Skills and tools
It is not known exactly how this transmission of knowledge and expertise took place, but it is believed to be linked to a mass movement of people across the continent, known as the 'Bantu migration.' This episode in Africa's past has often been ignored but its implications for the future development of the continent is crucial.
Bantu is the word widely used as a description of a body of people originally based in west or central Africa who, over the course of three thousand years, moved to populate east and southern regions.
It's not clear how the Bantu gained their skills in iron working. The great smelting tradition of the Kushite Kingdom of Meroe (around 500 BC) did not spread either further west or towards the south, although we do not know this for sure.
In West Africa, the knowledge of iron working may have come from the Phoenicians who in 800 BC founded the colony of Carthage on the North African coast. The skills may have crossed the Sahara desert with the Berber nomads who dominated much of the North African plains.
It has also been suggested that iron smelting may have started in Africa itself, without any outside influences, but so far none of the theories are conclusive. What we do know is that iron smelting was established in Nigeria, central Niger and southern Mali by around 500-400 BC, spreading to other parts of West Africa by 1000 AD.
Iron smelting is difficult because the extraction of iron from rock involves a chemical process. Crushed iron ore and charcoal were placed in furnaces and lime was added. After several hours of heating, the crude iron was taken from the furnace and forged into weapons.
Iron Ore is widely available in much of tropical Africa but because iron rusts easily few examples of implements have survived from the pre-historic period.
Armed with this technology the Bantu then dispersed across Africa.
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