Vol. XV, Issue 4 (Fall 2008):African Indigenous Technologies


Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor

Walton Brown-Foster
Copy Editor

Haines Brown


Olayemi Akinwumi

Zenebworke Bissrat

Paulus Gerdes

Mosebjane Malatsi
(South Africa)

Alfred Zack-Williams
(Sierra Leone)


Tennyson Darko
Asst. Dir. ITS, CCSU

Peter K. LeMaire
Professor, CCSU

Bernice A. LeMaire
Website Designer

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Table of contents

  • Editorial: Dr. Gloria Emeagwali

  • Exploring the Development of Indigenous Technologies: A Survey of Databases - Dr. Mishack T. Gumbo
  • The Ironworking of Ancient Sudan- Dr. Jay Spaulding


    This issue of Africa Update continues the discussion of African Indigenous Knowledge Systems with an overview on current databases and a specific example of iron technology in Ancient Sudan. Dr. Gumbo argues that there is inadequate focus on indigenous technology and he takes us to a wide range of databases to make his point. He points out that most research focuses on curriculum, industry, indigenous technologies compared to Western technologies and agriculture. The marginalization of indigenous technologies in the school curriculum concerns several researchers. This article is followed by a discussion on iron technology with a focus on the Funj kingdom and North Kordofan Nubian communities whose capital lay near the Nile confluence. Central Kordofan, and parts of the Nuba Mountains in the west, constituted Kordofal with Bara as the capital. Dar Fur hegemony in Kordofan was followed by Ottoman occupation. Dr. Spaulding informs us of some of the metallurgical trends in this region. We thank the scholars for their illuminating contributions.

    Dr. Gloria Emeagwali

    Return to Table of Contents

    Exploring the Development of Indigenous Technologies:
    A Survey of Databases

    Mishack T Gumbo
    University of South Africa
    Department of Further Teacher Education

    Indigenous technologies, as part of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS), and the call to protect the rights of indigenous people have become part of the development agenda that has a bearing on the school curriculum. This happens against certain historical orientations that have brushed aside the thriving of IKS. For instance, there exists a skewed orientation that technology is not known to indigenous cultures. But Serote (1998) alerts us that technology is not the exclusive property of industrialised societies as indigenous cultures are also inventors and custodians of technology.

    Indigenous technologies are described in terms of looms, textile, jewellery and brass-work, agriculture, fishing, forestry, resource exploitation, architecture, medicine and pharmacy, etc. (Odora Hoppers, 1998). The contributions of indigenous cultures to this world’s technological development can thus not be overemphasised. The general approach to technology attempts to deface this contribution. The colonial practices have contributed to this especially in developing and/or underdeveloped nations. Gloria Emeagwali (1999), Odora Hoppers (1993; 1998) and Seepe (1999) concur that colonialism has played a role to subjugate indigenous technologies.

    It follows that colonialism has stifled and overshadowed the developmental efforts of indigenous technologies. What is colonialism? According to Gloria Emeagwali (1999:1), “colonialism is a system of administration; a process of exploitation and a production system that is often geared towards the creation of capitalist relations and the economic and socio-cultural aggrandisement of the coloniser”. Implied in this system of administration is the role that technology plays. Technology is a tool that is used to manipulate the economic and socio-cultural environments to meet man’s needs and wants or solve problems using available knowledge, skills and resources. All are engaging in some form of technology every time. But the colonial approach has advanced Western perspectives of technology at the expense of indigenous ones.

    Resultantly, the world is busy re-orientating itself towards the democratic and equal treatment of humanity entrenched in human rights. Intellectual property rights of indigenous cultures have become the subject of research and debate alongside this development. Efforts are also being made to acknowledge and promote IKS in general. In South Africa in particular, IKS has lately become a researched field for obvious reasons that it was sidelined prior to the democratic era. The South African National Research Foundation, for instance, is commissioned to support and promote research in the field. The IKS Programme, established in collaboration with the now transformed CSIR, under the auspices of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (Serote, 1998) is also engaged in this research mission. As a result South Africans are increasingly becoming aware of the importance and the benefits of IKS, particularly indigenous technologies, against a previously lost opportunity to celebrate their richness.

    In the light of this orientation, it should be established as to what extent, on the international front, is effort being made to promote and advance indigenous technologies. Does this effort focus on the school curriculum or outside? This enquiry is inspired by the crucial implication that indigenous technologies have on the school curriculum, particularly the technology education curriculum. As a result, we address the following research questions about indigenous technologies:

  • What are the focus areas regarding international research on indigenous technologies?
  • What is the extent of research on indigenous technologies per level of educational institutions?
  • What is the extent of research on indigenous technologies per country per educational institution?
  • Where are the focuses on indigenous technologies taking place?
  • How do the research trends on indigenous technologies develop over time?

    Method of study

    To answer the questions stated above, we followed an Educational Resources Information Centre (ERIC) electronic database. Electronic databases available on the Internet were searched for this purpose. The researcher used the Internet resources available at the University of South Africa and University of Pretoria’s incorporated Mamelodi Campus (of the former Vista University). The electronic databases housed by the libraries of these universities, and the University of Pretoria (main campus), University of Witwatersrand, Rand Afrikaans University, Potchefstroom University and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) were accessed and searched. This is a random sampling of more than 20 South African universities (excluding the HSRC) just before the merger and incorporation.

    A random choice was informed by convenience because the author planned to visit the said libraries if need arose. The need could have been triggered by limited resources in some of these institutions in the process of database search. So, distance was possibly going to impact on data-gathering plan. Other factors taken into account included the capacity of the University of South Africa’s and University of Pretoria’s libraries, and free access of the author to the computer facilities of the then Vista University as an employee. To give an indication, the University of South Africa and Northwest University (Potchefstroom Campus) libraries housed over 1, 807, 000 and 659, 480 collections respectively, at the time of this research. These were however, not the updated records (confirmed by the librarians). The other libraries were not ready to give their records at the time of the research. The HSRC was basically included because the institution keeps the record of completed dissertations and theses, and records of research projects, which are either still in process or have already been completed. Thus, it was envisaged that either completed or ongoing research within the field of IKS and/or indigenous technologies would yield the required data.

    The author printed records obtained from the Internet and filed them for analysis later. Data were presented according to the categories of the searched databases. This entailed the database name, the areas it covered and in some cases even the period in years that the database search covered.

    2.1 Categories of database search method 2.1.1 CD-ROM search
    In this category the CD-ROM database search was confined only to the libraries of the University of South Africa and former Vista University, as the other libraries mentioned above could not be accessed. The following databases were searched:
    a) ERIC

    This is an educational database that includes both original and secondary academic materials, as well as related fields from library science to numerous social science topics (Katz, 1997). The academic materials covered in this category include journal articles, conference papers, microfiches, seminar speeches, books, handbooks, etc. The search covered the period from 1982 to June 2000.
    b) Humanities Index

    Humanities Index covers all of the areas of the humanities and it offers literature criticism, philosophy, journalism and many other areas (Katz, 1997). It also covers academic materials like journal articles, conference papers, microfiches, seminar speeches, books, handbooks, etc. The search covered the period from February 1984 to August 2000.
    c) Social Sciences

    This category covers areas like administration, urban studies, and criminology (Katz, 1997). The database search was in this case done on the sociological abstracts. These sociological abstracts covered only journal articles and conference papers. The period of this search ranged between1983 and August 2000.
    d) Science and Technology

    This category analyses English language periodicals by subject (Katz, 1997). The search was done on the GEOBASE. It covers books, reports, journal articles and microfiches. The search covered the period ranging from January 1990 to August 2000.
    e) NISC (National Information Sciences Corporation)

    DISCover is a CD-ROM full-text and bibliographic database publishing company and it covers a wide range of topics in the sciences, arts and humanities (NISC, 1993). Database search in this category was done on African Studies, and covered books, journal articles and conference papers, from 19th Century to August 2000. It was also done on the South African Studies, which cover only journal articles and paper reports from 1987 to May 2000.
    f) British and Australian Education Indexes

    These databases were searched by using WinSPIRS, which allows the search both on full-text and bibliographic databases (SilverPlatter, 1999). The British Education Index covers only journal articles from 1976 to June 2000, whereas the Australian Education Index covers books, conference papers, Masters theses and Doctoral dissertations, speeches and journal articles from 1978 to June 2000.
    g) NEXUS

    NEXUS is a database that is provided by National Research Foundation (NRF). NRF supports and promotes research through funding, human resource development and provision of the necessary research facilities in the fields of science and technology. The search in this case covered both current and completed research projects.
    Book Search and Other Publications

    In this category, in addition to the libraries of the University of South Africa and former Vista University, the libraries of the University of Pretoria, University of Witwatersrand, the then Rand Afrikaans University, University of Northwest (Potchefstroom Campus) and Human Sciences Research Council were also accessed. This research exercise was affordable by searching the listed institutions’ libraries electronically from the same working station at the Mamelodi Campus. The database search covered academic books, handbooks, encyclopaedias, journals, monographs, conference papers, etc. Also, the International Journal of Technology volume collection was searched. It covered the period ranging from 1989 to 1999. It was accessed from the article collection downloaded from Internet at the Education Library of Indiana University, USA, during the 1999 Summer Institute that the author participated in.
    How the database search was Done A key concept, indigenous technology, was used to guide the search of all databases. For a thorough search, synonymous adjectives or words that are close in meaning to indigenous were used. Each was used to qualify the term technology, just like indigenous qualifies technology in the concept “indigenous technology.” These synonymous adjectives are:

  • traditional (relating to knowledge, doctrines, customs, practices, etc. transmitted from
  • generation to generation),
  • native (produced, originated, or grown in a particular region or country; indigenous),
  • cultural (relating to the sum total of the attainments and learned behaviour patterns of any specific race or people),
  • ethnic (of, belonging to, or distinctive of a particular racial, cultural, or language division of mankind), and
  • local (of or pertaining to a particular place by environmental, etc. influence).

    Hence, specific database search concepts were arrived at: traditional technology, native technology, cultural technology, ethnic technology and local technology.

    The CD-ROM database search was done on different databases, which covered different reading materials and disciplines. The relevant database menu was opened. Then the key concept and the related concepts given above were typed in to obtain printouts of materials covered under each of them. The book database search was not necessarily restricted by discipline. That was due to the keyword search technique (by typing in each of the above database search concepts), which resulted in obtaining the printouts covered by each concept.

    A file was developed with all the printouts arranged according to the institution, key search concepts and database categories above. They were analyzed. We grouped all the databases according to the electronic database types, period covered in years (1980-2000), author(s) and year of publication, and the research focus either by key aspects in the material or its exact title. The authors’ column was listed in terms of the earliest year of publication down to the latest. This was done with each database category. The reason was to clearly reflect the column of the period. The period 1982 to June 2000 covers records from 1990, the earliest publication year down to 1999, the latest publication year. A repetition of common records between the libraries was avoided, i.e. a material that appeared more than once between records of different libraries was not recounted for obvious mathematical reasons. This task ended up with the development of a table bearing the database information arranged according to the columns of electronic database, period covered, author(s) and year, and research focus and brief description of key aspects or title. The purpose of developing this table was to provide a practically manageable strategy to address the questions at hand.

    3. Answers to the research questions from the database search

    After the outlined database search method was set and the search done, the author was able to answer the stated research questions.

  • What are the focus areas regarding international research trends on indigenous technologies?

    TABLE 1: International focus areas of research on indigenous technologies





    Industry 54
    Social Development 46
    Indigenous versus Western technology 60
    Development of Indigenous technologies 40
    Agriculture 20
    Policy 8
    Gender 10
    Culture 48
    Medicine 7
    Law 12
    Religion 4

    Table 1 shows the focus areas of research on indigenous technologies. The right-hand column gives researches done in each area. It seems that the bulk of the research focuses on curriculum, industry, social development, the comparison between indigenous technologies and Western technologies, culture, the development of indigenous technologies, and agriculture. Comparatively speaking, the highest research interest seems to lie in the area of curriculum. However, it is important to note that this priority is only about research on school curriculum. It is not about indigenous technologies being included in curriculum offering in schools. Rather, researchers do raise questions about the marginalization of indigenous technologies in the school curriculum. The other focus areas in Table 1 represent other sectors besides the school curriculum where indigenous technologies appear not to be offered a recognizable platform that they deserve. Thus, it appears that many of the researchers call for their inclusion in what seems to be the domineering Western technologies.

  • What is the extent of research on indigenous technologies per level of educational institutions?

    TABLE 2: The extent of research on indigenous technologies per level of educational institutions



    University level


    Secondary School level 40
    Primary School level 35

    Table 2 offers an indication of where curricular research on indigenous technologies are more concentrated according to the level of educational institutions, i.e. university level, secondary school level and primary school level. The numbers in the table indicate how many researches were counted from the record list at the time of the database search. The focus is more at universities than secondary and primary schools. This is most probably due to the fact that the universities’ basic function is teaching and research. In addition, some Universities are directly involved with research in the broader field of indigenous knowledge systems, which includes indigenous technologies. In South Africa, for instance, some universities were commissioned to nationally audit Indigenous Knowledge Systems in collaboration with the CSIR.

    Table 2 does not imply that universities offer indigenous technologies in their curricula, but only that they conduct research in the field. The exception lies with the Australian Catholic University which, according to data searched, offers programmes in indigenous technologies to accommodate the Australian Aborigines.

    Secondary and primary schools are also represented in research on indigenous technologies, even though, as indicated in Table 1 above, this does not really mean the inclusion of indigenous technologies in the school curriculum but the confinement of efforts to research only.

  • What is the extent of focus areas of research on indigenous technologies per country per educational institution?

    TABLE 3: The extent of research focus areas on indigenous technologies per country per educational institution

























    Sierra Leone




    South Africa




    United States




    The numerical information in Table 3 is not expected to tally with that in Table 2 because Table 2 includes cases that are not country-specific. In Table 3, Australia takes the lead in addressing the need for the inclusion of Aboriginal technologies in the curriculum of the educational institutions. The South African cases only refer to the research initiatives conducted by CSIR in collaboration with some universities in the country, and secondary and primary schools cases are only about investigation regarding the development of African indigenous languages in the school curriculum. The generally low representation of research in the countries and educational institutions in Table 3 could well mean the very low status offered to the development and promotion of indigenous technologies particularly in the school curriculum.

  • Where are focuses of research trends on indigenous technologies taking place?

    TABLE 4: Countries where focuses of research trends on indigenous technologies take place COUNTRY TOTAL NUMBER COUNTRY TOTAL NUMBER Australia 11 Kenya 3 Bangladesh 2 Korea 6 Brazil 1 Mozambique 1 China 3 Nigeria 22 Caribbean Islands 1 Puerto Rico 1 Ethiopia 1 Sierra Leone 2 Ghana 3 Singapore 1 Guinea 1 South Africa 22 India 8 Sri Lanka 1 Indonesia 1 Sudan 1 Japan 1 United States 9 Zimbabwe 1

    It may be observed from Table 4 that research in the field seems to be concentrated more in Africa than elsewhere in the world. In Table 4 Africa rates high where research focuses have and are taking place. There are 57 researches from African countries. (Table 4). In Africa alone, Nigeria and South Africa appear to be countries where a remarkable initiative is shown. However, the author realized that it appears many of these initiatives did not target the school curriculum. This could be a good move towards building up content for indigenous technologies from other sector. It would also be worth it to draw indigenous technologies into the school curriculum.

  • • How do research trends on indigenous technologies develop over time?

    This question seeks to find the growth in research on indigenous technologies over the years. Is there any increase in the graph; if so, in which year period? The databases revealed that many researches have been conducted between 1990 and 2000. This could imply an increased interest from the researchers in the field of indigenous technologies as reflected in table 4. In Africa alone, the development of concepts like African Renaissance, Indigenous Knowledge Systems and a call for the Africanization of curriculum has most probably inspired this growing interest.

    What do the answers to these research questions tell us?

    The author appreciates and acknowledges the research efforts in favour of indigenous technologies. The relevant role-players in education need to take advantage of this research base to advocate the extension of these research efforts to the school curriculum. Crucially implied here are the education front-liners like policy makers, curriculum developers and other officials who need to embrace an indigenous sensitive approach to curriculum engagements. They need to reflect from time to time as to whether their curriculum design, development, implementation and practice are informed by voices of the indigenous masses rather than the universalization of the West only. Teachers need to be exposed to curriculum principles that suggest the embracing of indigenous technologies through workshops and other forms of training. When this happens, they can take advantage of the available wealth of indigenous technologies out there, which informs the lived-world of many of the learners from such backgrounds, to plan their teaching activities to accommodate this wealth. The ideal is therefore for the front-liners to reorientate their attitudes towards indigenous people by showing respect and interest to want to mine from their worldview to enrich the school curriculum.

    Engagements in indigenous technologies and their custodians raise cultural issues as well. They are more about the need to accommodate indigenous cultures, that were previously marginalized in the school curriculum. In his “Multicultural education and its politics” (2001), the author accounted for how attempts to accommodate other cultures in the American school curriculum do spark a resistant attitude by those who are opposed to it. As according to Table 1, much research raises questions in support of an indigenous sensitive curriculum. The challenge is then to be accommodative of indigenous technologies in the school curriculum to restore the indigenous people’s pride and celebrate our diversified make-up for unity through education. We can learn much from the Australian attempts (e.g. Australian Catholic University) which went an extra mile beyond research, to literally introduce these research efforts in the school curriculum.

    The author notes, with much interest, the curriculum developments taking place particularly in his country, South Africa which came along with transformation since the change from apartheid to democratic governance. The current curriculum principles run in opposition to West-loaded curriculum that is characterized by the following practices:

  • Learners are educated to be miseducated as they miss the real purpose of education in their lives - that of being a perfect fit in their society .
  • Learners are included to be excluded, that is, they are literally admitted in school but the curriculum design and practice excludes them in terms of being unaccommodative of the package of knowledge and skills they bring from home.
  • Learners; interest is being coerced into the foreign school curriculum rather than stirred by their own willingness.
  • This disinterested attitude translates into all forms of misbehaviour at school as an attempt to express the close to meaningless school activity.
  • Teachers do not absorb the curricular materials that they find difficult to fall in step with, which leaves them with no option but to do a lot of cram work.
  • Parents take their children to school to learn English more so than the subject matter and their own indigenous languages, therefore equating education and competitiveness with the ability to converse in English.
  • As a result, parents boast about English as a tool; for learning rather than a medium of instruction, and look down on parents and children who are not from schools that equipped them with English.
  • Social classes are thus determined as such, and pride in knowing your own mother-tongue is lacking. Learners get assimilated into a culturally born - again society that strives to operate fully in the Western mode.

    The principles of National Curriculum Statement (NCS) include, amongst others, social justice, a healthy environment, human rights and inclusivity (Department of Education, 2003:5). In line with indigenous technologies, the author chooses to confine himself to how principles such as these inform the nature of the learning outcomes of the Technology Learning Area. The three (Grades R-9) and learning outcomes (LO’s) of the Technology Learning Area in the RNCS, according to Department of Education (2003:21-22) are:

  • LO 1: The learner will be able to apply technological processes and skills ethically and responsibly using appropriate Information and Communication Technologies.
  • LO 2: The learner is able to understand and apply relevant technological knowledge ethically and responsibly.
  • LO 3: The learner will be able to demonstrate an understanding of the inter-relationship between science, technology, society and the environment.

    When one considers the third LO it is realized that its Assessment Standards are organized under the headings: indigenous technology and culture, impacts of technology, and bias in technology (Department of Education, 2003:22). This implies that teachers should integrate indigenous technologies in their teaching for this learning outcome. Teachers’ training should empower them to engage their learners in learning activities that will address the impact and bias against indigenous cultures and the contribution of indigenous technology to culture.

    5. Conclusion
    Nothing about us without us (Semali & Kincheloe, 1999:37), is the conclusion that one can derive from the context of this chapter and the issues addressed. The school curriculum is about learners – to teach them. However, to a great extent it fails to teach indigenous learners about themselves. Rather, it tends to teach them about other cultures with the hidden mission to assimilate them. They hardly read about themselves in the learning support materials for instance, and this misrepresents or even under-represents them.

    This article has explored international trends on research regarding attempts to accommodate indigenous technologies in the school curriculum. The answers to the research questions reveal that efforts to develop indigenous technologies are concentrated more outside the school curriculum. Thus, much still needs to be done to translate the research efforts into something practically realizable and integrating indigenous technologies in the school curriculum.

    Department of Education (2003) Revised National Curriculum Statement Grades R-9 (Schools): Teacher's guide for the development of learning programmes – Technology. Pretoria; Department of Education.

    Emeagwali, G.

    Gumbo, M.T. (2001) Multicultural education and its politics. South African Journal of Education. 21(4): 233-241.

    Katz, W.A. (1997) Introduction to reference work: Basic information sources. (7th Ed.). New York; The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

    NISC (1993) NISC DISC User’s Guide. USA; NISC.

    Odora Hoppers, C.A. (1993) Indigenous forms of learning in Africa With special reference to the Acholi of Uganda. Unpublished paper prepared for the seminar on indigenous education in Africa. Institute for Educational Research, University of Oslo, October 1993.

    Odora Hoppers, C.A. (1998) A comparative study of the development, integration and protection of Indigenous Knowledge Systems in the third world: Draft proposal and project plan.

    Seepe, S. (1999) Re-configuring African mathematics and scientific knowledge systems to meet the challenges of the 21st century. A paper presented at the World Archaeological Congress. University of Cape Town, January 1999.

    Semali, L.M. & Kincheloe, J.L. (1999) What is indigenous knowledge and why should we study it? In: Semali, L.M. & Kincheloe, J.L. (eds.) 1999: What is indigenous knowledge? Voices from the academy. New York; Falmer Press, 3-57.

    Serote, M.W. (1998) Initiatives for protection of rights of holders of traditional knowledge, indigenous peoples and local communities. Wysiwyg://50/http://www.ompi.org/eng/meetings/1998/indip/rt98_4c.html

    SilverPlatter (1999) WinSPIRS User's Manual for Windows NT, Windows 98, Windows 95, Windows 3.11 Version 4.0. London, SilverPlatter Information, Ltd.

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    by Jay Spaulding

    The recent historical resurrection of the precolonial Nubian-speaking communities of Kordofan invites reflection upon one of the activities for which, in their time, they were best known -- the production of iron.[1] "Iron smelting is now a forgotten art in Northern Kordofan," wrote inquisitive colonial official Harold MacMichael at the dawn of the twentieth century.[2] Yet a contemporary Sudanese geographer remembered not only the north Kordofan Nubians themselves, but also the iron articles they had traditionally exported:

    The Nubian Mountains are located between Dongola and Kordofan. They are numerous, and among them are countless communities. The best-known is Jabal `Abd al-Hadi [one of the peaks of the hills now known collectively as Jabal Haraza], the capital of the Nubian Mountains. Its inhabitants are Nubians. . . There are places in the mountains specially dedicated to the manufacture of iron [articles], such as swords, lances, knives, axes, throwing-blades [trumbash], arrows and sickles. Mines of iron are found in their mountains.[3]

    For reasons to be discussed below, the large ironworks at Jabal Haraza itself had probably stood idle for some time. However, as MacMichael noted, farther south, among the Jawama`a community in the vicinity of the precolonial Kordofan capital of Bara, iron "used to be worked so late as the middle of the nineteenth century."[4] In 1860, for example, Guillaume Lejean commented that "At Omzerzour I entered the metallurgical district of which the large village of Tendar is the center; this district contains numerous forges in the infancy of the art."[5] Ernst Marno offered this description in 1875:

    The inhabitants of this region are Jawama`a, and they obtain iron in primitive fashion from a brown ore found in the area. They erect conical furnaces about one meter in height from clay-like earth. The firing is accelerated by means of two bellows at the base; they consist of deep basin-shaped clay pots with a nozzle, over which a goat-skin is stretched loosely. The ore is mixed with charcoal of hashab wood [acacia verek] and poured into the furnace. The metal that gathers at the bottom is a rather impure product, which is reworked into malot [weeding-machetes], knives, lance-heads and the like. This refining of iron takes place only during the dry season of the year, for the furnaces must dry out thoroughly for a long time before their use, which cannot take place during the rainy season.[6]

    In 1838-1839 Ignatius Pallme offered a perspective that adds valuable insight into the ironworking vocation:

    The smiths are the most industrious workmen; they fabricate all the necessary household and agricultural implements, are at the same time miners, and smelters of ore; for they dig the iron from the bowels of the earth themselves, and melt it after a very simple process; but they do not understand how to harden it. They have no fixed workshops, but arrange them wheresoever they may happen to [p. 255] find work; the fitting up of the forge costs them but little trouble, for a large stone is soon found on which they place a piece of iron, this serves them as an anvil; close to this essential instrument, they construct a small furnace, to which a leather sack, answering the purpose of bellows, is attached. They make no heavy objects, for, beyond spear-heads, hashiash (an agricultural implement) [hoes, but also the small iron currency of Sinnar], double-edged and arrow-pointed knives of various sizes, they cannot produce any other article. Their work is not well rewarded; for the minerals, such as the iron or charcoal cost them scarcely anything, and thus they can only bring their manual labor into calculation. Their tools are not particularly complicated, and consist merely of a few hammers and a pair of pincers. [7]

    The most extensive account of iron production among the Jawama`a was that of the Austrian mineralogist Joseph, Ritter von Russegger, who came to the Sudan as an expert in the service of the Egyptian viceroy Mehmet Ali and visited Kordofan in 1837. [8]

    The ancient Sudan is internationally famous among students of early Africa for its ironworking in Meroitic times.[9] Yet ironworking is not an aspect of historical tradition that modern Sudanese culture has chosen to remember and cherish. In part, this may be attributed to the absence of any conspicuous inventory of existing artifacts to be appreciated. This may partially be due to the ease with which metal could be repeatedly reworked as older iron objects became expendable and were reforged into new ones. Moreover, within the Nubian tradition of Kordofan, there existed a cultural rule that further inhibited casual neglect or discard of what might otherwise have become precious archaeological artifacts:

    A superstition prevails now that if the iron implements are allowed to lie on the land they will attract the strong north wind and the corn will be overwhelmed by the sand: in consequence they have diligently been collected and with due formalities stowed away by 'fekis' [Sudanese Arabic fuqara', Islamic holy men] in deep fissures of the rocks [at Jabal Haraza]: it was here that I unearthed a lot of them, covered by stones. [10]

    As the subsequent experience of rural folk resident northwest of Bara dramatically demonstrated, the threat of inundation by wind-borne sand was real enough.[11] When MacMichael searched the remains of the very ironworks visited by Russegger seventy-five years before, he found only a few overlooked fragments.[12] The meagre tangible remains of precolonial ironworking, to be sure, are hardly sufficient to generate much romantic cultural nostalgia. Yet it seems probable that the venerable tradition of Sudanese ironworking was not merely forgotten, but actively rejected. At least three important historical themes have contributed to the demise of indigenous Sudanese ironworking; two are familiar and predictable, but the third is new and potentially controversial.


    Sudanese ironworking, like many forms of African industrial and craft production, may in part have succumbed to competition from imported goods.[13] The late precolonial visitor John Lewis Burckhardt observed that sword blades were a conspicuous northern import in his generation; one of these may well be the weapon attributed to the late eighteenth-century Hamaj strongman Muhammad Abu Likaylik and now displayed in the National Museum in Khartoum.[14] While detailed analysis of iron imports during the Turkish period of Sudanese history is not at hand, even superficial impressionistic evidence may perhaps suffice to indicate that the trends of this age harmed, not relieved, Sudanese ironworking.


    Sudanese ironworking in Kordofan may also have suffered through a long process of progressive desertification that gradually removed the trees upon which the industry depended for fuel in the form of charcoal. Both changes in the climate and overexploitation by humans may have contributed. Unfortunately, this hypothesis would seem difficult to confirm. While the study of past environments in the Sudan has contributed significantly to scholarly understanding of very early times, few attempts have been made to bring forward comparable analyses into historic days.[15] Studies based upon twentieth-century data might perhaps be projected backward to imply the presence of progressive desertification.[16] The result of such reasoning however remains speculative.


    Historians have often postulated a relationship between innovations in metallurgy and political, social and cultural development out of a remote prehistoric "stone age" into better-documented recent ages of bronze and iron. In regard to Africa specifically it could thus be said that "quite apart from the increase in productivity which the use of metals offers (and hence the possibility of maintaining a more complex administrative system), it is possible to supervise the technology itself, the weapons and the trade in weapons; some effective central control of force becomes feasible for the first time."[17] This interpretive insight, however, has not yet been properly applied to the post-Meroitic Sudan. For the medieval period the impediment has been a tradition of scholarship grounded in Egyptology that found it difficult to expand its vision far beyond the banks of the Nile; to the best of the author's knowledge, for example, no extant treatment of medieval Nubia includes a discussion of the ironworks of Jabal Haraza.[18] For the early modern age the problem has been the intellectual hegemony of an Orientalist reading of history that overemphasized ‘tribes’ and denied any significant role to central authority.[19]


    Approach to a discussion of ethnicity and history in the North Sudan context requires some historiographical decisions. • Twentieth-century Arabic-speaking communities of the northern Sudan, along with some of their Muslim neighbors who preserved a pre-Arabic rotana, often preferred to identify themselves as descendants of medieval immigrants from Arabia. In a biologically literal sense this is probably true, for if even one such immigrant existed (and few would doubt that) then by the laws of historical demography virtually every living Sudanese is his descendant; whether or not any of the numerous surviving Arabic genealogical records accurately preserve memory of such a relationship is considerably less probable.[20]

    There remains the question of whether the realities addressed by this genealogical endeavor possess historically explanatory power. The best answer is negative; although the genealogically-based approach to North Sudan history was defended and exploited thoroughly by earlier generations of Orientalist scholarship, in recent times it has been challenged and found seriously wanting.[21]

    The history of Kordofan is particularly ill-served by this dominant historiographical tradition, for in comparison to the communities of the Nile valley those of Kordofan can offer only truncated genealogical records that even with every license of the imagination claim to address no age earlier than the period of Dar Fur rule during the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century.[22]

    From the disciplinary perspective of history, as opposed to Orientalism, the ethnicities of North Sudan were shaped politically within the constraints of nature, technology and the prevailing system of political economy, notably mediated through the operation of institutions of land tenure.[23] The sequence of major political regimes in Kordofan therefore requires specification.

    In medieval times, though evidence is not as generous as would be desired, the communities of North Kordofan were apparently subject to the king of Makuria, most commonly visualized as resident in his riverine capital of Old Dongola.[24]

    During the subsequent era of the Funj kingdom (c.1500 - c.1800) the North Kordofan Nubian communities were subject in the first instance to the governor of the large northern province, whose capital lay at Qarri near the Nile confluence, while central Kordofan, along with western portions of the Nuba Mountains, formed a separate province of Kordofal with its capital at Bara.[25]

    The period of Dar Fur hegemony in Kordofan (c. 1770-1820) and the age of Ottoman dominance to follow, brought about extensive ethnic reorganization.[26] The realities of this epoch may therefore not be projected uncritically backward into earlier times.

    The twentieth-century North Sudan communities self-defined through Arab genealogy appear most commonly from an historian's perspective as the descendants of either a precolonial ruling house or a group of precolonial subjects.

    To choose examples from the Nile valley, the `Abdallab were the ruling house of the large northern province, and the Rubatab a community of their subjects.

    It is important to avoid primordialism, for the fortunes of groups might well rise or decline with the vicissitudes of history. During the later eighteenth century the leaders of the Jamu`iyya rose from subject to elite status, only to fall back again within decades; the elite immigrant followers of Hashim of the Musabba`at were reduced to subject cultivators, and the conquering Turks threatened the Shaiqiyya nobility who resisted them with a similar fate.

    To return to Kordofan, the Sinnar provincial ruling house of Kordofal became a colonial Arab tribe called the Ghudiyat, while their subjects in the eastern ironworking environs of Bara became the Jawama`a.[27]


    The Tunjur of the twentieth century were a small, Arabic-speaking community of Dar Fur who considered themselves to be descendants of the followers of Abu Zayd al-Hilali who had immigrated to the medieval Sudan from the northwest via the Maghrib.[28]

    Historically, the Tunjur have been seen as a ruling dynasty of Dar Fur, who supplanted an earlier Daju ruling house and annexed also the Chadian lands that would eventually become the kingdom of Wadai. Chronological estimates suggest that the Tunjur dynasty in Dar Fur came to an end near the beginning of the seventeenth century, with the rise of a new Fur-speaking dynasty, the Keira, and the birth of modern Dar Fur. One may therefore place the Tunjur in the sixteenth century and perhaps before.

    Alternative traditions have long suggested an eastern, Nubian origin for the Tunjur; however, late medieval Dongola was hardly more plausible than Tunis as a potential source for a conquering dynasty of Dar Fur and Wadai.

    But the rediscovery of the extensive Nubian-speaking community of precolonial North Kordofan invites a reconsideration of the alternative traditions, which specifically link the Tunjur dynasty not only to North Kordofan Nubian archaeological sites but also to ironworking:

    Some Zagháwa from Dárfûr say the Tungur were once great workers in iron, and it may be that some of the old iron-workings, whose sites are still to be seen in Northern Kordofan, are traceable to the Tungur.[29]

    This study would suggest that the same Tunjur kings who were reputed to have mobilized their subjects to level the tops of mountains in order to construct elaborate stone capitals such as `Ain Farah in northern Dar Fur would also be plausible candidates for the organization of ironworking at Jabal Haraza (and perhaps elsewhere.)

    The sixteenth century witnessed not only an age of Tunjur hegemony over Dar Fur and Wadai, but also the rise of the new Nile valley kingdom of the Funj. The present author has argued that the Funj were southern Nubians from the White Nile region.[30] This putative homeland may now wish to be extended westward into Nubian Kordofan.

    The interpretation proposed here would ask for three revisions in the received tradition of historiography.
    1. The most significant theme that marked the transitional age in North Sudan history from 1300 to 1500 was not an invasion of Arabs from Egypt, nor the decline of the medieval riverine kingdoms, but the rise of new Kordofan-based dynasties, the Tunjur in the west and the Funj in the east.
    2. Upon reexamination, precolonial Kordofan does not appear to be peripheral to anything, but rather a womb of Nubian rulers.[31]
    3. Since the ironworks excavated at Meroe seem in fact to be post-Meroitic in date, it may be possible to correlate the rise of Nubian-speakers to medieval prominence with an early efflorescence of the Kordofan iron industry.[32]
    The community that was to become the Jawama`a should be visualized as a participant in the ironworking organization of the kings who ruled Kordofan before the eighteenth-century incursions from the west of Fur-speaking Musabba`at and Keira.


    Before the Dar Fur incursions of the late eighteenth century the ironworking zone introduced above formed a part of the Funj province of Kordofal, whose ruling house, the Ghudiat, was based at Bara.[33]

    No primary sources concerning ironworking in that place and age are known to the present writer.

    However, some tentative inferences may be drawn through comparison with other parts of the Funj kingdom.[34]

    The subjects were normally taxed in kind, and the subjects of southern districts were often taxed in the form of non-agricultural items that diverted attention from life-giving crops and livestock.

    It is known that subjects in gold-producing districts were forced through taxation policy to pan for gold; it would seem likely that the subjects in the iron-mining zone may have been similarly constrained to produce ore, and perhaps charcoal also.

    Southern subjects were ruled through a system of "institutionalized insecurity" in which the threat of enslavement was the basic tool in the discipline of labor. Under these circumstances it is easy to imagine the gradual concentration of enslaved individuals in locations where less desirable activities such as mining were conducted.

    The special role probably played by a blacksmith caste has been postulated, but in the absence of evidence this theme may not be presently pursued.

    With the Dar Fur conquest the state role in iron production in Kordofan diminished, and without state organization and coercion, the industry gradually disappeared. By the twentieth century, it was only a rapidly-fading memory.


    1. Jay Spaulding, "Pastoralism, Slavery, Commerce, Culture and the Fate of the Nubians of Northern and Central Kordofan under Dar Fur Rule, c. 1750 - c. 1850," International Journal of African Historical Studies 39, 3 (2006), 393-412.
    2. H.A. MacMichael, The Tribes of Northern and Central Kordofan, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), p. 60, note 1.
    3. National Records Office, Khartoum. Miscellaneous 1/15/182. Hadha kitab al-dar al-farid fi al-akhbar al-mufida al-muhtawi `ala mulakhkhas ta'rikh al-umma al-Nubiyya wa-jughrafiyat biladiha [wa-]asbab dukhul al-atrak min al-sultan Salim al-awwil wa-min Muhammad `Ali basha, wa-`ala Allah ahsan al-khitam. Amin. 4 Ramadan 1330/17 August 1912.
    4. MacMichael, Tribes, p. 243.
    5. Guillaume Lejean, Voyage aux deux Nils (Paris: Hachette, 1865), p. 41.
    6. Ernst Marno, Reise in der Egyptischen Aequatorial-Provinz und in Kordofan in den Jahren 1874-1876 (Wien: Hölder, 1879), p. 235.
    7. Ignatius Pallme, Travels in Kordofan (London: Madden, 1844), pp. 254-255.
    8. Joseph von Russegger, Reisen in Europa, Asien und Afrika. (Stuttgart: Schweitzerbart, 1841-1848. The excerpt translated is from Volume 2, Part 2, Section 4, pp. 286-295.
    9. For example, see Peter Shinnie, Meroe: A Civilization of the Sudan (London: Thames & Hudson, 1967), William Y. Adams, Nubia: Corridor to Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), Derek Welsby, The Kingdom of Kush: the Napatan and Meroitic Empires (London: British Museum Press, 1996).
    10. MacMichael, Tribes, p. 91 note 2. The author has not yet been able to trace the subsequent fate of the artifacts recovered at Jabal Haraza by MacMichael.
    11. Leif O. Manger, The Sand Swallows our Land. (Bergen: Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, 1981).
    12. MacMichael, Tribes, Appendix V "Objects found at Faragáb in middens," pp. 242-244. "Few iron objects were to be seen, but there was a plain rough iron ring, an inch in diameter, and two iron pins with dangling rings as shown in the accompanying illustration. These may have been used as hairpins or for applying 'kohl' [antimony] to the eyelids. There was little iron otherwise, save a few indeterminate scraps that had evidently been parts of the blades of spears or hoes. Iron is procurable in the immediate vicinity and used to be worked so late as the middle of the nineteenth century." (p. 243)
    13. The importance of this historical process to the continent as a whole was emphasized in Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (London: Bogle-L'Overture Publications, 1972). The process was by no means unique to Africa; for northern North America see Harold Adam Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
    14. John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Nubia (London: J. Murray, 1819), pp. 303-304. For the sword of Abu Likaylik see Derek Welsby and Julie R. Anderson, eds., Sudan: Ancient Treasures (London: British Museum Press, 2004), PLATE 217 p. 245.
    15. For example, see David N. Edwards, "The Archaeology of Sudan," in Peter Gwynvay Hopkins, ed., The Kenana Handbook of Sudan (London: Kegan Paul, 2007), pp. 41-64.
    16. Two serious attempts to address the recent history of climate in the western Sudan may be found in Dennis Tully, Culture and Context in Sudan (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1989) and Alexander De Waal, Famine that Kills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). David Sterling Decker contributed a useful analysis of nineteenth-century conditions based upon the considerably more limited primary sources of that period in his 1990 Michigan State University PhD thesis, "Politics and Profits: The Development of Merchant Capitalism and its Impact on the Political Economy of Kordofan." All the authors cited believe in the progressive desertification of the region, though with somewhat different emphases, degrees of certainty, and sense of time-depth involved.
    17. Jack Goody, Technology, Tradition and the State in Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 46.
    18. Brief hints may be found in Jay Spaulding, "A Premise for Precolonial Nuba History," History in Africa XIV (1987), 369-374 and "Early Kordofan," in Michael Kevane and Endre Stiansen, eds., Kordofan Invaded: Peripheral Incorporation and Social Transformation in Islamic Africa (Leiden: Brill, 1998), pp. 46-59.
    19. An extended critique may be found in Lidwien Kapteijns and Jay Spaulding "The Orientalist Paradigm in the Historiography of the Late Precolonial Sudan," in Jay O'Brien and William Roseberry, eds., Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in Anthropology and History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 139-151.
    20. For an extended discussion see Jay Spaulding, "The Chronology of Sudanese Arabic Genealogical Tradition," History in Africa, 27 (2000), 325-337.
    21. Kapteijns and Spaulding, "Orientalist Paradigm."
    22. For a discussion of the historical context see Spaulding, "Pastoralism, Slavery, Commerce, Culture."
    23. Lidwien Kapteijns and Jay Spaulding, "The Conceptualization of Land Tenure in the Precolonial Sudan: Evidence and Interpretation," in Donald Crummey, ed., Land, Literacy and the State in Sudanic Africa (Asmara: Red Sea Press, 2005), pp. 21-41.
    24. Spaulding, "Early Kordofan."
    25. Spaulding, "Premise."
    26. Spaulding, "Pastoralism, Slavery, Commerce, Culture."
    27. MacMichael, Tribes, p. 77; A History of the Arabs in the Sudan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), I, 224.
    28. MacMichael, Tribes, pp 52-60. "The Tungur no doubt were at one time a great tribe," he wrote, "though little is known of their history or whence they came."(p. 52)
    29. Ibid., p. 60, note 1.
    30. Jay Spaulding, "The Funj: A Reconsideration," Journal of African History XIII, 1 (1972), 39-54.
    31. Contrast the central theme of Kevane and Stiansen, Kordofan Invaded, which is sound analysis of colonial and post-colonial situations but is not a good guide to precolonial realities.
    32. Shinnie, "Meroitic iron working," p. 24. Shinnie believed that ironworking had been practiced on a small scale in the northern Sudan as early as the fifth or fourth centuries BCE (p. 21); however, the large works for which Meroe has enjoyed perhaps unjustified historiographical prominence seem to date from the sixth century CE, and are therefore more likely early Nubian than (extremely) late Meroitic.
    33. For the Funj rulers of Kordofal see Jay Spaulding and Muhammad Abu Salim, Public Documents from Sinnar (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1989), p. 385.
    34. For a discussion see Spaulding, Heroic Age, pp. 49-62.

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