Origins and Development of Africa’s Preindustrial Mining and Metallurgy

  • Shadreck Chirikure
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Archaeology book series (BRIEFSARCHAE)


One of the most perplexing but nevertheless unresolved socio-technological questions in the world orbits around the origins of African metallurgy, specifically in regions to the south of the Sahara and the Sudan. Egypt (including Egyptian Nubia), North Africa and the Horn of Africa share the same developmental trajectory where copper and bronze working prefaced iron metallurgy by millennia. Gold, silver, mercury, tin and lead were also known. This, however, was not the case in Africa, south of the Sahara. Here, (with the exception of Mauritania), metallurgy started with the working of iron and in some cases, iron and copper. Gold and tin, together with the copper tin alloy bronze and the copper zinc mixture brass were only known a millennium after iron and copper were established during contact with the Islamic world. With these differences, is sub Saharan metallurgy local or external in origin? Answers to this question are complicated by problems of uncertainty of association between the dated materials and episodes of metal working, problems associated with calibration between 800 and 400 BC (the radiocarbon black hole) and the old wood problem which singly and in combination suggest that sub Saharan metallurgy came from somewhere. However, so far there is little acceptable tangible evidence to connect metallurgy in sub Saharan to any of the possible donor areas in and outside Africa. With this uncertainty, another combination and permutation of complexities emerges. If African metallurgy is truly external why did sub-Saharans only choose iron and copper and not gold and to some extent silver and tin which were present in regions such as Niger and were highly valued in the so called donor regions. In Nubia and North Africa where Egyptians and Phoenicians introduced metallurgy, copper, bronze and later iron were introduced in the sequence of metallurgical development identical to that of sources which again contrasts with sub Saharan Africa. The big question therefore is, is this not enough justification for local innovation through improvisation, serendipity and other endless possibilities? These and other ideas relating to origins and their implications for knowledge and values transfer are the focus of this chapter.


African metallurgy Local origins External origins Old wood problem Radiocarbon black hole Sub Saharan Africa Egypt Nubia North Africa 


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© The Author 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa

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