Sub-Saharan Ironworking Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The discovery of abundant iron ore in the Central African region greatly affected African life through the creation of ironworking tools and iron goods that changed the structures of some societal hierarchies.

Summary of Event

According to archaeological evidence, the art of iron metallurgy in Africa originated in the Central African territories between Lake Chad and modern-day Rwanda’s Great Lakes region before 1000 b.c.e. By 500 b.c.e., ironworking was well established in these two separate anchor regions of Central Africa. A third area of iron smelting has been located in the Nigeria-Cameroon corridor, where smelting seems to have taken hold by the last half of the last millennium b.c.e. Although the technology of iron metallurgy was established in a few localized settings by the commencement of the last millennium, the technology did not become more widespread in sub-Saharan Africa until the sixth century b.c.e. The gradual and uneven nature by which iron became an integral part of sub-Saharan life can be seen at Daima, southwest of Lake Chad. One archaeological level of a continuous settlement shows that herders in that area acquired iron only in the first century b.c.e.

The landscape between the Lake Chad Basin in the north, the Great Lakes region to the east, the Nigeria-Cameroon corridor in the west, and the Congo Basin in the south has been composed of dense forests, woodlands, and savannas for at least the last twenty centuries (since c. 2000 b.c.e.). The peoples inhabiting the inter-Chad-Rwandan lands would have relied on local resources found in their regions, not long-distance trade for goods. Among the important resources of Central Africa around Lake Chad and in the region of modern-day Rwanda were the clay soil used for pottery and the iron ore used for iron metallurgy.

Cultivating raw iron into a workable product typically involved a corporate group such as a clan or other communal group. Though only men were permitted and sanctioned to perform the smelting and smithing processes, women and children were involved in the management of the resources and site preparation for the smelt. Scholars have contended that women and children were most likely included in looking for and mining iron, constructing pots for transporting the ore, and providing provision of food and drinks to distant smelting camps.

The process began with the mining of suitable ore. Lumps of ore were chipped away with hammers and anvils and stockpiled. Then, in order to make the iron ore malleable, a smelting process had to take place. Made of a clay composite, the furnaces for smelting were of varying shapes and sizes. It is suspected that the great variation in furnace types throughout Central Africa reflects the diversity and quality of ores found throughout the Central Africa region. Despite the structural differences, all furnaces were loaded with a mixture of crushed charcoal and iron ore. Air was hand-pumped into the furnace through bellowed air pipes, which acted as vents. An ironworker had to calculate the ratio of air to ore precisely, so as to ensure a suitable product. After the process was complete, the mixture was removed from the furnace and set to cool. The African furnaces were highly complex to operate and have been difficult for modern-day scholars to re-create. In ancient Africa, only skilled specialists who had completed years of apprenticeship could have succeeded in conducting the smelting process.

In the last millennium b.c.e., central Africans mined and smelted iron ore into useful items such as rings, bangles, hammers, chisels, and hoes. Iron served several purposes throughout society, being formed into products that ranged from weapons to tools to jewelry and currencies. Reflecting the importance of iron ore to the communities of Bantu descent is the inclusion of iron-related terms in various branches of the Bantu-descended languages. Words for “ore,” “iron,” “anvil,” “charcoal,” and related concepts are prevalent in Bantu-speaking areas. Scholars have been able to examine such language through historical linguistics, archaeological findings, and ethnographic surveys to understand the early history of iron in Africa. In many instances, the root words for terms related to iron technology are common across the Bantu landscape. Although many of these terms may at one point have referred to stone tools, their meanings shifted as iron became more important and abundant. Distribution of shared iron terms follows a pattern that appears to be directly related to a center of diffusion originating in central Africa, on the borderlands, where Mashariki Bantu and other Bantu peoples of the western and central savannas meet. The language patterns imply that the Great Lakes area might have served as this center of diffusion, though further research in Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon is necessary before any clear conclusions can be drawn about the centers from which iron technologies were dispersed.

Significance

The significance of the Iron Age in sub-Saharan Africa is twofold. First, because the evidence indicates that iron-smelting technology in sub-Saharan Africa developed separately from iron technologies in other parts of the world and seems not to have been introduced from outside the continent, scholars believe that iron smelting was most likely invented by Sudanian and Sahelian speakers of the Great Lakes zone, was adopted by Bantu speakers, and then spread out with Bantu population movements.

Second, iron shifted the basic economies of sub-Saharan peoples. The advent of iron metallurgy in sub-Saharan Africa opened the door to the development of specialized technologies, trade, and social stratification, which in turn placed ironworkers at the center of several socioeconomic circles. Though economic activities such as hunting, cattle raising, and farming were integral to these societies, no profession required as much skill as that of the ironworker.

The smiths’ production of tools for farming, hunting, and warfare helped to make smelters and smiths an indispensable and respected group in society. When iron became the center of economic, political, and even ritual life, ironworkers became men of great wealth. In later eras (between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries c.e.) in the Rwandan and Burundian kingdoms, kingship and smithing were hereditary, and oral traditions frequently make mention of the interconnection through the figure of the “smith-king.” These traditions also refer to ironworking as that which “mediates the passage from sterility to fecundity.” As in other places in Central Africa, the kings of Rwanda were known to keep an iron hammer at hand even when they slept, as it was the symbol of royal power. In the Great Lakes region of East Africa, rulers claimed that their chiefs had invented metallurgy and were responsible for bringing it to the region. For example, according to oral tradition, the founder of the Rwandan kingdom, Gihanga, was a blacksmith. The link, which is often seen as purely symbolic, demonstrates the alliance of kingship and ironworking.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the importance of early ironworking can be seen in the role it plays in origin myths. A common theme in several Bantu origin myths portrays ironworkers as divine heroes from whom civilization was created. According to oral tradition, ironworkers produced the ax for the creation of the village and the razor to cut the umbilical cord—clear references to creation, fertility, and birth.

Marriage was at times closely connected to wealth in iron. Iron eventually became the material used for currency, repositories of value, and social payments (including the bride price). Iron helped to make patrilineality important in certain regions, in that the possession of iron meant heightened access to the woman of one’s choosing. Iron also made marriage a difficult achievement for men who could not acquire the desired wealth in iron. Because of their wealth and social status, smiths often came to be viewed as possessing magical or supernatural powers. Sometimes they were feared for their potential power both to curse individuals and communities and to withhold iron production.

The shift from a stone-tool-based society to one centered on iron brought about the possibility of centralized control of tool production by those who guarded the knowledge of this technology, which in turn influenced foodways, warfare, and political organization. Previously, salt and stone tools were the commodities at the center of any short-distance trade, but the rarity of suitable ores and specialized knowledge shifted the importance and value to iron, which elevated the economic and political influence of those regions where pockets of good ore were located. As the metal in refined form and the techniques for refining the ores spread across the continent, sub-Saharan access to iron ore proved to be invaluable.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Digombe, Lazare, et al. “Gabon: the Earliest Iron Age of West Central Africa.” Nyame Akuma 28 (1987): 9-11. This article discusses the western side of Central Africa and its history of iron production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. A textbook that examines early African civilizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillipson, David W. African Archaeology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Particularly useful is the chapter titled “Iron Using Peoples Before a.d. 1000.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmidt, Peter R., ed. The Culture and Technology of African Iron Production. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996. Contains chapters authored by various scholars discussing iron production in Africa. Of particular interest is a chapter by Pierre de Maret and G. Thiry, “How Old Is the Iron Age in Central Africa?”

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