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date: 27 June 2022

Preindustrial Mining and Metallurgy in Africalocked

Preindustrial Mining and Metallurgy in Africalocked

  • Foreman BandamaForeman BandamaSol Plaatje University


Africa hosts some of the oldest mines (for exploiting ochre used in personal adornment) in the world, but the ones that relate to the transformation of rocks to metal occur much later when compared to those found in Eurasia. Throughout the world, the processes of identifying and winning ores from parent rock in order to transform them into metals and, ultimately, into usable objects is indeed considered to be a novelty. African ethno-archaeological research suggests that the realization that certain rocks contained sufficient quantities of metal for heat-mediated reduction into metals, as well as the appreciation of the different properties of targeted metals, have never been difficult issues to the local Africans but archaeometallurgists are still rationalizing how this novelty began without an apprenticeship phase, especially south of the Egyptian pyramids. Indigenous sub-Saharan Africa metallurgy is laden with symbolism, ritual, and taboos. This particular aspect made the whole craft to be derided by Western science as magical and therefore unworthy of proper scientific study. This prejudiced thinking has since been discredited by sound research, but the ripple effects still linger and archaeometallurgical research is still generally underfunded when compared to other elements of anthropological inquiry. Nonetheless, the limited research conducted to date firmly highlight the direction of preindustrial mining and metallurgical research in this region. In a pattern unknown in Eurasia, where copper and bronze preceded iron production in a very gradual process, sub-Saharan Africa metallurgy was ushered in by the simultaneous advent of iron and copper in parts of East, Central, and West Africa before this metallurgy was introduced to the southern subcontinent. Gold, tin, and cuprous alloys (mostly bronze and brass) were then introduced after centuries of ongoing iron and copper metallurgy. As the last block to take up metallurgy, Southern Africa is often uncritically assumed not to have had an innovative aptitude, but the historiography of mining and metallurgy of the whole sub-Saharan Africa constantly evokes prejudiced thinking about African incapacity or the counter discourse. A more careful reading of sub-Saharan metallurgy literature places this craft at par with the equivalent from Eurasia. Considering that the African continent is the cradle of humankind, this is not surprising. Fortunately, as products of a high-temperature process, archaeometallurgical objects and waste by-products retain in their physical and chemical properties partial histories of the transformations they went through, allowing archaeometallurgists glimpses into the technologies of past societies. Guided by concepts such as “materiality” and in agreement with Maussian thinking, Africanist archaeometallurgists consider the so-called magic to be just as important as the technical control because there is no chasm between the technological and anthropological factors of artifacts, and all technologies falls within the broader social paradigm of their construction.


  • Archaeology

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