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date: 19 December 2018

Origins of African Metallurgy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

The “Three Age System” designed in the middle of the 19th century framed the general pattern of universal technological evolution. It all started with the use of stone tools in the very long “Stone Age.” The much shorter “Bronze Age” followed, to be capped by the even shorter “Iron Age.” This evolutionary taxonomy was crafted in Scandinavia, based on evidence from Denmark, and Europe by extension. Patterns of global long-term technological evolution recorded in Africa are at variance with this Stone-Bronze-Iron Age sequence; there is no Bronze Age yet.

The advent of copper and iron metallurgy is one of the most fascinating debates taking place in African archaeology at the beginning of the 21st century. The debate on the origins of African metallurgies has a long history with multiple implications. It is anchored on 19th-century evolutionism and touches on the patterns and pace of technological evolution worldwide. It has also impacted the history of discourses on human progress. As such, it has strong sociopolitical implications. It was used to support the assumption of “African backwardness,” an assumption according to which all important material and institutional inventions and innovations took place elsewhere—in the Near East precisely—and spread from there to Africa through demic or stimulus diffusion.

Does such a scheme capture global human technological history or is it a specific case of local areal development? That is the core of the current debate on the origins of African metallurgy.

A speculative phase, without any input of field data, took place in the 1950s–1960s. It was represented by the interesting exchanges between R. Mauny and H. Lhote. The former was a proponent of metallurgy diffusion and the latter argued for local inventions. For Mauny, metallurgy is such a complex process, requiring sophisticated mastery of elaborate pyrotechnology, that its independent invention anywhere else is totally ruled out. For Lhote, the diversity of African metallurgical practices and traditions is an indication of its local roots. Despite this debate, the dominant view asserted that iron metallurgy was invented in the Anatolian Hittite Empire in the middle of the 2nd millennium (1600–1500) bce. It spread to Africa via the Sinai and the Nile Valley on the one hand and Carthaginian North Africa on the other hand. Meroe in Nubia and Carthage in Ifriqiya were the staging localities from which iron metallurgy spread to the rest of the continent in the middle of the first millennium bce.

Sustained archaeological research was carried out in different parts of the continent from the early 1980s on. Evidence of copper and iron metallurgies was documented in different parts of the continent, in West, Central, and East Africa. Early copper metallurgies were recorded in the Akjoujt region of Mauritania and the Eghazzer basin in Niger. Surprisingly early iron smelting installations were found in the Eghazzer basin (Niger), the middle Senegal valley (Senegal), the Mouhoun Bend (Burkina Faso), the Nsukka region and Taruga (Nigeria), the Great Lakes region in East Africa, the Djohong (Cameroons), and the Ndio (Central African Republic) areas. It is, however, the discoveries from the northern margins of the equatorial rainforest in North-Central Africa, in the northeastern part of the Adamawa Plateau, that radically falsify the “iron technology diffusion” hypothesis. Iron production activities are documented to have taken place as early as 3000–2500 bce in habitation sites like Balimbé, Bétumé, and Bouboun; smelting sites like Gbabiri; and forge sites like Ôboui and Gbatoro. The last two sites provide high resolution data on the spatial patterning of blacksmiths’ workshops dating from 2500 to 2000 bce. Challenging data such as these are usually ignored or dismissed without serious consideration. But patient and sustained long-term research is nonetheless contributing to new understanding of the development of copper and iron metallurgies in Africa.