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Periodical article Periodical article Leiden University catalogue Leiden University catalogue WorldCat catalogue WorldCat
Title:Did They or Didn't They Invent it? Iron in Sub-Saharan Africa
Author:Alpern, Stanley B.
Periodical:History in Africa
Geographic term:Subsaharan Africa
Subjects:iron forging
History and Exploration
Anthropology and Archaeology
Abstract:This paper traces the long-running debate over the origins of iron smelting in sub-Saharan Africa: diffusion versus independent invention. The idea that sub-Saharan Africa independently invented iron is more than a century old but, although Africanists support this theory, there is no agreement among archaeologists. The paper shows that, with a closer look at the record, the independent invention theory fades. In some cases, the people responsible for many of the earliest radiocarbon datings in sub-Saharan Africa have expressed the belief that metallurgy has come from the Middle East or the Mediterranean basin. Others have discarded their earliest dates. In other cases, enthusiasm for the idea of autonomous development seems to have coloured interpretation of radiocarbon datings. And in still others, archaeological rigour in prospecting and publishing appears to have been wanting. The author concludes that the great diversity of iron metallurgy in sub-Saharan Africa is most likely due both to external influences and local innovations in varying combinations. If sub-Saharan Africans were smelting iron earlier than the mid-first millennium BCE, they might have mastered the technology as early as the British or the Chinese. But the main argument against independent invention has always involved the complexity of iron metallurgy, and the questions of how and when sub-Saharan Africans managed to do it are still unresolved. Notes, ref. [ASC Leiden abstract]