Iron technology started in Africa

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In popular culture there is a common perception that Africa has always been on the periphery of world advancements, that Africa did not contribute anything. The stereotype is that in the past Africa offered the world slaves – through the Atlantic slave trade – while today it offers the world child labour, horrifying news headline, fraudulent emails, and raw material exports. It doesn’t help that many people in Africa live in poverty. You even get those stereotypes from educated people who with a bit for lazy research could become more enlightened.

After world war 2, Europe and America did some soul searching and realised that Europe’s colonial projects were turning local conflicts in Europe (mainly between France, Britain and Germany) into world wars by compelling colonies to side with their colonial masters in armed conflicts. A timetable was demanded by the United States to hand over self-rule to all the major colonies of Europe on earth, documented in the Atlantic Charter. It was no longer tenable to former 13 colonies (the United States) for Britain to claim that it was wrong for Germany to invade and rule Western and Eastern Europe, but right for Europe to rule many nations against their will in the West Indies, Africa, and various parts of Asia.

The barbarity of the 20th century’s world wars was evidence Europe wasn’t being a civilising influence. In the colonies, natives who got involved in protests were being regularly imprisoned or murdered by colonial authorities to suppress democracy: “taxation with representation”. Independence and a looser neocolonial system of domination became inevitable.

Colonial map of the world in 1945

This had consequences for the academic world because once Europe stopped regulating and suppressing educational advancement in the colonies, the number of African academics started to increase from 1945 onwards sponsored by African leaders seeking to advance the prosperity of the continent. By the 1960s, the investments in the 1940s and 1950s started to pay off. These academics started to participate and show up at conferences about African History instead of Europeans. Racist ideas about the past began to be challenged. A generation of academics started to emerge that did not grow up assuming Africa did nothing integral to world history.

With sufficient research, it was discovered that Africa was the second continent in the world to develop ceramic technology, but the first continent to develop iron technology, steel and cotton weaving. Unlike the rest of the world, Africa started with ceramic technology and used their experience of material science at high temperatures to skip straight from making potteries to making iron products without first going through a copper age.

Skipping straight to iron is important because iron made farming easier and iron provided a competitive advantage against bronze in armed conflicts.

Ceramic technology

First earliest development of Ceramic technology happened around 18,000 BCE to 15,000 BCE in Asia. Around 16,000 BCE pottery vessels were made in Japan while in Russia around the Amur River pottery production begun around 14,000 BCE.

Africa followed when the second earliest development of ceramic technology in world happened in Mali, West Africa around 9,500 BCE.[1]

3,000km away the third earliest development of ceramic technology in world happened in the Eastern Sahara 8,500 to 8,000 BCE, among the Nilo-Saharan language family. This spread west between 7,000 and 6,000 BCE.

We can distinguish between the Nilo-Saharan pottery of the Eastern Sahara and the Niger-Congo pottery of Mali by the decorative motifs both cultures used.

For contrast, the earliest pottery in the Near East is only dated to 1,000 years after Mali in 8,000 BCE and in Egypt, Africa the earliest evidence of pottery found Abydos dates to 5,500 BCE.

Ceramics were made from using high temperatures to change the chemical properties of materials. Ceramics were used to store food for longer changing population growth in areas where the technology was used, spurring urbanisation and improving food nutrition. Because these ceramics were a transformative technology, they began to be traded over long distances. Those that controlled the trade profited from the innovation and this may have resulted in social stratification.

Why are ceramics important? As an example, ceramics are used for tiles to protect space shuttles on re-entry, but only ceramics can withstand the high temperatures of shuttle re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. They are also used in mobile phones, tablets, desktops and laptops.

Africans developed pottery centuries before this technology started to spread to Europe. Women were the inventors of ceramics. Men later took over the professional making of pottery.

Ironworking

Metallurgy applied fire and heat to metal ores to separate out matter and create metal products by combining the refined metals with other alloys. Copper was important because it has a lower melting temperature than iron of 1,085°C and because it is malleable.

The conventional story was that, around the world, people developed copper smelting first, then began to use iron. The conventional story was that, outside Africa, Anatolia developed the ironworking around 1,800 BCE among elites rather than commoners. From 1,300 BCE to 1,100 BCE knowledge of their iron technology spread to the Levant, then to India and Europe. Then by 1,000 BC the Arabs introduced iron technology to the Ethiopians, then by 400 BC to Meroe. The Phoenicians brought iron technology to Carthage around ca. 900 to 800 BCE. The conventional assumption was that North Africa then introduced iron to Sub-Sahara Africa.

Debunked chronology of the spread of iron technology into Africa

The evidence of ironworking in Africa found by archaeologists suggests the diffusion of Anatolian iron working into Sub-Sahara Africa arrives too late. It therefore has led to the discovery that Africa developed iron technology independently in Sub-Sahara Africa earlier than 1,800 BCE and also that the ancestors of Africans at Oboui in Central African Republic were the first in the world to develop ironworking.

A few archaeologists who built their careers teaching the old conventional story of iron technology and publishing books about the history of ironworking still spill their coffee thinking about that.

LocationCountryRadiocarbon dating
ObouiNortheast Central African Republic2,300 BCE
LejjaEnugu state, Southeastern Nigeria2,000 BCE[2]
GbatoroCameroon2,153–2,044 BC and 2,368–2,200 BC[3]
MuganzaRwanda, Africa2300-1700 BCE[4]
CarthageTunisia, North Africa900-800 BCE

While pottery was associated with women, the advancements in ironworking are credited to men in African cultures.

Single-step production of steel

Europeans didn’t develop the technology for single step production of steel until the 19th century. There were earlier less efficient steel production processes which emerged in Europe in the 17th century AD. The Chinese did not develop steel until 1100 AD. According to Peter Schmidt, Sub-Sahara Africa Haya people on the Tanzanian side of Lake Victoria developed steel around 2,400 years ago.

Mechanical technology

People independently invented loom weaving of textile production in 4 parts of the world. In each area, people domesticated their own variety of cotton:

Of all those inventions, Sudan in Africa were the first to domesticate g. arboretum around the 6th millennium BC, 1,000 years before India, and 2,000 years before Peru. The spindle whorls used for textile weaving were ceramic, developed in the Khartoum Neolithic culture of Sudan, building on ceramics materials developed by Africa between 9,500 and 8,000 BC.

West Africans in Southern Nigeria and Southern Cameroon developed textile looming technology for raffia cloth, around 3,000 BCE. So, when the Bantu migration began, the Bantu took raffia weaving to the Congo in Central Africa, Southern Africa and to the Western side of the Great Lakes in East Africa. When the Portuguese met the king of the Kongo, the Kongo kingdom had a trade in raffia cloth. The highest quality raffia cloths were prestige goods, controlled by elite. The Bantu took with them raffia seeds, to enable them to grow the plants needed for raffia cloth making.

King João IManikongo of the Kingdom of Kongo

Cotton weaving did not spread from Sudan to East Africa. Instead, the cotton species used by India arrived in East Africa by the Indian Ocean trade network. Where the Bantu took cotton and adapted raffia weaving techniques for weaving cotton.

Today, misinformation still lives on due to persistent ignorance and poor standards of intellectual scholarship. If you search for a world timeline of pottery development or world timeline of ironworking, Africa’s timeline is still largely missing from online sources.

Retrieved 13th March 2021.

References

  1. Huysecom E., Ozainne S., Raeli F., Ballouche A., Rasse M., Stokes S. 2004. Ounjougou (Mali): A history of Holocene settlement at the southern edge of the Sahara. Antiquity 78, n° 301, 579-593
  2. Eze–Uzomaka, Pamela. “Iron and its influence on the prehistoric site of Lejja”Academia.edu. University of Nigeria,Nsukka, Nigeria. Retrieved 12 December 2014.
  3. Holl, Augustin F. C. June 2020. “The Origins of African Metallurgies”. Oxford Research Encyclopedias22 (4): 415–438. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190854584.013.63ISBN 9780190854584.
  4. Woodhouse, J. 1998. Iron in Africa: metal from nowhere. In G Connah (ed). Transformationsin Africa: Essays on Africa’s later Past. London: Leicester University Press.
  5. 160-185.

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Iron technology started in Africa

by Editorial Team time to read: 6 min
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