History of Iron Smelting Technology

History of Iron Smelting Technology


The arrival of iron smelting technology in subSaharan Africa played a significant role in shaping the historical record of the area by bringing profound changes to the lives and societies of its inhabitants Haaland Shinnie 7 In the parts of Africa south of the Sahara and south of the Ethiopian highlands there has been no archaeological evidence supporting a Bronze Age Van Der Merwe 463 Alpern Holl 6 and the evidence archaeologists do have point to iron being the first metal used to replace stone tools Fagan 1 One area of intense debate regarding the African Iron Age is the process in which the technology of iron smelting arrived in subSaharan Africa Over the past halfcentury the interpretations and reconstructions of the origins of iron smelting in subSaharan Africa have changed considerably The initial theory was based on an unquestioned belief of the superiority of Ancient Egypt over subSaharan Africa Kense 12 Based on this framework the site of Meroe was proposed by Arkell as an important link and the general belief was that the collapse of the Kingdom of Kush precipitated the spread of technology and Meroitic culture into the southwest Kense 13 However excavations conducted in the 1960s determined that the iron smelting furnaces found at Meroe mostly dated to the first few centuries BCE Shinnie 30 and its pivotal role in the spread of iron smelting technology was shown to be increasingly hard to defend Kense 13 Three theories regarding the origins of iron smelting in subSaharan Africa have emerged and are currently disputed amongst scholars Holl 7

Two of the theories are diffusionist meaning these theories claim the technology originated elsewhere and was transported into the region These theories are based on the premise that iron smelting originated somewhere in Anatolia and from there the technology was adopted by other populations and spread throughout the Mediterranean and into Africa The main diffusionist theory was first proposed by Raymond Muany in 1952 He argues that since the Phoenicians had iron by about 1100 BC and that they started colonizing Northern Africa at around the same time it was possible that the knowledge of iron smelting was transmitted into subSaharan Africa with the Berber tribes living in the Saharan Desert as a medium Alpern 46 The other diffusionist hypothesis arose as a counter to early iron smelting furnaces found west of Lake Victoria in Tanzania This hypothesis proposes that the technology came from Arabia via the Horn of Africa Alpern 80

The theory that has gained the most acceptance recently is the one arguing for the independent invention of iron smelting in subSaharan Africa Alpern 41 A slew of archaeological discoveries in the past twenty years have strengthened the case for independent invention Some people have even gone as far as arguing that based on controversial discoveries made in 2008 inhabitants of subSaharan Africa were the first to smelt iron preceding Anatolia by about 700 years Pringle The strongest case against independent invention is the complexity of iron smelting Iron requires specialized knowledge in order to transform iron ore into usable iron Kense 19 and it has long been held that people without prior knowledge of smelting techniques would not be able to smelt iron successfully Sassoon 5 Two areas of subSaharan Africa have emerged as candidates for areas where iron smelting could have developed the Western Africa region around the NigerNigeria border or northwestern Tanzania This essay will argue for the independent discovery of iron smelting technology in subSaharan Africa based on discoveries made in Western Africa


To understand why there has been such a strong opposition to the idea of subSaharan Africa independently inventing iron smelting technology it is necessary to consider the difficulty and skill required to smelt iron It is hypothesized that iron was first used as a flux a substance that is smelted toget

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