In Marvel’s Black Panther, the country of Wakanda is a civilisation existing in complete isolation to the rest of the world. Its technology has advanced beyond every other nation on Earth. For example, Wakanda has developed Kimoyo Beads - small beads that are able to act as everything from a mobile communications array to a form of emergency medical treatment. It has hypersonic aircraft with near-perfect cloaking devices, and the ability to cloak an entire city. Much of this technology seems to have been developed by the Black Panther’s sister, Shuri, and those who came before her. But how possible is it for such an isolated and technically-advanced civilisation to exist? Could Wakanda and its technology be real?
For technological innovations to happen, it’s not enough to have one super-smart individual come up with brilliant gadgets and say ‘look what I’ve done!’ A few other important things are needed. First, you need money and trade. Not all the resources necessary to make your technology will be available within your borders so you’ll have to get them from somewhere else, and that somewhere else will want something else in return. Second, you need to market your new technology to the people. It’s important to persuade your consumers that Kimoyo Bead X is better than Kimoyo Bead 9, and get beyond those few loyal fans of the brand found queuing outside Shuri stores for days to get the latest gadget. Third, you need the infrastructure to get those innovations designed, built, and into the hands of the consumer. Finally, you need a reason to innovate in the first place, namely, some sort of competition.
Let’s go through these elements and see if they work with Wakanda.
Show me the Money!
Firstly, where does Wakanda get its money and materials from?
In the comics, Wakanda sells small amounts of its Vibranium (or Adamantium, as it was originally known before Marvel sold that name to Fox, and then bought it back again) at $10,000 (£7.2k) per gram. To put that into perspective, the Vibranium for Captain America’s 12lb shield would cost the US Government over $54 million (£39m) in the current market. Using the real world’s best known technologically-advanced rogue state as an example, the GDP of North Korea is $28.5 billion (£20.5 billion), meaning Wakanda would have to trade 2.85 metric tonnes of Vibranium per year to have a similar economy. Compare that to the 31.1 million metric tonnes of steel Russia exported in 2016, and you can see how little 2.85 metric tonnes is. My sources (Marvel Fandom Database) tell me the Vibranium meteorite at Wakanda weighs about 9,072 metric tonnes. That should keep them in Kimoyo Beads for 3,183 years if they spend at North Korea’s rate.
The Movie Universe tells us that Wakanda does trade some Vibranium. As well as Captain America’s shield, we know that - if Adamantium is the Canadian word for Vibranium (Marvel, you can have that one) - the Canadian Government has a legitimately bought stockpile that it uses in its Project X programmes. So, assuming that Wakanda has been able to secretly trade small amounts of Vibranium via their operatives to any nation that can afford it for centuries, and those nations trade things back via the same route, money and materials aren’t a problem. It does suggest a centuries-long international conspiratorial cover-up of staggering proportions, though. We’ll get back to that.
The next hurdle is marketing. Overall, humans are pretty much an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind of species. For example, our ancestors used the same stone tools for thousands, even tens of thousands, of years at a time. When innovation happens, that innovation has to be shown to be beneficial, really cool, or both. It has to be marketed.
Imagine if you will, the demonstration of the first bronze knife to a group of amazed onlookers by a travelling sales caveman: “get your super shiny sharp cutting thing ‘ere, yours for just 2 goats and a pointy stick.” Every innovation, from the stone handaxe to the Roman aqueduct to the printing press to the iPhone X, has to be marketed to people.
If you take the Wakandans’ deep respect for tradition and their holding on to older designs into account - such as building modern weapons in the shape of a spear - they clearly have a thing for the past. So Shuri and her predecessors must somehow market their new innovations to these highly traditional people. But I think they do. We see markets in the film, so we can assume Wakanda is a capitalist society of some type. With markets you get salespeople. Let’s assume that it is possible to market innovations in Wakanda.
As for infrastructure, that’s an easy one that’s on display throughout the film: from the Vibranium mines to Shuri’s research and development department. I think it’s safe to assume that they also have factories and distribution channels.
So far so good, but then we come to a sticking point. If necessity is the mother of invention, what makes it necessary for Wakanda to innovate in the first place? Where’s the competition?
The Mother of Invention
There are a few historical drivers of innovation, but few are as powerful as war. A short snippet of the list of technologies that likely would never have come about without some sort of war includes, the microwave oven, the telegraph, the telephone, antibiotics, nuclear power, prosthetic limbs, GPS, canned food, air travel, wrist watches, and drones. Arguably, one of the drivers of what we now call the Scientific Revolution was Europe becoming a group of fiscal-military states. Fiscal-military states are states who need professional and well-equipped armed forces to protect the precious goods that are coming from overseas that, in turn, pay for the professional and well-equipped armed forces who protect those goods - and on and on in a seemingly endless circle. These fiscal-military states very probably led to a spike in military innovations and new ways of thinking, as each nation tried to get ahead of the rest. Wakanda, as far as we can tell, has not been to war since the civil war that led to the first Black Panther. Having such an advanced army, airforce and navy seems odd.
Additionally, they aren’t in economic competition with any other country. Being a state that doesn’t need to tax its citizens or use outside resources for wealth - a rentier state, essentially - it has no external competition, no nation to be better than, and no need to produce anything other than Vibranium for the outside world.
Internally, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market to drive innovation, either. Although it’s a seemingly capitalist society, technological innovation is a monopoly of the state, run by Princess Shuri. She doesn’t have any competition that we’ve seen.
There is one type of competition that might cause the Wakandan government to want to remain one step ahead of everyone else, however. It’s the same type of competition that drove the innovations of the Cold War and pushes North Korea’s nuclear programme onwards today: paranoia.
Wakanda seems like a deeply paranoid place. Until the end of the film, and so throughout history, they are terrified that their secrets or even their existence as a technological superpower might be revealed. Wakanda has embedded spies in every country and at every level, and any attempt to expose or harm Wakanda is met with extreme force. They stop at nothing to keep their secrets, even if that means killing a Prince of the Kingdom and abandoning his child in a foreign land. In the Cold War, paranoia created the internet, billion-dollar spy planes and satellites, and fuelled the race to the moon. If Wakanda was the most paranoid nation on Earth, its entire economy might be based around that paranoia and geared to keeping one step ahead of the rest of the world. Planet Earth was having a Cold War with Wakanda, and they didn’t even know it.
Could Wakanda exist?
To sum up, if a country like Wakanda found itself on top of a resource so valuable that it gave them both the chance of extreme wealth and enough paranoia over losing it to push its technology beyond the rest of the world, the technological advances in the films and comics might just happen. It would have to have an internal market that allowed any beneficial new innovations to be sold to its people, and the finest secret service the world has ever seen. A secret service that has the ability to keep hundreds, possibly thousands, of people involved in trade with them from giving away their secrets by any means necessary, including assassination. Yes, a country like Wakanda could be real, but it might have to be just a little nastier than the one in the film.