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Did They or Didn't They Invent It? Iron in Sub-Saharan Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2014

Extract

Judging from a number of recent publications, the long-running debate over the origins of iron smelting in sub-Saharan Africa has been resolved… in favor of those advocating independent invention. For Gérard Quéchon, the French archeologist to whom we owe very early dates for iron metallurgy from the Termit Massif in Niger, “indisputably, in the present state of knowledge, the hypothesis of an autochthonous invention is convincing.” According to Eric Huysecom, a Belgian-born archeologist, “[o]ur present knowledge allows us … to envisage one or several independent centres of metal innovation in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Hamady Bocoum, a Senegalese archeologist, asserts that “more and more numerous datings are pushing back the beginning of iron production in Africa to at least the middle of the second millennium BC, which would make it one of the world's oldest metallurgies.” He thinks that “in the present state of knowledge, the debate [over diffusion vs. independent invention] is closed for want of conclusive proof accrediting any of the proposed transmission channels [from the north].” The American archeologist Peter R. Schmidt tells us “the hypothesis for independent invention is currently the most viable among the multitude of diffusionist hypotheses.”

Africanists other than archeologists are in agreement. For Basil Davidson, the foremost popularizer of African history, “African metallurgical skills [were] locally invented and locally developed.” The American linguist Christopher Ehret says

Africa south of the Sahara, it now seems, was home to a separate and independent invention of iron metallurgy … To sum up the available evidence, iron technology across much of sub-Saharan Africa has an African origin dating to before 1000 BCE.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © African Studies Association 2005

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References

1 Quéchon, Gérard, “Les datations de la métallurgie du fer à Termit (Niger): leur fiabilité, leur signification” in Bocoum, Hamady, ed., Aux origines de la métallurgie du fer en Afrique: une ancienneté méconnue (Paris, 2002), 114Google Scholar. The same statement is found in an almost identical chapter with the same title by Quéchon, in Mediterranean Archaeology 14 (2001) (hereafter Meditarch), 253Google Scholar. That issue is titled “The Origins of Iron Metallurgy: Proceedings of the First International Colloquium on the Archaeology of Africa and the Mediterranean Basin Held at the Museum of Natural History in Geneva, 4-7 June, 1999.” UNESCO published an English translation of Bocoum's book in 2004 under the title The Origins of Iron Metallurgy in Africa: New Light on Its Antiquity—West and Central Africa.)

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17 See, for example, de Pedrals, Denis-Pierre, Archéologie de l'Afrique noire (Paris, 1950), 22–24, 3536Google Scholar. G.E. Smith's works were being reprinted as late as 1971.

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20 Barzel is still the word for iron in Hebrew.

21 Mauny, , “Essai,” 581–82Google Scholar.

22 Lhote, Henri, “La connaissance du fer en Afrique occidentale,” Encyclopédic Mensuelle d'Outre-Mer, I, fascicule 25 (September 1952), 272Google Scholar. Diop, L.-M. later (“Metallurgie traditionnelle,” 22)Google Scholar made the interesting point in support of Lhote that usually nomads are educated by their sedentary neighbors and not vice versa.

23 Mauny, Raymond, “Autour de l'historique de l'introduction du fer en Afrique occidentale,” Encyclopédie Mensuelle d'Outre-Mer, III, fascicule 32 (April 1953), 109–10Google Scholar.

24 Mauny died in 1994 but appears to have stopped writing by 1978.

25 Mauny, Raymond, Les siècles obscurs de l'Afrique noire (Paris, 1970), 69, 73Google Scholar; idem, “The Western Sudan” in P.L. Shinnie, ed., The African Iron Age (Oxford, 1971), 66-70, 83-84; idem, “Trans-Saharan Contacts and the Iron Age in West Africa,” Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 2, from c. 500 BC to AD 1050 (Cambridge, 1978), 278-80, 319, 322, 333-35. The quote is from 334-35.

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27 A useful handbook is Bowman's, SheridanRadiocarbon Dating (Berkeley, 1990)Google Scholar.

28 Sutton, J.E.G., “West African Metals and the Ancient Mediterranean,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 2(1983), 181CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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30 Lancel, Serge, Mission archéologique française à Carthage: Byrsa II: Rapports préliminaires sur les fouilles 1977-1978: Niveaux et vestiges puniques (Rome, 1982), 217–40, 246Google Scholar; idem, Introduction à la connaissance de Carthage: La colline de Byrsa à l'époque punique (Paris, 1983), 16-19.

31 Rakob, Friedrich, “La Carthage archaïque” in Carthage et son territoire dans l'Antiquité, Actes du IVe colloque international sur l'histoire et l'archéologie de l'Afrique du Nord réuni dans le cadre du 113e Congrès national des Sociétés savants (Strasbourg, 5-9 avril 1988), (Paris, 1990), 36Google Scholar; Hans Georg Niemeyer, “A la recherche de la Carthage archaïque: premiers résultats des fouilles de l'Université de Hambourg en 1986 et 1987” in ibid., 51 ; Lancel, Serge, Carthage (Paris, 1992), 57Google Scholar. Euboea is the largest island of the Aegean Sea.

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33 See, for example, van der Merwe, , “Advent,” 477Google Scholar; Kense, , Traditional, 154Google Scholar; idem, “Initial Diffusion,” 24; Childs, S. Terry and Killick, David, “Indigenous African Metallurgy: Nature and Culture,” Annual Review of Anthropology 22(1993), 322CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Woodhouse, James, “Iron in Africa,” in Connah, Graham, ed., Transformations in Africa: Essays on Africa's Later Past (London, 1998), 166Google Scholar; Childs, S. Terry and Herbert, Eugenia W., “Metallurgy and Its Consequences” in Stahl, Ann Brower, ed., African Archaeology (Maiden, MA, 2005), 280Google Scholar.

34 Holl, Augustin F.C., “Metals and Precolonial African Society” in Vogel, Joseph O., ed., Ancient African Metallurgy: the Sociocultural Context (Walnut Creek, CA, 2000), 8Google Scholar.

35 Jemkur, Joseph Fazing, “Les débuts de la métallurgie du fer en Afrique de l'Ouest” in Bocoum, , Origines, 26Google Scholar. The article was apparently translated from English.

36 Keesmann, Ingo, “Untersuchungen zur Metallurgie im archaischen und punischen Karthago,” Meditarch, 99, 102, 108Google Scholar (I am grateful to Hans Friedrich Tomaschek for translating this article). (Meditarch, 14, is dated 2001 but came out in December 2002.) Keesmann clarified certain points in a personal communication, 3 April 2003. British archeologists working in the old harbor area of Punic Carthage in the late 1970s found evidence of ironworking in what seemed to have been an industrial area. R.F. Tylecote examined the finds, said smithing was involved, and dated the objects to ca. 350-250 BCE. Niemeyer, Hans Georg, “Archaeological Evidence of Early Iron Technology at Carthage and Other Phoenician Settlements,” Meditarch, 86, 91Google Scholar. Lancel speculated that magnetite iron ore was brought to Carthage by sea from the Annaba (ex-Bône) area in present-day Algeria, a distance of about 150 nautical miles. Lancel, , Byrsa II, 233–34Google Scholar; idem, Colline de Byrsa, 18-19.

37 In a personal communication of 8 February 2004, archeometallurgist David Killick questioned Keesmann's interpretation, saying he has found “no unambiguous mineralogical distinction between smelting and smithing slags” in Africa.

38 Holl, , “Metals,” 9Google Scholar.

39 Schiavo, Fulvia Lo, “Sardinian Metallurgy: the Archaeological Background,” in Balmuth, Miriam S., ed., Studies in Sardinian Archaeology (Ann Arbor, 1986), 2:237, 240, 242, 245–46Google Scholar; idem, “Early Metallurgy in Sardinia” in Robert Maddin, ed., The Beginning of the Use of Metals and Alloys (Cambridge, 1988), 102; Vagnetti, Lucia and Schiavo, Fulvia Lo, “Late Bronze Age Long Distance Trade in the Mediterranean and the Role of the Cypriots” in Peltenburg, E., ed., Early Society in Cyprus (Edinburgh, 1989), 227Google Scholar. Alternatively, Cypriot sailors, if willing to brave Scylla and Charybdis, could have gone to Sardinia via the Strait of Messina and missed Tunisia altogether. It is possible that those sailors from Cyprus were themselves Phoenicians. See Balmuth, Miriam S. and Rowland, Robert J. Jr., eds., Studies in Sardinian Archaeology (Ann Arbor, 1984), 1:4243Google Scholar.

40 Warmington, B.H., “The Carthaginian Period” in UNESCO's General History of Africa 2: Ancient Civilizations of Africa (Berkeley, 1981), 442Google Scholar. See also Warmington, , Carthage, a History (rev. ed.: New York, 1969), 23Google Scholar; Niemeyer, , “Archaeological Evidence,” 83Google Scholar.

41 Killick, David, “Science, Speculation and the Origins of Extractive Metallurgy” in Brothwell, D.R. and Pollard, A.M., eds., Handbook of Archaeological Sciences (London, 2001), 484Google Scholar. For optimum strength, bronze requires about 10% tin. Wheeler, Tamara S. and Maddin, Robert, “Metallurgy and Ancient Man” in Wertime, /Muhly, , Age of Iron, 110Google Scholar.

42 Grébénart, Danilo, “Les métallurgies du cuivre et du fer autour d'Agadez (Niger), des origines au début de la période médiévale” in Echard, Nicole, ed., Métallurgies africaines: Nouvelles contributions (Paris, 1983), 115–16Google Scholar; idem, “Characteristics of the Final Neolithic and Metal Ages in the Region of Agadez (Niger)” in Angela E. Close, ed., Prehistory of Arid North Africa: Essays in Honor of Fred Wendorf (Dallas, 1987), 313; idem, Les premiers métallurgistes en Afrique occidentale (Paris, 1988), 253; idem, “Les premiers métaux en Afrique de l'Ouest” in Jean-Pierre Leroy, ed., La préhistoire de l'Afrique de l'Ouest: nouvelles données sur la période récente (Saint-Maur, 1996), 82.

43 Naffé, Baouba ould Mohamed, Vernet, Robert, and Khattar, Mohamed ould, “Archéologie de la Mauritanie” in Vernet, Robert, ed., Archéologie en Afrique de l'Ouest: Sahara et Sahel (Saint-Maur, 2000), 162Google Scholar.

44 Mauny, , Siècles obscurs, 69Google Scholar; idem, “Western Sudan,” 83-84.

45 Mauny, , “Trans-Saharan Contacts,” 280–81Google Scholar. Mauny's hesitancy over using the “routes des chars” in his iron technology-transmission theory and his continuous use of quotes when referring to them suggests he was never fully satisfied with the concept of “roads.”

46 Lhote, Henri, Les chars rupestres sahariens des Syrtes au Niger, par le pays des Garamantes et des Atlantes (Paris, 1982), 48, 62Google Scholar. See also Lhote, , “Les chars rupestres du Sahara et leurs rapports avec le peuplement dans les temps protohistoriques” in Camps, Gabriel and Gast, Marceau, eds., Les chars préhistoriques du Sahara: Archéologie et techniques d'attelage (Aix-en-Provence, 1982), 23, 25Google Scholar.

47 Spruytte, J., “Un essai d'attelage préhistorique,” Plaisirs Equestres 34(July 1967), 279–81Google Scholar. See also Spruytte, , Etudes expérimental sur l'attelage, contribution à l'histoire du cheval (Paris, 1977)Google Scholar.

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50 Camps, Gabriel, “Les chars sahariens: Images d'une société aristocratique,” Antiquités Africaines 25(1989), 2021CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Striedter, Karl Heinz and Tauveron, Michel, “Un char peint de Wan Tabarakat (Tadrart, Algérie)” in Leroy, , “Préhistoire,” 6465Google Scholar.

51 A notable exception is the French archeologist Alfred Muzzolini, who has argued that horse and chariot could equally have come by ship from the Levant or the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Muzzolini, , “La ‘période des chars’ au Sahara. L'hypothèse de l'origine égyptienne du cheval et du char,” in Camps, /Gast, , Chars préhistoriques, 4955Google Scholar.

52 Ahmose, first pharaoh of the XVIII Dynasty, who took power ca. 1580-70 BCE, is given credit. Nevertheless, the ancient Egyptian word for horse, susim, indicates that the animal arrived from Semitic-speaking parts: susim is the Hebrew word for horses.

53 Camps, , “Chars sahariens,” 33Google Scholar; Tauveron, Michel, “Art rupestre du Sahara central” in Leroy, , Préhistoire, 46Google Scholar; Colombel, Pierre, “Art préhistorique du Tassili n'Ajjer” in Leroy, , Préhistoire, 55Google Scholar. Earlier, Lhote, (Chars rupestres, 118)Google Scholar, put the date at 1200 BCE. Quite exceptionally, Muzzolini suggested that the chariot period did not start until shortly after the Greeks founded Cyrene in eastern Libya in the seventh century BCE. Muzzolini, Alfred, Art rupestre préhistorique des massifs centraux sahariens (Oxford, 1986), 274Google Scholar.

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56 Roset, Jean-Pierre, “L'noccupation humaine de l'Aïr et du Ténéré, au Niger, depuis 10 000 ans” in Marliac, , Milieux, 173Google Scholar. Muzzolini, (“‘Période des chars’,” 46)Google Scholar speaks of “a last, small, humid ‘pulsation’ reported around 1000-1500 BC” in several parts of the Sahara.

57 Cornevin, , “New Data,” 110Google Scholar; Paris, François, Person, Alain, and Saliège, Jean-François, “Peuplements et environnements holocènes du bassin de l'Azawagh oriental (Niger)” in Devisse, Jean, ed., Vallées du Niger (Paris, 1993), 390Google Scholar; Vernet, Robert, Climats anciens du nord de l'Afrique (Paris, 1995), 149Google Scholar.

58 They are also called Libyo-Berbers, Libyan Berbers, paleo-Berbers, proto-Berbers, or simply Berbers or Libyans. “Libyco-Berbers” has been used as well for people who moved into the western Sahara.

59 See, for example, Huard, , “Introduction,” 378, 380Google Scholar; Hugot, , Sahara, 292–93Google Scholar; Oliver, /Fagan, , Africa in Iron Age, 6162Google Scholar; Lhote, Henri, Vers d'autres Tassilis: Nouvelles découvertes au Sahara (Paris, 1976), 179Google Scholar; Aumassip, Ginette, “Entre Adrar des Ifoghas, Tassili et Aïr: Les contacts du bassin avec le Nord-Est” in Devisse, , Vallées du Niger, 101–02Google Scholar.

60 Lhote, , Chars rupestres, 186–88Google Scholar. In 1947 Mauny, (“Une route préhistorique à travers le Sahara occidental,” BIFAN 9B, 344)Google Scholar reported a chariot engraving near Goundam, some 20 miles from the Niger northwest of its great bend, but other specialists do not seem to have accepted his evidence. See Lhote, , Chars rupestres, 89Google Scholar, and Camps, , “Chars sahariens,” 29Google Scholar, for maps plotting finds of chariot drawings. In the western Sahara an oxcart is depicted near the ruins of Tegdaoust, about 250 miles from the Senegal river. Naffé, /Vernet, /Khattar, , “Archéologie de la Mauritanie,” 164–65Google Scholar.

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63 Iwelen means potsherds in the Tuareg language.

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140 Ibid, 138-39.

141 Bernard Clist, personal communication, 10 October 2004; idem, “Des premiers villages aux premiers Européens: Quatre millénaires d'interactions entre l'homme et son milieu autour de l'estuaire du Gabon” (Doctorat, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 2005),769, 771-72, 781.

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166 Mauny, Raymond, “Datation au C-14 de sites ouest africains de l'âge du fer” in Hugot, Henri J., ed., Actes du VIe Congrès Panafricain de Préhistoire et d'Etudes du Quaternaire (Dakar, 1967), (Chambéry, 1972), 533Google Scholar. See also McIntosh, /McIntosh, , “West African Prehistory,” 609Google Scholar; idem, “Stone to Metal,” 103; Phillipson, , African Archaeology, 159Google Scholar.

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190 Rehder, J.E., “Use of Preheated air in Primitive Furnaces: Comment on Views of Avery and Schmidt,” Journal of Field Archaeology 13(1986), 351–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar (reprinted in Schmidt, , Culture and Technology, 234–39Google Scholar); Eggert, Manfred K.H., “On the Alleged Complexity of Early and Recent Iron Smelting in Africa: Further Comments on the Preheating Hypothesis,” Journal of Field Archaeology 14(1987), 377–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Killick, , “On Claims,” 250–56Google Scholar.

191 Ibid., 256.

192 Kense, , Traditional, 169Google Scholar.

193 Holl, , “Metals,” 9Google Scholar.

194 Herbert, Eugenia W., “African Metallurgy: The Historian's Dilemma,” Meditarch, 42Google Scholar.

195 Holl, , “Metals,” 9Google Scholar; Schmidt, , “Culture and Technology,” 8Google Scholar.

196 Diop, , “Métallurgie traditionnelle,” 25Google Scholar.

197 Quéchon, , “Datations,” Meditarch, 253Google Scholar; idem, “Datations” in Bocoum, Origines, 114. These quotes come from the last sentence of what were otherwise almost identical articles. It would appear the change was made to cater to a UNESCO audience.

198 Bocoum, Hamady, “Introduction généralé” in Bocoum, , Origines, 11Google Scholar.

199 De Maret, , “Afrique centrale,” 131Google Scholar.

200 Schmidt, , Iron Technology, 4, 5, 8Google Scholar.

201 Woodhouse, , “Iron in Africa,” 170Google Scholar. See also Holl, , “Metals,” 16Google Scholar.

202 Vansina, , “Historians,” 383–84Google Scholar.

203 Marianne Cornevin is a well-known French archeologist whose opinion on independent invention shifted from “probable” in 1986 (“New Data,” 111) to “possible” in 1993 (Archéologie africaine, 122). French prehistorian Robert Vernet, a Niger specialist like Grébénart, Haour and Roset, allows for “an autonomous center of invention” there but says that “there is no doubt proto-Berbers from North Africa … introduced metal objects … and metallurgical techniques” to the region. Vernet, , Le Sud-ouest du Niger de la Préhistoire au début de l'Histoire (Niamey, 1996), 360Google Scholar.

204 McIntosh, , “Archaeology,” 7778Google Scholar.

205 Do Dimmi is at 16°25' N, Afunfun 175 at 16°40' N, Walalde at 16°31' N.

206 Goucher, , “Iron Is Iron,” 181–84Google Scholar; Haaland, Randi, “Iron Production, Its Socio-Cultural Context and Ecological Implications” in Haaland, /Shinnie, , African Iron Working, 54–56, 61–64, 66–67, 6970Google Scholar; Okafor, Edwin Eme, “Eguru Amube Amalla Orba: Blacksmith Clan Among the Orba,” Nyame Akuma no. 32 (December 1989), 26Google Scholar; Kense, François J. and Okoro, John Ako, “Changing Perspectives on Traditional Iron Production in West Africa” in Shaw, et al., Archaeology, 455, 457Google Scholar. See also Rehder, , Mastery and Uses, 149–52, 158–59Google Scholar.

207 Vansina, , “Historians,” 394Google Scholar.

208 Ibid., 395.

209 Kense, /Okoro, , “Changing Perspectives,” 456Google Scholar.

210 Quéchon, , “Datations,” Meditarch, 248Google Scholar; idem, “Datations” in Bocoum, Origines, 106.

211 Tylecote, , “Furnaces,” 21Google Scholar.

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213 Woodhouse, , “Iron in Africa,” 180Google Scholar.

214 Okafor, , “New Evidence,” 434Google Scholar. See also Kense, , “Initial Diffusion,” 27Google Scholar; Kense, /Okoro, , “Changing Perspectives,” 456Google Scholar; Curtin, et al., African History, 24Google Scholar.

215 Killick, , “What Do We Know,” 110Google Scholar.

216 Iron reached the British Isles no later than the seventh century BCE and was being smelted there by the fifth. See Haselgrove, Colinet al., Understanding the British Iron Age: an Agenda for Action (Salisbury, 2001), 25, and www.biab.co.uk/chronology.asp; www.bbc.co.uk/history/timelines/britain/o_iron_age.shtmlGoogle Scholar.

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217 Cline, Walter, Mining and Metallurgy in Negro Africa (Menasha, 1937), 5Google Scholar.

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