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Central African Copper  

Nicolas Nikis

Copper, considered a “red gold,” had a major place in the political economy of Central Africa over the past two millennia. Copper was a rare resource. Its ore was only accessible in a few scattered locations in Central Africa, especially the Copperbelt in southeast Central Africa and the Niari basin in the south of Republic of Congo. Until the massive imports of European alloys beginning in the 16th century, only unalloyed and leaded copper objects were produced and used in Central Africa. The first instance of copper smelting in the region is dated around the 5th century ad, much later than for iron, and it has been mainly used over time as a means of exchange, for jewelry, and as material for artworks and decoration of objects. Different techniques have been used over time and space to produce the metal and manufacture the objects, some of them closely related to iron metallurgy. Smelting took place close to the deposits, and diverse processes relating to sociohistorical factors have been identified. Ingots, produced on the smelting sites, were one of the preferred forms for exchange, acquiring in some cases symbolic and/or monetary value. Manufacturing objects could take place far from the smelting place. Because copper and brass can easily be recycled, metal regularly changed shape to fit local needs and tastes. From the late 1st millennium ad, copper has been exchanged over increasingly long distances in regional networks and, eventually, traded to the Indian and Atlantic Ocean coasts. Rising polities, such as the Kongo Kingdom in the 15th century, would have benefited from access to this resource. More broadly, copper was regularly associated with the expression of power and wealth but was also accessible to a large number of people. In addition to the economic value of copper, metalworking and the figure of the smith were closely associated with power. Copper’s physical properties such as color and brightness were also important in its choice as a material for artworks as a way to support and enhance the role of the object.