The Iron Age in South Africa

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Iron Age looked different in every part of the world, but this is especially true in southern Africa. In this lesson, we'll explore this time period and see what makes it unique in world history.

South Africa's Iron Age

We tend to have this idea that as Europeans expanded during the Age of Exploration, they brought with them materials and tools that were totally unknown in other parts of the world. The explorers themselves encouraged this idea, but it wasn't really accurate. As the Portuguese first spread along the African coast, for example, they were interacting with people who had already been using iron for centuries.

The Iron Ageof Africa, the period when iron technologies emerged, is an interesting topic because it didn't happen uniformly. In some parts of Africa, iron was developed very early on (in fact, there's evidence of steel production in East Africa back to 500 BCE). In other places, metal technologies like this didn't appear until much later. One place where this history gets really interesting is in southern Africa. In most parts of the world, societies developed in this order:

  1. Farming
  2. Copper tools
  3. Bronze tools
  4. Iron tools

In southern Africa, all of these came as a package deal. It all just goes to show that there's no one right way for societies to grow.

Origins of the Iron Age in Southern Africa

For millennia, stone-technology cultures of southern Africa relied on nomadic, hunter-gatherer subsistence or semi-nomadic cow, goat, and sheep herding. Then, one day, they were smelting (making) iron. How did this happen?

The roots of southern Africa's Iron Age are in something called the Bantu expansion. Around 200 CE, Bantu-speaking peoples of west/central Africa expanded to the east and south, spreading not only their technologies, but also the technologies of people who they encountered. This included metallurgy, or metalworking.

The spread of Bantu-speaking cultures into southern Africa. All dates are in CE, unless otherwise noted.

As these Bantu-speaking people entered into southern Africa, they started competing with the nomadic cultures who lived there, and often either assimilated or replaced them. By 400 CE, Bantu-speaking people and their technologies had made it to the southern tip of the continent. These are the ancestors of all Bantu-based languages in southern Africa today as well as the majority of southern Africa's modern population.

Throughout this time of expansion, a lot changed, very quickly. The nomadic and semi-nomadic people suddenly had access to iron-smelting technologies and tools, which let them clear out swaths of forest and start farming. They grew sorghum, millet, melons, gourds, and other products. Without needing to roam for food, permanent villages and societies appeared as did advanced ceramics and pottery. This is one of the few places in the world where widespread agriculture, pottery, and iron all appeared at the same time.

Prior to the Bantu expansion, most people of southern Africa lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer or pastoral societies.

Growth of Iron Age Societies

As the farming villages of southern Africa continued to improve their iron smelting technologies, their societies produced more food and started to grow. This really took off, however, with an increase of Arab traders along the west coast of southern Africa in the 11th century.

Merchants from the Arabian Peninsula had been sailing the coasts of what is now Tanzania and Mozambique since as far back as the first century CE, but by the 11th century, they were looking to establish more permanent trading centers. As they did, new wealth poured into southern Africa. Trade from the coasts was incorporated into continental trade routes, assisted by the marriages of Arab trading families into prominent Bantu houses.

By the end of the 11th century, some of southern Africa's small villages had grown into the first sprawling urban centers of the region. One of the first, and most notable, was Mapungubwe, located in what is now South Africa, near the border of Zimbabwe and Botswana. From roughly 1075 through 1220, Mapungubwe was one of the most important and powerful trading cities south of the Sahara Desert. It had a strong hierarchy of political power and the first signs of a class-based social system in southern Africa.

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