Journal of African Historical Studies, 18:557-559


By Eugenia W. Herbert

Madison, Wis.: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984. Pp. xxiii, 413.

©1985 by Charles M. Nelson

Red Gold of Africa, based on more than a decade of research by Eugenia Herbert, is a comprehensive review and analysis of the history, archaeology, and ethnology of copper in sub-Saharan Africa. The first section deals with the mining, smelting, alloying, smithing and casting of copper, and introduces the ritual, social, and political aspects of copperworking and consumption. The second deals with the copper trade from the earliest archaeological evidence to the end of the nineteenth century. The third, concluding section examines the roles which copper plays in traditional societies of sub-Saharan Africa, in the domains of economic exchange, art, the politics of power, and cultural symbolism.

The analytical theme which unites this diverse material is the proposition that copper, rather than gold, is the precious metal of preference in sub-Saharan Africa, filling the esthetic, social and political roles which gold and silver have played in the development of civilizations in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The use of copper as a currency, its role in art and ritual, its symbolism in myth and religion, the extensive trade of copper into sub-Saharan Africa for gold, ivory, and slaves, and the evidence for an early copper age in the Agadez region of the Sahel, form the basis for this analysis.

Although this idea is not new, Herbert is the first to test it extensively in such diverse contexts as art history, the history of trade, the archaeology of metallurgy, linguistics, and ethnology. Her presentation is balanced, delineating deficiencies in the data and considering, at length, cases which might disprove or radically modify her hypothesis. For example, she deals in some detail with the cases of Zimbabwe and the Akan, where gold came to play important roles in the economic and ritual underpinnings of regional kingdoms. In these and similar situations, she argues that gold was in the process of replacing copper in selected cultural domains due to its importance in large-scale, external trade, and as a concomitant of the evolution of powerful social elites. These are reasonable explanations, but, as Herbert admits, they are difficult to test conclusively in the absence of a fine-grained data base.

Red Gold of Africa makes three major contributions to the literature on African studies. First, as a review of copper in African history and culture, it has the dimensions of a classical study which will provide a foundation for the work of others for many years to come. Herbert's presentation is thorough and detailed, but never trivial. The accompanying sixty-five illustrations are of high quality and well integrated with the text. Finally, the text is meticulously documented and indexed.

Second, by presenting the data from archaeology, ethnology, linguistics, economic history, and art history in close juxtaposition, Herbert provides us with a basis for evaluating the quality and completeness of the data themselves. This is of particular importance because it helps to define areas in which critical research must be conducted simply to characterize accurately the history of copper utilization in Africa. Such areas include the archaeology of copper mining and smelting, the historical linguistics of copper-associated vocabulary, the sociofunctional and ideofunctional ethnology of copper utilization among modern African societies, and the quantitative analysis of nineteenth-century copper trade from historic documents.

Third, Herbert's analysis raises, sometimes explicitly and other times implicitly, research issues of broader significance. Chief among these is the nature of interaction among the symbolic, social, and economic domains of culture. The comparative behavior of copper, iron and gold in the process of this interaction could provide an extremely useful tool for defining and understanding the role of symbolic systems in cultural integration, change and adaptation. Numerous factors converge in the African context to make such a research avenue particularly attractive. The cultural systems involved are numerous and diverse, so that many variations on individual symbolic themes can be compared. The history of the uses of these metals is long. They are deeply imbedded in a complex linguistic matrix. They are embodied in major artistic traditions. They are of great social and economic importance in many, but not all, African cultures. Finally, the material, economic, social, artistic and ideological roles of these metals in traditional African societies lend themselves to a wide variety of analytical approaches, ranging from those of symbolic anthropology and ethnoscience to historical processualism and Marxist materialism.

Another interesting question suggested by Herbert's analysis is the extent to which the African material can be used as an analog model for generating useful hypotheses about the role of copper in archaeological settings elsewhere in the Old World, such as bronze age Europe or China.

In conclusion, Africanists of all types should find Red Gold o~Africa an informative review and a stimulating analysis of copper in the precolonial history and culture of Africa.