Bantu People Invent Copper Metallurgy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The independent invention of copper metallurgy took place among the Bantu people of the Copper Belt of Zambia, in the far southern Congo.

Summary of Event

The independent invention of copper metallurgy took place among Bantu people in the Lualaba-Upemba region around the fourth century c.e. and had a far-reaching long-term impact on their economic and political institution building. The development of copper mining and smithing appeared in central Africa (present-day Zambia and southern Congo) in the pre-Kisalian (Kamilambian) era. The Kisalian era is defined by the spread of this pottery tradition, created by the ancestral Luba (of Bantu origins), between 600 and 1000 c.e. The early Luba spread toward the southeast beginning as early as 300 c.e., migrating toward the Upemba Depression, south of the Lualaba River. In the process of settling frontier lands, the early Luba incorporated other groups of people into their communities, most prominently Sabi speakers, also of Bantu origins. One consequence of these population movements was the essentially interethnic mixing of communities of people of Bantu heritage with diverse cultural systems and different Bantu languages. The cross-cultural integration that was prominent in the territory around the Lualaba River and the Upemba Depression during this period resulted in new economic, social, and political traditions.

In addition to the cultural and intellectual crosspollination during this period, access to essential resources of copper, salt, and iron—all found in abundance near the Upemba Depression—facilitated the emergence of copper working. Copper in particular is found 325 to 480 miles (200 to 300 kilometers) to the south of the Upemba Depression in what is today referred to as the Copper Belt of Zambia. Copper was being mined and smelted on a limited scale by the fourth century c.e., and after 300 c.e. emerged as a major trade commodity traversing the Lualaba region. By the end of the first millennium, copper became a key symbol of wealth and was typically fashioned into modestly sized croisettes that could be used as a currency throughout the region. The small copper crosses are prominent in the Classical Kisalian archaeological record, and their common placement in burial mounds in the hands of the deceased suggests that the crosses were used as a currency for trade. Certainly in later periods it is known that small copper and iron ingots and crosses were used for commercial exchange.

While mining, transport, and smelting copper ore were time-consuming processes, the region’s bayous and tributaries provided additional economic activities focused on the waterways. People of the Kisalian era built levees along rivers and tributaries and utilized riverbanks for village cites. The marshlands were used to produce floating farm plots. These communities relied on the importance of copper production and trade as only one segment of the economy. They also controlled their environment to maximize desirable riverbank and stream niches for agriculture and fishing. Riverine villages were somewhat isolated on the wetlands, although there was outward trade in products such as reeds for baskets, mats, and thatching; meat and fish; medicinal products; and other resources desired by nearby communities.


Copper production contributed to the accumulation of wealth and creation of stately regalia, as well as providing the first metal currency of central Africa. The early era of copper production was the foundation for the larger-scale economic and political growth that materialized over the next five centuries. The era of copper smelting was the beginning of a new phase in central African history, as skillful metalworking produced both the means and the incentive for a state apparatus to safeguard accumulated wealth.

In the territories south of the Congo River Basin along the Lualaba River, multifaceted political organization developed between the seventh and ninth centuries c.e. The production of wealth through metalworking allowed for greater social and economic variation and integration, as well as a degree of social stratification. In this period, perhaps for the first time in this region, individual leaders were able to utilize their political power, social status, and economic networks to integrate communities over a broader territorial expanse, beyond the localized kin-group, and as a result political hierarchies emerged. Secondary artisan classes specializing in various crafts and trades emerged to support the production of metal. For example, leatherworking, which produced among other things the bellows essential to the smelting of metals, came into being primarily because of its usefulness in metalworking. Additionally, professional craftpeople who produced mats, baskets, pottery, ivory products, tools, small jewelry such as bangles, and fishhooks increasingly contributed to economic diversification and social stratification. The new artisan professions contributed to the production of material goods representative of wealth and to prosperity and affluence among those who created the items of display.

The most powerful political leaders controlled the economies of the Copper Belt. It seems that the advent of copper increasingly provided the basis for the political hierarchy in the Lualaba-Upemba region. By the Classic Kisalian era, in the twelfth century, central control of the copper, iron, and salt trades were established, and through the collection of tribute the Luba chiefs were able to extract a great deal of wealth. Power was delegated among a hierarchy of subordinate and dependent local chiefs who each acknowledged the king’s power through paying tribute in exchange for access to resources in the territory.

Excavation by Pierre de Maret around Lake Kisale in the vicinity of the southeastern edges of the forest reveals that by the eleventh and twelfth centuries there had been a great accumulation of wealth in metal, including the flange-welded bells and ceremonial axes that, in later eras, were central to the pageantry and display of wealth associated with political power. The assumption is that the importance of metal items increased over time and spread into new regions as the smelters of the Copper Belt traded their product more widely. In fact, by the fourteenth century the kingdoms of Malawi, north of the Zambezi Valley between the Shire River and the Indian Ocean, began to link themselves to the Luba, as recorded in Lunda and Phiri oral traditions. Copper as a currency moved from the Lualaba-Upemba areas of production into Indian Ocean and internal African trade networks throughout the late first millennium into the later half of the second millennium c.e. Thus, the advent of copper smelting in the Upemba region had major long-term and far-reaching political and economic consequences. Copper served as the foundation of economic affluence and political esteem in the second millennium kingdoms and empires of the region.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa, an Archaeological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A historical account of ancient African towns which draws from archaeological data.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002. A textbook survey of Africa before, during, and after the agricultural revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herbert, Eugenia. Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. An analysis of the industry, ceremony, and ideology surrounding Iron Age metalworking in Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herbert, Eugenia. Red Gold of Africa: Copper in Precolonial History and Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984. An examination of the mining, trade, and social customs associated with copper production in Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A survey of African history through archaeological data.

Categories: History