African Iron Age - 1,000 Years of African Kingdoms

A Thousand Years of African Kingdoms and the Iron that Made Them

Great Enclosure at Great Zimbabwe
The Great Enclosure (background) at Great Zimbabwe, the largest prehistoric structure south of the Sahara. Brian Seed / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The African Iron Age, also known as the Early Iron Age Industrial Complex, is traditionally considered that period in Africa between the second century CE up to about 1000 CE when iron smelting was practiced. In Africa, unlike Europe and Asia, the Iron Age is not prefaced by a Bronze or Copper Age, but rather all the metals were brought together.

Key Takeaways: African Iron Age

  • The African Iron Age is traditionally marked as between about 200 BCE–1000 CE.  
  • African communities may or may not have independently invented a process to work iron, but they were enormously innovative in their techniques. 
  • The earliest iron artifacts in the world were beads made by the Egyptians about 5,000 years ago.
  • The earliest smelting in sub-Saharan Africa dates to the 8th century BCE in Ethiopia. 

Pre-Industrial Iron Ore Technology

The advantages of iron over stone are obvious—iron is much more efficient at cutting trees or quarrying stone than stone tools. But iron smelting technology is a smelly, dangerous one. This essay covers Iron Age up to the end of the first millennium CE.

To work iron, one must extract the ore from the ground and break it into pieces, then heat the pieces to a temperature of at least 1100 degrees centigrade under controlled conditions.

African Iron Age people used a bloomery process to smelt iron. They built a cylindrical clay furnace and used charcoal and a hand-operated bellows to reach the level of heating for smelting. Bloomery is a batch process, in which the air blast must be stopped periodically to remove the solid mass or masses of metal, called blooms. The waste product (or slag) may be tapped from the furnaces as a liquid or may solidify within it. Bloomery furnaces are fundamentally different from blast furnaces, which are continuous processes, which run for weeks or even months without interruption and are more thermally efficient.  

Once the raw ore was smelted, the metal was separated from its waste products or slag, and then brought to its shape by repeated hammering and heating, called forging.

Was Iron Smelting Invented in Africa? 

For a while, the most contentious issue in African archaeology was whether or not iron smelting was invented in Africa. The earliest known iron objects are from African archaeologist David Killick (2105), among others, argues that whether ironworking was invented independently or adopted from European methods, the African experiments in ironworking were a marvel of innovative engineering. 

The earliest securely dated iron-smelting furnaces in sub-Saharan Africa (ca. 400–200 BCE) were shaft furnaces with multiple bellows and internal diameters between 31-47 inches. Contemporary iron age furnaces in Europe (La Tène) were different: the furnaces had a single set of bellows and had internal diameters between 14–26 inches. From this beginning, African metallurgists developed an astonishing range of furnaces, both smaller and larger, from tiny slag-pit furnaces in Senegal, 400–600 cal CE to 21 ft tall natural draft furnaces in 20th century West Africa. Most were permanent, but some used a portable shaft that could be moved and some used no shaft at all. 

Killick suggests that the huge variety of bloomery furnaces in Africa was the result of adaptation to environmental circumstances. In some processes were built to be fuel-efficient where timber was scarce, some were built to be labor-efficient, where people with time to tend a furnace were scarce. In addition, the metallurgists adjusted their processes according to the quality of the available metal ore. 

African Iron Age Lifeways

From the 2nd century CE to about 1000 CE, ironworkers spread iron throughout the largest portion of Africa, eastern and southern Africa. The African communities who made iron varied in complexity from hunter-gatherers to kingdoms. For example, the Chifumbaze in the 5th century BCE were farmers of squash, beans, sorghum, and millet, and kept cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens.

Later groups built hilltop settlements such as that at Bosutswe, large villages like Schroda, and large monumental sites like Great Zimbabwe. Gold, ivory, and glass bead working and international trade were part of many of the societies. Many spoke a form of Bantu; many forms of geometric and schematic rock art are found throughout south and eastern Africa.

Numerous precolonial polities blossomed throughout the continent during the first millennium CE, such as Aksum in Ethiopia (1st–7th centuries CE), Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe (8th–16th c CE), the Swahili city-states (9th–15th c) on the eastern Swahili coast, and the Akan states (10th–11th c) on the western coast. 

African Iron Age Time Line

The pre-colonial states in Africa which fall into the African Iron Age flourished beginning about 200 CE, but they were based on hundreds of years of import and experimentation.

  • 2nd millennium BCE: West Asians invent iron smelting
  • 8th century BCE: Phoenicians bring iron to North Africa (Lepcis Magna, Carthage)
  • 8th–7th century BCE: First iron smelting in Ethiopia
  • 671 BCE: Hyksos invasion of Egypt
  • 7th–6th century BCE: First iron smelting in Sudan (Meroe, Jebel Moya)
  • 5th century BCE: First iron smelting in West Africa (Jenne-Jeno, Taruka)
  • 5th century BCE: Iron using in eastern and southern Africa (Chifumbaze)
  • 4th century BCE: Iron smelting in central Africa (Obobogo, Oveng, Tchissanga)
  • 3rd century BCE: First iron smelting in Punic North Africa
  • 30 BCE: Roman conquest of Egypt 1st century AD: Jewish revolt against Rome
  • 1st century CE: Establishment of Aksum
  • 1st century CE: Iron smelting in southern and eastern Africa (Buhaya, Urewe)
  • 2nd century CE: Heyday of Roman control of North Africa
  • 2nd century CE: Widespread iron smelting in southern and eastern Africa (Bosutswe, Toutswe, Lydenberg
  • 639 CE: Arab invasion of Egypt
  • 9th century CE: Lost wax method bronze casting (Igbo Ukwu)
  • 8th century CE; Kingdom of Ghana, Kumbi Selah, Tegdaoust, Jenne-Jeno

Selected Sources