World History 1 140 - 9.2.1 The Emergence of Farming

Although scholars still debate the origins of agriculture in Africa, there is a general consensus that agriculture emerged in three distinct regions: along the Nile River in Egypt, in the eastern Sahara of Sudan, and in the great bend of the Niger River of West Africa. The oldest evidence for agriculture in Africa can be found in Egypt along the Nile River valley. There, sometime after 7000 BCE, agricultural technology and knowledge about the domestication of wheat, barley, sheep, goats, and cattle were introduced into the region, likely from southwest Asia. The introduction of these methods transformed the region and put Egypt on the path to greatness. Over the next few thousand years, these practices were disseminated west across North Africa to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

In the grasslands south of the Sahara, agriculture emerged independently. The origins of that process can be traced to as early as 9000 BCE, when the Nilo-Saharan people of the region began to adopt the grain-collecting and grinding techniques of their northern neighbors and applied them to sorghum and pearl millet, the tropical grasses of the Nile region. These changes were made possible by a millennia-long wet phase beginning around 11,000 BCE. During this period, monsoon-like weather conditions prevailed, drenching the region of the Sahara and creating lakes and a lush landscape covered in grasses and acacia forests that was home to countless varieties of wildlife. By around 8000 BCE, the Nilo-Saharans had domesticated wild cattle of the Red Sea hills and had begun to produce pottery they used to store and cook these grains. By as early as 6000 BCE, the gathering of these wild grains had begun to evolve into deliberate domestication. Over the next few thousand years, the Nilo-Saharans domesticated a host of other plants, including watermelons, cotton, and gourds.

Agriculture also emerged independently, far to the west of the Nilo-Saharans in the bend of the Niger River of West Africa. There, the domestication of yams by the Niger-Congo peoples developed gradually and likely in a piecemeal fashion beginning possibly around the same time the Nilo-Saharans of the eastern Sahara were adopting agriculture. Certainly, by 3000 BCE, the Niger-Congo peoples of West Africa were actively clearing land with stone tools to plant crops such as yams, the oil palm, peas, and groundnuts. Over the next couple thousand years, the Niger-Congo peoples also domesticated a uniquely African variety of rice, which they grew in the wetlands of the Niger River region.

Link to Learning

In this article, the ancient climate and geography of the Congo River Basin are examined.

The impact of farming was enhanced by advances in metallurgy. Bronze was introduced into Egypt from the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean a little before 3000 BCE. From there, bronze technology was gradually disseminated west across North Africa as well as south up the Nile into sub-Saharan Africa. Being far harder than the farming materials these populations were previously using, the introduction of bronze greatly increased agricultural production. Unlike wooden plows, which allow only scratch farming, bronze-bladed plows pulled by oxen could dig deep into the ground and turnover large amounts of earth.

Iron tools in Egypt during the Bronze Age were not unknown. Indeed, an iron dagger was placed in Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1323 BCE, and archaeologists have found several hundred iron objects in sites around the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean which date to centuries before the start of the Iron Age. Most of these iron objects, however, were ornamental and include things like iron jewelry. It was only after about 1000 BCE that the number of iron tools began to overtake the number of bronze tools across the Near East. The reason for this is that iron is far more difficult to produce than bronze. The types of iron objects that could be produced earlier were inferior to bronze in strength, which is why the early objects tended to be ornamental. Only during the Late Bronze Age Collapse (1200–1100 BCE), when tin was difficult to acquire, did people begin experimenting with iron more seriously. By about 900 BCE, numerous blacksmiths around the Near East had mastered the art of creating iron tools that were far superior in strength to bronze. Evidence of sophisticated ironworking technology in Egypt dates to the seventh century BCE, introduced to the area from other parts of the Near East.

For many years, modern historians assumed that ironworking technologies spread to other parts of Africa from Egypt. The prevailing consensus now, however, is that ironworking technology was likely developed independently in sub-Saharan Africa. Most modern scholars agree that iron smelting in sub-Saharan Africa likely preexisted its introduction into Egypt by a few centuries. The earliest evidence dates to about 1000 BCE and comes from Central Africa—modern Chad, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. From there the technology appears to have spread west to the Niger River area and, by 500 BCE, was being used by the Nok culture of West Africa.

Settling around the confluence of the Benue and Niger Rivers in present-day Nigeria, the Nok initially used iron to fashion jewelry. Eventually they began using it to make farming tools and weapons as well. The obvious utility of iron for fashioning tougher and more durable tools used to clear forests, aerate land, and dig trench-based irrigation systems led others to adopt the new material. As a result, over the next several centuries, ironworking technology spread around West Africa and later far beyond. In the hands of migrating Bantus, iron technology was indispensable. They used iron tools to clear the surrounding trees and extended prehistoric irrigation systems by digging deeper furrows, shored up with embankments, to create Iron Age farms. In the process, they spread ironworking technology throughout equatorial and subequatorial Africa.

Beyond the Book

The Iron Age in Africa

It had been thought that ironworking originated in modern-day Turkey around 1500 BCE. However, new evidence suggests that the discovery of iron metallurgy happened in Central Africa—modern Chad, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan—around the same time, likely as a by-product of firing ceramics. Today, most modern scholars agree that iron smelting in sub-Saharan Africa likely preexisted its introduction into Egypt by a few centuries with the earliest evidence dating to about 1000 BCE.

Ironworking revolutionized human civilization in Africa. It helped make large-scale agriculture possible because it produced stronger tools for farming, including shovels and furrow-diggers. Iron axes and knives enabled Africans to clear paths through the densest parts of the Central African rainforest. In so doing, they exposed new areas for settlement and opened corridors between historically isolated regions, connecting them for the first time.

These corridors allowed for migration as well as the diffusion of cultures, a process that introduced to other prehistoric peoples not only new technologies but also new languages and the innovations of the Neolithic Revolution: the domestication of plants and animals. The advent of iron metalworking was a vital component in the laying of common cultural foundation throughout much of southern Africa and utterly transformed the societies found there.

Watch this short video about the origins of ironworking in Africa to learn more. Pay close attention to the circumstances that led to the discovery of iron smelting in Africa and why iron metallurgy proved so revolutionary to the societies that adopted it.

  • How was iron discovered in Africa? What were some of the first uses of iron?
  • In what ways did iron transform African societies?
  • Can you name other discoveries/innovations that had a similar impact on human civilization? What were they, and what was their impact?
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax