The Tree of Iron

The Tree of Iron

TheTree of Iron

The tree of iron is a video documentary that was produced by PeterO’Neil, Frank Muhly, Loeb and Peter Schmidt among other people. Thedocumentary is an anthropological film that shows the influentialexertion of ancient civilizations in Africa. The films main subjectis the smelting of iron in ancient civilizations and the efforts topresent considerable proof on indigenous technologies that highlyintricate than it was earlier depicted. Set in Tanzania The film,‘Tree of Iron’, is shot in this East African country which islocated on the Western shores of Lake Victoria where for severalcenturies the Haya community are alleged to have lived occupied1.

The film engages a showcase of the immense contribution by PeterSchmidt, who as an archeologist and historian carried out two decadesof study in the region. During this study that Schmidt conducts, hereveals ancient industrial sites presumed to be hotbeds of ironsmelting by the Haya people that are an excess of 2000 years2.The film shows as Schmidt provides extensive oral traditions thatdepict how iron was influential in politics, agriculture and inmythology. The term ‘tree’ in the documentary is used to refer toan ancient antic tree that was used by the Haya people for theproduction of iron. This old antic tree is reputed to be the earliestindication of ‘sophisticated’ iron production technology.

Schmidt illustrates throughout the film, how ancient Africans workedout iron smelting and how furnaces for this activity were made3.Schmidt demonstrates that the use of high temperatures was essentialin the obtaining of high carbon steel. The film also highlights therelation of the iron industry among the Haya people, in connection totheir social life and customs. Other contemporaries of the Haya suchas rites and ceremonies are also displayed with great cinematographicaspects. Schmidt uses an experimental and comparative approach thattakes the viewer through all phases of ‘technical’ processesinvolved in the iron smelting. The documentary demonstrates theability of ancient people’s production of high carbon steel. OldHaya smelters are consistently shown as the primary actors in theiron smelting process.

The documentary is an in-depth integration of metallurgy, archaeologyand ethnography in a distinctive interdisciplinary slant that showcases how historical ideas of iron technology enhance theunderstanding of ancient African technological achievements. Whenwatched analytically, the documentary gives the impression that itwas destined for a much bigger audience. The ‘Tree of Iron’ isone among the few films that have documented great archaeologicalachievements in Africa4.The film showcases the ethno-archaeological studies together withdistinct experiments conducted in the heart of Africa as part oftrying to comprehend historic technologies. The amalgamation ofethnography, archaeology and metallurgy helps to give an in-depthinterpretation on the nature of iron smelting in ancient societies5.

In conclusion, as a documentary that focuses on history, the ‘Treeof iron’ aids in exploring and understanding the intricate anddiverse elements of pre-colonial traditional African society. Thefilm ‘Tree of Iron’ indicates that African societies had refinedcultures, political and trade systems and agricultural skills. Thedepictions in this film are contradictory to what is known aboutAfrica as being a dark and backward continent with primitivesocieties6.

The Haya community is of great contribution in showcasing thatAfrican societies had highly intricate iron smelting skills, whichwere more sophisticated than those used during the industrialrevolution. In as much as the film showcases some positive reviewsabout Africa, it also illustrates how the ancient industrycontributed to adverse and severe degradation through the widelyspread of excavations and deforestation.


Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2010. (Ethnographic videoonline). Available via

1 Alexandria, VA : Alexander Street Press, 2010. (Ethnographic video online). Available via

2 Ibid

3 Ibid

4 Ibid

5 Ibid

6 Ibid