Social Approaches to an Industrial Past: The Archaeology and Anthropology of Mining

By A. Bernard Knapp; Vincent C. Pigott et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 9

Mining as microcosm in precolonial sub-Saharan Africa

An overview

Eugenia W. Herbert

ABSTRACT

Iron, gold and copper were the three primary metals worked in sub-Saharan Africa before the colonial period. This chapter examines the ‘culture of mining’ in Africa; its aim is to illuminate not only technologies and social relations but also the patterns of belief which underlie them. The available evidence suggests a great deal of variation both in organization of labor and in ritual. In most regions, mining was a dry-season pursuit, complementary to farming and involving the same labor force, although in some areas it was the work of specialists and of distinct social groups. The labor of women, children and younger men in mining seems to have been almost uniformly under the control of senior males who possessed both the technical and the ritual knowledge believed to be indispensable to a successful outcome. Where women collected, pulverized and winnowed ores, the analogy with agricultural pursuits might be explicit; and where ores and fuel had to be hauled to metallurgical sites, it was primarily women who carried them. The degree of ritualization also varied: the use of medicines, sacrifices and invocations to ancestors and deities, the imposition of sexual and menstrual taboos, and so forth. There is some evidence that deep mining and mining by specialists involved greater ritualization than panning and shallow mining. Although women might provide key labor components in the mining and preparation of ores and fuels, they were rarely allowed to take part in the more highly skilled smelting activities, which demanded access to supernatural assistance; just as rarely did they share in the wealth and status that accrued to metalworkers.


INTRODUCTION

Metals have been worked in sub-Saharan Africa for more than two millennia. Those who produced these metals and the objects they fashioned have played dominant roles in the history of the subcontinent. In many cultures, myths of origin refer to the revolutionary impact of metalworking. Objects of iron, copper and gold have long been central to political, economic, social and religious life. So abundantly was Africa endowed with deposits of gold that it was for centuries

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