As far back in history as 100 A.D., the Haya people of Tanzania began making steel. Elders were usually in charge of making the metal and used mud and grass to produce carbon. The carbon was then used with iron over an open hearth furnace to produce steel. The quality of the steel made was said to rival that made in Europe several centuries later. Hence, the Haya were able to formulate newer forms of pottery.

Elders were usually in charge of making the metal and used mud and grass to produce carbon.

The key to the Haya iron process was a high operating temperature. Eight men, seated around the base of the kiln, pumped air in with hand bellows. The air flowed through the fire in clay conduits. Then the heated air blasted into the charcoal fire itself. The result was a far hotter process than anything known in Europe before modern times.

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The result was a far hotter process than anything known in Europe before modern times.

Anthropologist Peter Schmidt wanted to see a working kiln, but he had a problem.  Cheap European steel products reached Africa early in this century and put the Hayas out of business. When they could no longer compete, they’d quit making steel.

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African swords; Copenhagen museum.

Schmidt asked the old men of the tribe to recreate the high tech of their childhood. They agreed, but it took five tries to put all the details of the complex old process back together. What came out of the fifth try was a fine, tough steel. It was the same steel that’d served the sub saharan peoples for two millennia before it was almost forgotten.

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Africa iron smelter. Haya smelter outline

This ancient African steel was the fruit of unalloyed human ingenuity. This complex metal, flowing from simple native elements, forms a mute tribute to the power of the human mind over matter.

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Written by James Gathitu

I am a writer, performer, creative entrepreneur, and adventurer! My journey has been crazy and has led me at this very moment to you.

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