African Iron Age Architecture & Tools

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Iron Age was a formative time for Africa. In this lesson, we'll discuss the impact of the Iron Age on African societies and see how this influenced their architecture and tools.

The African Iron Age

As human beings, we like our tools. From our first genetic ancestors who started using sticks and stones to get things done to today's tweens who are using digital technology to slowly take over the world, human populations have always been defined by their tools. So, the materials used to create those tools are a useful way to categorize societies over time.

Around 3500 years ago, certain populations around the Mediterranean began systematically smelting iron, leading to a millennia-long period of human history known as the Iron Age. The advent of iron tools led to massive social changes across the world, including in Africa, the cradle of humanity. Africa's Iron Age changed the continent and opened up new styles of living to many cultures. These populations weren't the first to redefine themselves by their tools, and they won't be the last.

The Rise of Iron in Africa

Iron smelting may have been possible in parts of Africa for millennia. There are some researchers who think that the ancient Egyptians may have experimented with it up to 5000 years ago. However, iron working as a consistent process may have entered Northern Africa around 750 BCE. By the 6th century BCE, it may have made its way to Nigeria, practiced by the Nok culture, and over time spread throughout the continent. The spread was probably largely thanks to the Bantu-speaking people of North/Central Africa, who migrated across the continent over centuries and brought iron working with them. By roughly 1600 CE, iron working was found throughout all of Africa.

Iron Age Tools

The rise of iron tools signaled some major changes in societies across Africa. In areas where people had lived in settled, urban communities for hundreds of years, like Northern Africa, these changes were less pronounced. Mostly, agricultural and military practices were improved.

South of the Sahara Desert, however, settled civilizations and iron tools often went hand-in-hand. Iron is a very hard, strong metal and iron tools made even the toughest soils workable for agriculture. So, the introduction of iron tools was often accompanied by the establishment of more settled, agricultural communities. As they settled down and develop more reliable food sources through agriculture, these societies tended to grow in size and complexity. It's no coincidence that many of Sub-Saharan Africa's larger kingdoms first appeared when iron and agriculture both appeared.

Iron Weapons and Rituals

Iron agricultural tools introduced some of the most dramatic changes in Africa, but we can't ignore iron's other uses either. When we talk about the rapid spread of the iron-using Bantu cultures and the rise of powerful African kingdoms, we have to acknowledge that iron weapons had a large influence as well. Variations of iron knives, swords, and spears were developed by warring societies across the continent. Since these societies did not develop firearm technology until it was introduced by European empires, these Iron Age weapons became symbols of cultural unity in many parts of Africa.

Iron Age spears still adorn the flag of Kenya as a symbol of national pride

All in all, iron working played a major role in African society. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it was pretty highly revered. Blacksmiths were respected members of many societies and were practically nobility in some cases. In fact, even iron working itself was a semi-sacred action in many societies. This meant that the tools for iron working often held ceremonial, ritual purposes. Amongst cultures of what is now Nigeria, the anvil served as sort of a shrine and altar. In parts of West Africa, iron objects made in a ritual fashion were believed to contain living spirits that required offerings of water, millet, or beer. So, iron tools could have magical, spiritual uses as well.

Objects like this iron staff, made as an offering to the fertility god by forging two hoes together, held sacred significance
Iron staff

Architecture of Iron Age Africa

As many societies in Africa developed iron technology and more urbanized societies, their architecture changed as well. Now, few African societies ever made heavy use of iron in their actual architecture, but the tools did help with stone and wood cutting. In fact, many societies developed their first major examples of stone architecture after the arrival of iron tools.

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