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date: 28 June 2022

West African Iron Production in Its Cultural Contextlocked

West African Iron Production in Its Cultural Contextlocked

  • Philip de BarrosPhilip de BarrosPalomar College


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

One of the major debates in African Iron Age research has focused on the origins of iron production (what, where, when, and how), including evolving technological strategies from bellows-driven to natural draft furnaces and associated production levels, and whether ironworking technology in sub-Saharan Africa was borrowed or had independent origins. While the debate continues, research has revealed a stunning diversity of furnace construction, the use of natural draft furnaces since perhaps as early as the first millennium B.C.E, clear evidence of ore selectivity, and improved technological processes via trial and error.

The importance of West (and sub-Saharan) African iron production can best be understood within its various cultural contexts, rather than from a strictly Western technological perspective. What were the various impacts of iron production and technology on West African societies? These include demographics (population growth, settlement system dynamics, and sedentism); economics (increased food production, wealth accumulation (especially in cattle) and trade; environmental (deforestation, mining, and watersheds); social ramifications (changes in the social organization of production, including specialization; changes in social status, including castes) and in the rise of social hierarchies or heterarchies; political organization (links to political power and the rise of political centralization ); and, finally, its links to magic, religion, and societal ontologies (including birth, life or existence, sexuality and renewal, other liminal experiences, truth, and death), especially the tightly woven nexus of technology and ritual in smelting and to a lesser degree in smithing.

In terms of theoretical issues and associated research goals, how were the materials and processes of ironworking integrated into societal belief systems, and to what extent were these systems reinforced, modified, or expanded as a result of the rise of ironworking technology? How does this process in the context of different cultural beliefs and practices lead to different technological styles? How does the colonial and postcolonial history of Africa impact what researchers decide to study and how they interpret results? How did the rise of ironworking affect material culture beyond ironworking technology itself? For example, there appears to be a correlation with the rise of ironworking technology and changes in ceramic vessel forms and associated decorative motifs.

In terms of methods, what practically oriented strategies for resolving specific research questions are currently available? They include intensive regional sample surveys; extensive surveys linked to opportunistic sampling and a focus on local oral traditions; ethnoarchaeological approaches combining oral traditions and selective excavations to yield information on ceramics and chronology, smelting and smithing technologies, iron-production levels, dietary information and mortuary practices, all with the goal of understanding African cultural matrices of which ironworking became an integral part. The study of the trade in smelted iron and iron tools requires a multidisciplinary study of historical and colonial archives, oral traditions, and the identification of the chemical signatures of various ore sources that can be tied to iron ore and tools over local and regional spaces. In addition, the study of ironworking technologies requires funding and access to expensive recording and investigative technologies, which limits its accessibility and often requires the development of joint research programs.


  • Archaeology