Iron working in Africa

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

Stanley B. Alpern

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.”

This is an interesting essay about the case for and against against iron working originating in sub-Saharan Africa. In essence it picks apart some of the very early dates, showing them to be more the product of wishful thinking and poor archeological practises. Most notably, dating a buried object in Niger from a potsherd found on the surface (very poor practise) and the common use of ancient charcoal to smelt iron giving false antiquity to artifacts, and the lack of calibration when using carbon 14 dating. It also points out the lack of prior technology that could could have lead to the discovery of iron working, notably that coppper working appeared almost at the same time, and that the pottery was fired in low temperature pit kilns that wouldn’t have produced iron accidentally.

It also notes that the movement of iron technology appears to have been from North to South, with Egypt being one of the last Mediterranean cultures to adopt iron tools, with Turkey being the oldest known site. This is the reverse of what you would see of the technology was of African origin moving Northwards.

So it looks like a Turkish origin for Iron working is still the most likely.

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