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African Iron Age

The Spread of Iron - A Timeline and Definition

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Nok Sculpture, 6th century BC–6th century AD, Nigeria, Louvre Museum

Nok Sculpture, 6th century BC–6th century AD, Nigeria, Louvre Museum

Jastrow
Massive Doorway at Great Zimbabwe

Massive Doorway at Great Zimbabwe

David Holt
African Iron Age Ruins at Masvingo, Zimbabwe

African Iron Age Ruins at Masvingo, Zimbabwe

Ross Huggett

The African Iron Age is traditionally considered that period in Africa between the second century AD up to about 1000 AD, when iron smelting was practiced. In Africa, unlike the Europe and Asia, the Iron Age is not prefaced by a Bronze or Copper Age, but rather all the metals were brought together. 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 brief essay covers Iron Age up to the end of the first millennium AD.

Pre-Industrial Iron Ore Technology

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 built a cylindrical clay furnace and used charcoal and a hand-operated bellows to reach the level of heating for smelting. Once smelted, the metal was separated from its waste products or slag, and then brought to its shape by repeated hammering and heating, called forging.

African Iron Age Lifeways

From the 2nd century AD to about 1000 AD, the Chifumbaze spread iron throughout the largest portion of Africa, eastern and southern Africa. The Chifumbaze were farmers of squash, beans, sorghum and millet, and kept cattle, sheep, goats and chickens.

They built hill top settlements, at Bosutswe, large villages like Schroda, and large monumental sites like Great Zimbabwe. Gold, ivory, and glass bead working and trade was 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.

African Iron Age Time Line

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

Read more details about African Iron Age Sites

African Iron Age cultures: Akan culture, Chifumbaze, Urewe

African Iron Age issues: Sirikwa Holes, Inagina: Last House of Iron, Nok Art, Toutswe Tradition

Sources

See the glossary entries for data on each site.

David Phillipson. 2005. Iron-using peoples before 1000 AD. African Archaeology, 3rd edition. Cambridge Press: Cambridge.

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