Ironworking Spreads into Sub-Saharan Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Iron production gradually extended out of North Africa and into East and West Africa, eventually covering the entire continent by the first century c.e.

Summary of Event

Ironworking, a significant technological advancement in any society, slowly made its way into sub-Saharan Africa after 800 b.c.e. Scholars, however, do not know the exact routes of transmission. Most suggest that a slow diffusion occurred along one or more links from Meroë, Africa’s first industrial city.

In Meroë, ironworking dates to 800-600 b.c.e. Artisans in Meroë benefited from ample supplies of coal, which was used to heat furnaces to more than 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius). They also had rich deposits of iron ore. Because of their special skills in iron smelting, craftspeople in Meroë most likely occupied a higher rung in society. Thus, iron production was perfected by smiths in Meroë in the first millennia b.c.e.

How Meroë acquired the iron-smelting process has engendered some debate. Some scholars suggest that the Phoenicians brought the technology to North Africa. They claim that the trans-Saharan trade probably carried the process across the desert and eventually into West Africa. Other historians believe that the Assyrians, with their iron weapons, introduced iron smelting to North Africa when they attacked the Egyptians. Evidence supports both groups of scholars.

Remnants of iron production have been discovered along the Jos Plateau in Nigeria, at an elevation of more than 1,000 feet (300 meters). Fragments of iron and furnaces have been recovered throughout Africa in sites from Egypt to Tutankhamen’s tomb and in West Africa as well as in the Horn of Africa. Iron recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamen indicates that it was present there around 1340 b.c.e. and perhaps even earlier. Iron daggers and blades were used in Egypt during the same time period, pointing to an earlier introduction. From Egypt, the technology spread out along the Nile River and reached the kingdom of Kush sometime around 500 b.c.e., perhaps even a century before.

The diffusion of iron-smelting technology presents another problem to scholars, who do not agree on one single route of transmission. One possible path took the technology out of Meroë and into Rwanda-Uganda and even into northwestern Tanzania. It may have reached West Africa across the western portion of the Sahara Desert, carried by trans-Saharan traders. Still another avenue could have taken the process to the Mediterranean coast from the central Sahara Desert, from Meroë to Morocco.

By the first century c.e., iron smelting in Africa had progressed to cover most of the continent, from north to south. Trade probably facilitated its spread, and the cutting of trees to support hot fires in various types of furnaces most likely contributed to some deforestation.

The significance of iron production and its diffusion is that the African continent skipped over a lengthy period of bronze and copper production and went directly into iron smelting. Although it is possible that copper was also worked during this period, most of Africa advanced as a result of an Iron Age that occurred well before the technology of ironworking was commonly used in many other areas of the world.

Significance

Iron smelting in sub-Saharan Africa represents a major step forward in human history. Rather than going through the bronze and copper stages, Africa for the most part leaped into an Iron Age. With Meroë as a center for industrial Africa, the process of smelting spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa between 800 and 600 b.c.e., finally covering the entire continent by the first century c.e.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">July, Robert W. A History of the African People. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland, 1998. This book provides important background to iron technology in Africa. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Duncan E., and Nikolaas J. Van Der Merwe. “Early Metal Working in Sub-Sahara Africa: A Review of Recent Research.” Journal of African History 35 (1994): 1-36. Provides good background to the scholarly argument concerning the spread of iron smelting in Africa. Maps and dictionary of key terms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munson, Patrick J. “Africa’s Prehistoric Past.” In Africa, edited by Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O. O’Meara. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. Gives background on iron smelting. Maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliver, Roland, and Brian M. Fagan. Africa in the Iron Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. This book furnishes background on iron smelting and technology in Africa to 500 c.e. Maps, bibliography, and index.

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