Glass manufacturing began in Africa long before arrival of Europeans

Stephen Nartey October 09, 2022
Early glass production in Nigeria/Photo credit: Phys.org

It is uncertain the function or role glass beads played in the lives of Africans in the 15th century, but, archaeological evidence confirms that glass was being manufactured in West Africa’s most populous nation of Nigeria before the arrival of the Europeans.

The research team excavated more than 12,000 glass beads and particles of glass work at Igbo Olokun, the outskirts of Ile-Ife in southwestern Nigeria. 

It is believed that early African artisans were involved in glass manufacturing by crushing and remolding it for the market, according to Science Daily. Archaeologist Dr. Abidemi Babatunde Babalola, who led a research team from Harvard University, said the findings put to rest the misconception about civilization in Africa.

He explained that the glass beads dug from the site suggested that the artisans worked from a workshop many years ago.

Though these findings were challenged following analysis of the chemical composition of the glass beads and their linkage to Ile-Ife, further evidence showed that extensive trade in glass products existed among African nations.

Dr. Babalola said despite arguments his work failed to prove glass production in Ile-Ife, it has been accepted that Africans were engaged in such early invention before the transatlantic slave trade.

The parallel analysis of the 52 glass beads Dr. Babalola’s team dug did not show a correlation with glass production in the Middle East, Asia and Egypt, but, there was strong evidence that the artisans used local materials and produced the glasses in Africa.

Dr. Babalola said the high-lime, high-alumina in the chemical composition suggests how widespread the trade in glass products cuts across the African region. He expressed the hope that subsequent studies will be able to explain the technology that goes into glass production in West Africa and how it’s connected to other regions in the sub-Saharan.

He added that he would be interested in understanding how the glass industry in the 15th century impacted the socio-political and economic progress of the region. These findings are significant because, after the arrival of Europeans, there was a strong impression created that Africans were backward and had no direct impact on technology, according to IFL Science.

Historians indicated that this evidence of glass production goes a long way to strengthening the cultural and technological identity that existed in African society. Dr. Babalola said there have been many attempts to water down the finding that African society was technologically inclined before the arrival of Europeans.

He said other researchers argued that the glass particles excavated were imported from other parts of the world. But, further analysis which was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science showed that the glass was manufactured from its basics and raw materials in Nigeria.

For many centuries, glass beads have been an important part of Nigerian culture and they are worn to almost every social gathering, from coronations of chiefs to funerals.

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