For many centuries, glass beads played an important role in many sub-Saharan African societies. Numerous archaeological and analytical studies have identified several major geographical sources for the glass for these beads. These are primarily Islamic Egypt, from where the beads were traded either along the Nile Valley or through the trans-Saharan trade routes, and India, from where huge numbers of beads reached eastern Africa as part of the Indian Ocean trade network. In more recent centuries, European-made glass beads reached particularly west Africa.


In a ground-breaking study, Dr Abidemi Babalola, currently at the University of Cambridge, and Thilo Rehren have been able to identify unequivocal evidence for the making of glass from basic raw materials in south-central Nigeria, nearly a millennium ago. This local glass working tradition had been long known from numerous glass-covered crucible fragments excavated in and around Ile-Ife, but has been recognized as an indigenous technology only in 2006, documented in two papers in the Journal of African Archaeology by James Lankton, Akin Ige and Thilo Rehren (Early primary glass production in southern Nigeria, JAA 4, 111-138), and by Ian Freestone (An indigenous technology?, JAA 4, 139-141), respectively.

The recent research is based on the analysis of glass beads from Ile-Ife in SW Nigeria as well as the crucibles used to melt the glass. A forthcoming paper details the formation of a glass melt from the mineral raw materials, as preserved in some semi-finished glass attached to crucible fragments.