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  • Writer's pictureFemi Abodunde

West Africa: The Birth of The Iron Age

Major West African Kingdoms of the Iron Age, including the Fon, Yoruba, Edo, and Mande Kingdoms.

The Iron Age began a thousand years before the empires of Rome and Greece.

The transition from the Bronze Age occurred at different times in different spots on the globe, and it brought with it significant changes to agriculture and warfare. People in parts of western Africa and southwestern Asia were the first to realize that the dark-silvery rocks poking out of the earth could be worked into tools and weapons, sometime around 1500 B.C.

Iron smelting and forging technologies may have existed in West Africa among the #Nok culture of Nigeria as early as the sixth century B.C. In the period from 1400 to 1600, iron technology appears to have been one of a series of fundamental social assets that facilitated the growth of significant centralized kingdoms in the western Sudan and along the Guinea coast of West Africa. The fabrication of iron tools and weapons allowed for the kind of extensive systematized agriculture, efficient hunting, and successful warfare necessary to sustain large urban centers.

In #Nigeria, iron was fundamental to the rise of several important kingdoms—#Dahomey,

Benin, and the Yoruba kingdoms, including primarily #Ife and #Oyo. All of these Nigerian kingdoms had a great deal of contact with one another and therefore share similar spiritual beliefs concerning the attributes of iron and ironworking methods. Ogun, the god of iron, is an important deity recognized by all of them. #Ogun is credited with introducing iron as well as being the first hunter and warrior, the opener of roads, clearer of fields, and founder of dynasties. The iron sword of Ogun, a central symbolic motif, is associated with both civilizing and aggressive actions.

Politically and socially, Blacksmiths in West Africa were extremely powerful, offering invaluable counsel to the village chief concerning all major decisions. However, while revered and honored, the spiritual and ritual knowledge and activities of blacksmiths were also greatly feared. They were believed to control the natural forces intrinsic to all objects. Blacksmithing was endogamous, meaning that only those born into blacksmithing families are eligible for the long apprenticeship into the craft.

Blacksmiths in West Africa were responsible for the production of agricultural tools and weapons but also for important regalia and protective amulets. The Bamana staff, or ceremonial spear is a good example of the type of object produced by blacksmiths. Bamana staffs are almost always figural, and though they may possess sacred names, publicly they are simply called “iron women.” They are often carried by those who have purchased an important village title, or are of high rank.

Across West Africa, forges are considered to be female, and the act of smelting iron is equated to the gestation period. Thus the male smith is often considered the “husband of the forge.” Though women are involved in many aspects of the metallurgic process, they almost never work the forge.

Sources: Ross, Emma George. “The Age of #Iron in West #Africa.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art #History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.


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