The cotton plant is a perennial that naturally grows around the world between 47 degrees north and 37 degrees south latitude. Neolithic farmers domesticated cotton about 10,000 years ago and through archeological evidence we know the people of India began weaving cotton around 2,000 B.C. Soon cotton cultivation and processing spread to Egypt and down the east coast of Africa. By 1100 A.D. the people of West Africa were growing and weaving cotton cloth.
In West Africa, by 1312, the Empire of Mali was being ruled by Mansa Musa; he is considered to be the richest man who ever lived. In 1324 Mansa Musa along with 60,000 people and 100 camels loaded with gold went on the Pilgrimage to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia.) A man named Ibn Fadl witnessed Mansa Musa’s arrival in Cairo, Egypt and he wrote, “Their cloth is white and made of cotton which they cultivate and weave in the most excellent fashion.” It was also said Mansa Musa wore cotton cloth woven with gold thread.
On the other side of the world cotton was also growing in Peru. Cotton has been cultivated in Peru for thousands of years; Francisco Pizarro found it being widely used in Peru in 1532. The Spanish noted this but paid little attention to it as gold was their primary interest.
In 1492 when Columbus landed in the West Indies, he saw that people wore cotton, and wrote 19 times in his journal about cotton. On November 6, 1492 he wrote (the ship’s crew) “saw a great quantity of cotton that had been spun and worked – in one house alone more than twelve thousand pounds of it.”
With cotton being cultivated all around the world since ancient times, someone had to find, make or invent a tool to separate the cotton from the seeds. Who was inventing such a tool? Everyone.
A Buddhist painting in the Ajunta Caves, Maharashtra, India shows the earliest evidence of a single roller cotton gin. The painting is from 500 A.D. The cotton gin in India was known as a Churka. Between the 12th and 14th centuries double-roller Churka gins appeared in India and China. In some areas these Churkas were foot powered or water powered.
European Churkas were brought to the West Indies as cotton and tobacco were the cash crops of the Carribean Islands before sugar took over in the 1660s.
Most churkas or cotton gins were a roller style. In the 18th century many people in the American colonies were modifying the cotton gin; most of these modifications are still within the roller style of gins. What Eli Whitney did was to get rid of the rollers and replace them with metal rods. This was called a saw gin. Eli Whitney’s gin processed more cotton in a day than any previous gin, but it sacrificed quality for quantity. Whitney’s gin damaged the cotton fiber.
It can be seen that Eli Whitney did not invent the cotton gin. He was just one more person modifying an already existing machine.