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date: 28 May 2020

Mining and Metallurgy in Africa

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

Africa hosts some of the oldest mines (for extracting ochre used in personal adornment) in the world, but the mines that relate to the transformation of rocks to metal occur much later than those found in Eurasia. Throughout the world, the processes of identifying and winning ores from parent rock to transform them into metals and ultimately into usable objects is indeed considered a novelty. African ethno-archeological research suggests that the realization that certain rocks contained sufficient quantities for heat-mediated reduction into metals, as well as the appreciation of the different properties of targeted metals, have never been a difficult issue for the local Africans. However, archeometallurgists are still rationalizing how this novelty began without an apprenticeship phase, especially south of the Egyptian pyramids.

Indigenous sub-Saharan African metallurgy is laden with symbolism. This particular aspect led the whole craft to be derided by Western science as magical and therefore unworthy of proper scientific study. This prejudicial thinking has since been discredited by sound research, but the ripple effects still linger, and archeometallurgical research is still generally underfunded when compared to other elements of anthropological inquiry. Nonetheless, the limited research conducted to date firmly highlights the direction of pre-industrial 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 African 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 sub-continent. Gold, tin, and cuprous alloys (mostly bronze and brass) were then worked 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 innovative aptitude, but the historiography of mining and metallurgy of sub-Saharan Africa constantly evokes prejudicial thinking about African incapacity, or counter-discourse in the continent’s defense.

A more careful reading of sub-Saharan metallurgy places this craft on par with the equivalent from Eurasia. Considering that the African continent is the cradle of humankind, this is not surprising. Fortunately, as products of high-temperature processes, archeometallurgical objects (finished products, reactions infrastructure, and waste by-products) retain the transformations they went through in their physical and chemical properties, allowing archeometallurgists glimpses into the technologies produced by past societies. Guided by concepts such as materiality, and in agreement with Maussian thinking, Africanist archeometallurgists consider so-called magic to be just as important as technical control, because there is no chasm between the technological and anthropological factors of artifacts, and all technologies fall within the broader social paradigm of their construction.