and pre-colonial origin – and show the areas to which those names apply: dark, for the old version; and outlined, for the current one.

Ancient toponyms

Libya, Ethiopia and Africa are all local names that at one time applied to the entire continent

Libya, Ethiopia and Africa are all local names that at one time applied to the entire continent.

  • Libya is an ancient Greek toponym for the lands between the Nile and the Atlantic Ocean, and sometimes by extension for the entire continent. The name may derive from the local Libu tribe. Libya is also the name of the modern North African country between Tunisia and Egypt, formerly infamous for the violent surrealism of Colonel Ghadaffi's decades-long dictatorship and currently for its lawlessness and low-intensity civil war.
  • Ethiopia derives from the classical Greek for "burnt-face" (possibly in contrast to the lighter-skinned inhabitants of Libya). It first appears in Homer's Iliad and was used by the historian Herodotus to denote those areas of Africa south of the Sahara part of the "Ecumene" (i.e. the inhabitable world). But the Greek term originally applied to Nubia (a.k.a. Kush). Later, it was adopted by the kingdom of Axum, a distant precursor to present-day Ethiopia.
  • In 148 BCE, the Romans established the province of Africa Proconsularis, which covered most of present-day Tunisia and adjoining coastal bits of Algeria and Libya. The etymology is uncertain: "Africa" might mean "sunny," "birthplace," "cave-dwelling," or "rainwind;" refer to the ancient Afri tribe, the biblical port of Ophir, a grandson of Abraham named Epher, or a Himyarite king named Afrikin. Over time, perhaps because of its solid Roman pedigree, "Africa" became (European) cartographers' preferred term for the entire continent.

'Furthest sunset'

Three African countries \u2013 and one in Oceania \u2013 carry the name Guinea.

Three African countries – and one in Oceania – carry the name Guinea.

  • Bilad as-Sudaan is Arabic for "Land of Black People." Once referring to all of sub-Saharan Africa, the name latterly applied to the savannah belt running south of the Sahara from the Atlantic to the edge of the country that came in the British sphere of influence in 1899 as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Following a successful referendum, South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011. The other country outlined here is Mali, which until independence was known as French Soudan.
  • Guiné was the Portuguese geographical term for West Africa. Its zone of application covers two of the three African countries named after it: Guinea (the larger country in the west) and Equatorial Guinea (in the east). Guinea Bissau, the smaller neighbor of Guinea, falls just outside the ancient domain of Guiné. A fourth country, Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia, was named after the region by Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez. In 1545, he first used the term "New Guinea" because of the similarities in appearance between the natives of both regions.
  • Maghreb is Arabic for "sunset." In some definitions, the wider region of this name includes Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania. A narrower definition (the one current in France, for example) only encompasses Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The narrowest definition is Maghreb al-Aqsa, "the Furthest Sunset," i.e. Morocco.

No overlap

Some new African countries adopted the names of kingdoms with ancient pedigree, even if they were located somewhere else entirely.

Some new African countries adopted the names of kingdoms with ancient pedigree, even if they were located somewhere else entirely.

  • Mauretania was the portion of the Maghreb the Berber inhabitants of which were known to the Romans as Mauri. The local kingdoms became vassals of Rome and were later annexed. The current Islamic Republic of Mauritania derives its name from ancient Mauretania but shares no territory and little else with its nominal predecessor.
  • "Ghana" means "warrior king," a title conferred to the kings of the so-called Ghana Empire (it called itself "Wagadou"), which existed from around 700 to 1240 CE in an area covering parts of the modern states of Mauritania and Mali. There is no overlap with the modern country – the British colony of the Gold Coast adopted the name upon gaining independence in 1957.
  • Benin City, now in Nigeria, was the capital of the old kingdom of Benin. The modern kingdom of Benin, formerly the French colony of Dahomey, is located a few hundred miles to the west.

Image produced by reddit user u/PisseGuri82, reproduced with kind permission.

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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Lee Jae-Sung of Korea Republic lies on the pitch holding his knee during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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