The Development of Metallurgy in Africa

JM8 writes:

There were some in Africa that were equal to or more advanced than those in Eurasia — i.e. Nok and others like it. One might mention the Gajiganna Culture. Cultures on that general level were not rare at the time or in times fairly soon after in West Africa, but those were notably the oldest and most advanced (or among such) in their region at the time. There were also some that were less advanced and/or did not become so until much later. Of course these were not the most advanced cultures on earth…

…Tangentially speaking, not to belabor the point too much: there are especially important developments in Africa that are early and especially stand out by by global standards: for instance, the likely invention of iron metallurgy in West Africa the Igbo region ca. 2000 BC, 1,000 years before its only other independent discoveries in two other places — China and the Near East. Another is one of the few and oldest independent inventions of pottery other than that of Asia (both around the Mesolithic in either Southern Mali or Central Sudan and somewhere between N. E. Russia and China).

I was very interested in this subject at one time, and I did a lot of research into when metallurgy appeared in Africa and whether iron smelting was an independent development in Africa as so many insist.

I read ~90 pages out of a book on subject that was available for reading on the Internet. The author was a respected anthropologist. The claim was that metallurgy was independently developed in Africa in Nigeria before anyone else, and that Africans completely skipped the Copper and Bronze Age precursors and went straight to the Iron Age, a mighty feat if true. However, the conclusion that I reached after all that reading is that Africa did not independently develop metallurgy. In fact, metallurgy developed much earlier in Eurasia as the Copper and Bronze Ages, which appeared long before the Iron Age, the last stage of metallurgy.

So metallurgy itself was developed probably centuries if not millennia before its appearance in Africa with the smelting of copper and bronze, two earlier stages that never showed up in Africa until much later.

And the smelting of iron also does not appear to have developed independently in Africa. Instead it developed first in Anatolia. Anatolians were already familiar with the smelting of copper and bronze, and it appears that iron smelting was invented here some time in the 4th Century BCE.

It then slowly filtered over to Libya, a process that took centuries. The Libyans or pre-Carthaginians traded a lot down through the Sahel with Sub-Saharan Africans.

So iron smelting somehow made its way down the Sahel to Nok, Nigeria, where it appeared 2,900 BP or 900 BCE. It is this well-known Nok development of iron smelting that is the evidence used by misguided people (often Afrocentrists) to claim independent development of iron smelting in Sub-Saharan Africa before anyone else on Earth.

Other than the facts, there were some other suspicious things about this theory. First of all, the claim that Africans were so advanced that they skipped the Copper and Bronze Ages altogether and leaped right to the Iron Age seems suspicious. The normal trend in metallurgy was copper -> bronze -> iron. It went like this the world over. Why would Africans be so advanced that they leapfrogged over the rest of the planet and skipped the first two possibly necessary stages.

Also iron smelting did not appear with the Igbo as claimed above but instead was developed by the more North African/Sahel (and later Islamic) influenced Nok Culture in the far north of Nigeria in what is now the Hausa-speaking region part of Muslim Nigeria.

Nevertheless, I like the Nok Culture, and in my opinion it takes a fairly advanced culture to even borrow things from other cultures, and Nok was very advanced for its time 2,900 YBP.

I would also like to point out that most cultural innovations are actually borrowings. Few major cultural developments occurred independently.

The alphabet is a good example, and most of the world’s alphabets borrowed ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet, the first character set that went on to conquer the world. Even Indian scripts are borrowings from the Phoenician, as are the Arabic, Aramaic, and Persian scripts, etc. There is nothing wrong with borrowing a major cultural advance. Most cultures on Earth obtained most of their major cultural advances via borrowing as opposed to independent development.

Furthermore, it is important to note that after iron smelting occurred at Nok, it spread very quickly through Africa. It appeared in Tanzania not long afterwards, and it rapidly spread through much of the region. Furthermore, Africans made wide, almost stunning variety of innovations in iron smelting, and these innovations were indeed independent developments. Speed of cultural transmission and improvements/innovations in major cultural borrowings are also examples of advanced cultures.

5 Comments

Filed under Africa, Anthropology, Cultural, East Africa, Eurasia, Libya, Nigeria, Regional, Tanzania, West Africa

5 responses to “The Development of Metallurgy in Africa

  1. Jm8

    Your account describes roughly the state of knowledge/common belief at one time. There has been some sigificant research recently, in the last few years (I spend alot of time trying to stay as updated as possible on ancient archaeology. Its quite exciting lately.)

    Very recent research at Nsukka in Igboland finds very early dates or ca. 2000 BC.
    http://www.academia.edu/4103707/Iron_and_its_influence_on_the_prehistoric_site_of_Lejja

    The scholars studying the Nok (most recently, in the last fee years), Peter Breunig and his German research team, believe its iron metallurgy is part of an independant local tradition. Its oldest confirmed iron dates are about 500-700 bc. The culture itself goes back to about 1500-1200 bc and older iron dates (by several centuries in that specific region of Nigeria) )are suspected by Breunig based on indirect evidence but not yet confirmed.
    (some of the most reports/articles are a bit obscure— some information initially only in German— but much can be searchedonline)

    The Carthiginian theory has (apparently quite recently become widely doubted by archaeologists, form what I can tell. I don’t recall all the resons in detail at the moment, but basically the Carthage dates are either contemorary to Nok, or later (starkly differing technical methods in the two traditios have something to do with it too. I’ll try to get back to you with references
    https://books.google.com/books?id=BBn1BQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Nok+culture+context&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjr84mK4vbNAhVFpB4KHe2qB1cQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=Nok%20culture%20context&f=false

    Dates from some Central African sites begin by about 800 bc (the Gabon and the Uganda regions I think), but I think these may still be inconclusive/controversial.

  2. Ed

    I don’t want to trample on Jm8, who obviously knows much more about this than I do and has more up to date information.

    However, for what it is worth, I got the impression that the focus of anthropologists on metallurgy was very much a case of the drunk searching for his car keys under the searchlight because the light was better there. Forged metal objects both obviously require technology of some advancement and last a long time. So the early anthropological texts tend to use metallurgy as a basis to rank how advanced cultures are.

    But, absent the fact that metal objects last a really long time (especially if they don’t rust), metallurgy is not THAT important. A clue about this should have come when people realized that ancient Egypt was consistently behind the rest of its neighbors in metallurgy. On the whole, ancient Egypt was the most advanced place in the Middle East if not the world, and the margin wasn’t really that close.

    Then it turned out that the pre-Columbian cultures didn’t have that much in the way of metallurgy (a few did, but annoyingly they weren’t the most powerful or advanced onces), but often were well-organized and literate.

    • Jm8

      Clearly cultures can be very advanced/more impressive in one(certain areas) and not very advanced in others (sometimes strongly so). The absence( relative underdevelopment) of one thing (eg: a technology) does not take away fron the inherent merit of another more advanced
      I’m afraid I do not follow your reasoning. It does not seem to follow from what you have said

      The absence of something in an otherwise/in other areas advanced culure doe not make that thing somehow less “impressive” or “important” (or whatever). Most Amerindian civilizations (like th Aztecs, Toltecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Andeans, etc) did not have writing (in the true sense) except (as far as we known so far) for the Olmecs and the later, nearby Mayans. They were advanced one could say (or respectably so, in some ways more impressive in others), but no’on e would say that somehow makes writing no big deal.
      Many similar examples can be cited.
      No’one said the lack of iron simply makes advanced cultures impossible. It (and other such civilizational/cultural markers) is (as a rule) greatly advantageous, but other innovations(materials,resources, skills) may compensate (in some way or another) for the lack of others

      The Medieval Norse were more advanced than much of contemporary Europe ( in boat building, in many-most other areas, not so much. The Egyptian were not great seafarers (they had much less interest in such than many others). The otherwise less advances Phoenicians (and the Greeks later) were far beyond them.

      • Jm8

        Edit: “The Medieval Norse were more advanced than much of contemporary Europe in boat and ship building/navigation (though I would guess the Byzantines at least, might be close if not equal, if they count as “Europe”); but in many-most other areas, not so much.”

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