Discuss the distribution of copper working or bronze/brass casting over West Africa, now and in the ancient past.

The discovery of the use of metals by man has far reaching effects on his culture which is a product of his interaction with the environment.

Some of the metals the metals that man explored at different stages of his development were used in the manufacture of tools, ornaments, sculptures, etc. Different types of metal were found and explored in ancient West Africa, metals such as bronze, brass, copper, iron, tin, gold, and to a lesser degree silver.

Unlike other parts of the of the world where evidence for the knowledge of working of other softer metals such as copper, brass and bronze predates that of other metallic materials, in West Africa evidence for the knowledge of iron working predates that of copper, brass and bronze working. From the Nok culture site of Taruga, the date for iron working stands at about the fifth to sixth centuries B.C. and to the fourth century B.C. at Tse Dura rock shelter. At the Baha mound, a date of second century B.C. was arrived at through the C14 dating technique. From Nigeria the earliest date for the exploitation of bronze or brass is put at around the ninth to eleventh century A.D. being the dates for the Igbo Ukwu bronzes. While evidence of copper working from Akoujt in Mauritania has been put to about the ninth to sixth centuries B.C. in the republic of Niger from the Agadez region, the exploitation of native copper goes back to the second millennium B.C. and that of smelting to the mid first millennium B.C.

It is however more convenient to talk about of metal age in West Africa because no evidence of brass/bronze or copper working precedes that of iron working in the area. At sites like Mao, Koro Toro, Toungour, Itaakpa, Iwo Eleru etc. there is evidence of the direct transition from the use of stone tools to iron materials. In eastern lake Chad, at Diama an iron spear head was found in a layer dated to about the first century A.D.

In this write up, the distribution of copper or bronze/brass working in West Africa now and in the ancient past is examined.

From archaeological investigation in West Africa, it has been revealed that copper working or bronze/brass casting now and in the ancient past is distributed over a wide area, mostly along the northern part of the rain forest belt of Ivory Coast to Cameroon. It extends from Baoule and Ashanti (Ghana) through the Benin republic, to Ife, Benin and Igbo Ukwu (Nigeria) to Bamenda (Cameroon). Ibrahim M. Muhammed one of the scholars in this field is of the opinion that West Africa has an ‘Advacnced’ pre-iron age metallurgical tradition.

Copper is a relatively soft metal in its pure state, and it forms a relatively weak cutting tool, but it becomes stronger when alloyed with other metals.

Bronze is an alloy formed when copper and tin is mixed, with tin forming more than 2℅ of the raw material.

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Zinc forms about 10℅ to 30℅ of the alloyed materials. This could be up to one to two percent of the materials of tin and zinc respectively. Lead may also be added to bronze or brass in varying quantities, and in this case the alloyed material is referred to as leaded bronze or brass.

The distribution of copper or bronze/brass in West Africa


From Dawu in southern Ghana, in the Ashanti area, a number of the gold weights recovered were made of brass and dated to the sixteenth and seventh century. These gold weights were used as measures during the merchandize of the gold dust sold at the Trans Saharan markets by the ancient Ashanti people of Ghana. These weights represented Ghanaian proverbs and were sometimes mutilated during transactions. A large number of such weights were carted away during colonial times mistaken to have been manufactured from gold.


Igbo Ukwu

From Igbo Ukwu in Nigeria a large collection of bronze objects were recovered, they consist of objects from shrines such as; well decorated pots and bowls, depiction of animals in a way approaching life size, and regalia of an important personality. These objects were manufactured following two basic methods, the smiting and chasing method and the Cire Perdue or lost wax method.

Most of the bronze objects from Igbo Ukwu were made through the cire perdue method, while the copper objects were made through the smiting and chasing method. Spectrographic analysis carried out on the objects show that the cast objects were made from leaded bronze with varying amount of tin. The objects seemed to have been used mainly for ritual and religious purpose and no attempt was made to make any human sculpture.


Benin has quite a large collection of objects; these objects can be referred to as being made of brass.

Benin brass objects now and in the ancient past are made largely for the royal family i.e. the king and his chiefs, with a few exceptions to important personalities in the society and the queen mother. Objects recovered from the clerks quarters in Benin have been dated to the thirteenth century A.D.


In the south western part of Nigeria from Ife, few copper objects have been recovered. The majorities of the Ife objects are made from the alloy of copper and zinc with relatively high quantity of lead (i.e. leaded brass).

The Ife objects have been dated by analogy to the Ife terracotta objects based on there stylistic similarities to about the twelfth to the fourteenth century A.D.


From the middle Jebba Niger village of Tada, few bronze objects have been found in Jebba and Giragi. The sitting Tada figure is a critical example. These objects have mixed stylistic origin and can not be said to be of the same source. These objects were propitiated to in the communities where they were found in anticipation of a good harvest and were flogged when the expected good harvest was not achieved.

Mali and Mauritania

Copper objects have been found and recovered from El Oualediji in Mali, and from Akjoujt in Mauritania dating from the the ninth to sixth century B.C.

Cameroon, Senegal and Niger Republic

The Sao sites in Cameroon have also yielded objects made from both bronze and brass; also some copper objects were recovered from Ndalame in Senegal.

From the Agadez region in Niger republic, evidence of native copper exploitation goes back to the second millennium B.C. and that of smelting to the early mid first millennium B.C. from the various sites so far, there is evidence that copper or bronze and brass have been used to fashion luxury items, which served as mainly ritual and artistic functions.

The societies using this objects (copper, brass, bronze, iron) seemed to have had a great percent of wealth, high political and social stratification and also the possibility of trans-border trade.

For example the exactions at New Buipe show that some of the cupreous ornaments from this site may have been imported from the Gonga region probably as a result of trade. The bronze objects from Igbo Ukwu also has religious significance, as objects depicting the python, were made from bronze and also that of a leopard skull, this two animals depicted have great religious significance in the areas where they were found (eastern Nigeria).

At Ife and Benin (in Benin brass casting continues till date) objects/ sculptures made are naturalistic and approaching life size, these artistic works could be referred to as royal arts. In conclusion, all over Africa, there is the evidence of the knowledge of the use working of metal.

The areas of Agadez- Taruga –Jenne Jeno seems to have the earlier dates for iron production, while the earlier dates for copper working seemed to have appeared in the Agadez region and Igbo Ukwu respectively.

Metal using brought about new trend in architectural techniques, and examples of such are the presence of potsherds pavements from Diama and Ife, and also the presence of round mud buildings and huge stone structures such as the platforms at Mao, Wuma and Uri. The use of metals brought about changes in material cultures of the West Africans such as rich religious symbolism and the use of heavy body adornments. There was also a remarkable change in the burial rites and the use of burial goods, a good example comes from the Sao sites of Cameroon.


Andah B.W. (1993): Identifying Early Farming Traditions of West Africa. In. The Archaeology of Africa; Food, Metals and Towns. (Eds. Shaw. T et al.) Routledge publishers. London. Pp 240-53.

Aremu D.A. (2010): ARC 422 Class note

Muhammed I.M.(1993): Iron Technology in the Middle Sahel/Savanna with Emphasis on Central Dafur. In. . The Archaeology of Africa; Food, Metals and Towns. (Eds. Shaw. T. et al.) Routledge publishers. London. Pp 240-53.

Okafor E.E. (1993): New Evidence on Early Iron Smelting from South Eastern Nigeria. In. The Archaeology of Africa; Food, Metals and Towns. (Eds. Shaw. T et al.) Routledge publishers. London. Pp 432-37.


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