Gordon C. Thomasson, Ph.D. (2)
© 1981, revised 1987, 1991, 2002 (3)

They shall beat their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-knives; nation shall not lift sword against nation nor ever again be trained for war. (Isaiah 2:4)



Ethnographic description of the manufacture of a Kpelle cutlass (traditional farming implement) is presented. The blacksmith who does the forging is a highly skilled indigenous knowledge specialist. He, however, would be “handicapped” and unable to work in a western or European work environment but is perfectly functional in the traditional village workshop. The degree to which village culture provided occupations such as blacksmithing, leather-working, and weaving that could be pursued by such persons is held up as a model for consideration in planning for the post-war rehabilitation of permanently injured victims of the conflicts in Liberia.



As an action anthropologist, one of the research purposes I had in going to Liberia in 1980 was to study indigenous knowledge systems or indigenous technical knowledge (ITK). (4) I work from the perspective that empirical sciences such as metallurgy, agronomy, and medicine, among other fields of both technical and intellectual endeavor, evolved among supposedly “primitive” peoples as rational and at times optimal adaptations (in terms of sustainability) to the ecological niche they inhabit. A central aspect of the definition of “culture” that I employ is that it is precisely the way that, for better or worse, a people succeed or fail to adapt to an environment.

In researching metallurgy among the Kpelle, however, I found that the pattern of adaptation is more than just discovering in the local environment appropriate ores, types of wood for charcoal, and other resources for the construction of smelting furnaces, and combining those with the ability to alloy different elements for specific metallurgical ends such as producing a high strength and rust resistant steel (Thomasson, 1995). As my own theoretical orientation should have prepared me to anticipate, adaptation goes far beyond single technologies to include complex dimensions of overall social systems and how they accommodate human participation. The place of the blacksmith Flumo within his village highlights just how finely-tuned, not just indigenous knowledge systems, but traditional occupation patterns can be.

After several months of delay in the elaborate “courting ritual” which was my attempt to begin work with a local blacksmith, one of my informants walked with me to a nearby village where he had arranged for a blacksmith to make me a “cutlass,” the traditional machete used by the Kpelle peoples for farming. The Kpelle “cutlass” ( gbea) is as indigenous as the Kpelle iron industry itself (Thomasson, 1995), and should be carefully distinguished from imported machetes both by form and often function, to say nothing of quality. This visit was simply to confirm the day when the work would be done and to be sure that there were no objections to my photographing the process. I had not been prepared for my first meeting with the blacksmith, “Flumo.” In fact, and probably more important, it clearly had never occurred to my informant that there was anything unusual about Flumo to prepare me for.


An Introduction

While I stood at the path’s entrance to the village (the traditional location for a Kpelle blacksmith’s shop), my informant walked to the, as usual, crowded blacksmith’s “kitchen.” The Kpelle blacksmith’s forge is a wall-less structure with a peaked roof similar to the “country kitchen” found on a rice farm, and the word used to describe the farm-site rice-barn (literally, “rice kitchen”) and the blacksmith’s shop (literally, “bellows kitchen”) is the same: kere. (5) Another important kind of “kitchen” is the chief’s palava kere (though this latter place usually lacks a proper “hearth”) where disputes are heard. (6) Even today these kitchens are the foci of much of Kpelle life: agriculture, technology, and authority are interwoven concepts as well as places within the essentially and intentionally multi-valent (esoteric and exoteric) world of the Kpelle.

My informant spoke to Flumo, who is one of several journeymen* , (7) who shared this forge with a master* and several youths in the first stages of apprenticeship* . Flumo arose and ambled over to me with the peculiar rocking bowlegged gait of one who, from all appearances, suffered severely from rickets as a child. Drawing straight lines down from hips to feet as a hypotenuse, his legs formed wobbly outward facing isosceles right triangles, and at their thickest point visible below his short trousers, his thighs were barely larger in diameter than his forearms close to his wrists. I was not displeased at the sight, and did not stare, but I was surprised.

In the capital of Monrovia and in the county seat of Gbarnga, I was used to seeing individuals with this condition, but had come to expect finding them in the role of a “beggar.” But here in his village, as I was to discover, Flumo was not seen or related to as if he were “disabled” or “handicapped” as he would be in the urban areas or, for that matter, in developed countries. We shook hands and snapped each others’ fingers in a Liberian way, exchanged a few words of conversation and confirmed our arrangements. Later I left, to return on the appointed day.


The Manufacturing Process

On the day indicated (September 20, 1981) I returned to the village. My informant’s wife had prepared a meal for the smiths with fish and rice I had supplied. The master and two journeymen had been working on several other cutlasses, as well as repairing several damaged pieces before I arrived. The forge was already hot, but the old rice bag full of charcoal which I had supplied was as yet unopened. It was midday, and so my informant brought the pot of rice with “soup” (any “stew” served over rice) his wife had prepared to the forge where he served it to the smith who was at that moment seated at the main anvil (a large 45 cm.-diameter rock sunk in the pounded earth floor). (8) The food was presented to him deferentially and he received it with appropriate thanks. He uncovered the large basin of rice, poured the soup over it, mixed it slightly and then took a few grains of rice, placing some on the anvil and several more at his feet where his tools lay. He then proceeded to eat a few bites, after which he portioned out from the basin to the other workers, though not to the many kibitzers seated around the edge of the shop. (9) My informant, knowing that I abstain from alcoholic beverages, had taken it upon himself to procure a quantity of palm wine. This was passed to the smith at the forge who poured libations and then took a short drink. He then passed the wine to the others to whom he had given food, and then to several elders who had arrived and joined the spectators.

After the meal was over, my informant gave me the piece of iron he had obtained that was to be made into a cutlass.  It was kwii iron (of Western or non-Kpelle origin), about 1.25 x 4 x 23 cm., slightly rusted, with a small oblong hole near the center of the long flat surface. It was not, from what I could see, part of a truck spring (a common source of metal here), but I was unable to determine what it had been, nor did my informant know. It would subsequently be heated, drawn, beaten, bent, and trimmed to a length of over 45 cm., with a maximum thickness of 7mm., through the long afternoon of forging that lay ahead.

Having signified my approval and returned the iron blank to him, my informant handed it to Flumo who had been busy roughing out what would become the wooden handle with a small adz. Flumo took the metal, moved over to the furnace, had a boy open the rice bag of charcoal and pour a quantity into the space that functioned as a furnace between the clay-covered bellows orifice and the built-up clay mound opposite it and about 20 cm. away. The two stones from all indications effectively reflected and contained much of the heat and minimized the use of charcoal. A young man took up his position sitting astraddle the Y-shaped (and explicitly phallic) double-bellows and began to work them. (10) In the past, only animal skins were used; in this case one bellow had been fitted with part of a rubber inner tube. Air was pumped by allowing each skin to open on the upstroke and holding it tightly closed on the downstroke. In a manner reminiscent of music at a farmingkuu (cooperative farming group), each man who pumped the two bellows (each with its own sound) seemed to have his own rhythm for working them, and the rapid popping of the bellows blended with the ringing hammers to create a music peculiar to the blacksmith’s shop.

As the new charge of charcoal ignited, Flumo placed the slab of metal into the center of the pile and used a small stick to quickly cover it with coals. Throughout the rest of the afternoon he, the other journeyman, and the old master would trade places at the anvil rock and at the other two “anvils” (to be described below) as each one’s work progressed.

Once an inspection revealed that the slab had been heated to an orange-red color, Flumo moved to the seat facing the main anvil rock (the seat being another rock). He picked up a pair of blacksmith’s tongs (in this case made from corrugated construction rod) and the other journeyman took up a heavy Western sledge-hammer. Then Flumo removed the slab from the coals and held it in place on the rock while the other man began to pound and flatten the slab out. At another point, Flumo would be hammering while the other journeyman held the piece he was working on. Their roles appeared completely interchangeable, as far as the manufacturing process is concerned. Work on my piece progressed slowly at first. It was a gradual process of pounding, reheating, and hammering again, thereby thinning, lengthening, and widening the slab until it reached approximately its full length, tapering slightly toward both ends. At this point a short but wide hand-made chisel (tapering from a beaten-down butt end, 1.5 cm. thick to an edge, and about 5 x 5 cm. height and width) was grasped with another pair of tongs, while another person positioned the reheated slab. The other smith used the big hammer to cut pieces from opposite sides of one end of the iron, giving it a pointed shape which was subsequently drawn more to form the tang that would eventually be mated to the handle.

All the time that one piece was being heated, another blacksmith would be using the anvil and the third would be seated on a log on the opposite side of the anvil from the forge, either making a handle with an adz or doing work that did not require heating of the piece involved. Several pieces might be in the coals at once, and the third man would often occupy himself fitting another handle. The tangs of the cutlasses being made were cut and beaten to match the tang of a broken cutlass blade that served as a template. It also was being heated and used to burn sockets its same size and shape into the still only rough-finished wood handles. Eventually the finished blades’ tangs would be heated and then forced into the already contoured sockets red-hot as the handle’s butt was tapped on a rock, thus burning and more or less permanently seating the blade in the handle, while normalizing the tang. Handles, of course, generally do not last as long as blades.

Once the tang was taking shape, the opposite end of the blank was drawn out even further and then heated very hot, after which it was bent into the “j” shape characteristic of Kpelle cutlasses. (11)Now the blade had assumed its final general proportions. What followed was a long process of removing any twist from the blade, thinning down both the blade’s cutting and trailing edge to a smooth edge through careful beatings with several smaller hammers, including a small traditional hammer with a handle made from a forked branch, on a succession of traditional anvils, and generally finishing the blade.

For the more fine work, the rather irregular anvil rock was not used. Instead there were two types of dual-purpose traditional moveable “anvil-hammers” that were employed. (12) The first appeared similar to the pointed end of a large truck axle, except that it had a double taper. It was cut to about 26 cm. in length and about 5 cm. in diameter, with a cut and polished flat end opposite the point. The pointed end would be driven into the floor of the shop when or wherever convenient and then the flat end was used as an anvil in conjunction with a small “country hammer” to do fine finishing work as well as repairs on pieces that were brought in. It was also taken out of the ground, and grasping the pointed end, the rounded side was used as a hammer with the other traditional anvil-sledge serving in turn as the anvil.

The latter type of anvil, or sledge, was explicitly pointed out and then with evident pride was handed to me to examine. At first glance it appeared similar in appearance to a slightly squashed and deformed #2 tin can with a bloated lid. When it was first used that day, to work the edge of my blade, a middle-aged and well-dressed elder, who had taken a short turn at the bellows but was not a smith, said to me in English, “You see that, it isn’t rusted. It is Kpelle iron, not kwii iron, and it is very old.” (13) Everyone who understood the remark (and one seemed to translate it to a few others) nodded or murmured appreciatively, and I could only concur in the judgement. Closer examination showed it to be a roughly formed cylinder, more or less flat on both ends, which served very well indeed as an anvil. With a U-shaped double-handle tightly wrapped around it, it also served as a sledge, though the Western sledge is used now. It showed no signs of being polished, except possibly by the slight sliding of the handle and by generations of hammers on its slightly rounded top. Judging by its appearance, it showed no signs of the rust one might expect to see in an artifact of its age.(14) I could not tell if working blades on the “Kpelle iron” anvil had any special significance in the process of manufacturing or not. Since it was 2 or 3 times the diameter of the smaller anvil, its larger surface was clearly useful for certain tasks in any case. (15)

The handle to my cutlass was by this time virtually complete, and after the tang on the blade was heated cherry-red, they were mated together. One item that attracted my attention was that the blade, after its final working, was reheated and then quickly air-cooled or “tempered.” It was not given any “temper” by quenching in water, however. With the blade having been seated in the handle, a double line of “decoration” was burned around the handle with a heated iron rod, and four oblong spots were also scorched lengthwise on the handle, from the burnt circles toward the blade. These, from all I could gather, were not considered functional or of special significance. It was then sharpened on a stone and de-scaled and polished with sand.

After the cutlass was completed, it was given to the old master for inspection. He nodded his approval and returned it to Flumo who said, “Come, your cutlass is ready.” I walked to him, stooping–necessitated by the low roof as well as courtesy–and reached out with both hands cupped together. This gesture signifies a type of dependency on the part of the recipient, and was responded to with verbal comments–which I took to be approving–from the elders present. Flumo put the cutlass in my hands (my informant had previously given him the agreed-upon cash price for the cutlass in a much less public manner) and I thanked him for his good work.

A Symbolic Dimension

The figure of the blacksmith is one of the most evocative and nearly universal, next to that of a mother, that one encounters in the comparative study of cultures. (16) As soon as one moves into a culture where some metallurgy is practiced, whole complexes of symbolic meaning and social position emerge. The art and science of smelting and forging metal, whether working meteoric or mined iron into a kris in Southeast Asia (O’Connor, 1985), or making a cutlass in West Africa, is resplendent with power in technological, social, and magical senses. Metallurgy is thaumaturgy, nothing less! And the position of the blacksmith is, to my knowledge, never without some significance in unsecularized societies. (17) So it is in Kpelle society.

As Flumo walked toward me the first morning I met him, thoughts of the limping Hephaistos, crippled by his father Zeus, apprenticed nine years as a smith and asked by Thetis to forge a shield for her son Achilles (Iliad 1:589ff., 18:396ff.), came unbidden to my mind, along with many other memories. The Kpelle blacksmith is not a “small boy” in his society. The logic in calling his forge a kitchen goes beyond the fact that metals are “cooked” there. He is entrusted with crucial roles in the religious life of the society, apparently including responsibilities in the less public and esoteric world of Poro. Whether or not this is true (and I here, as elsewhere, avoided violation of the secrets and covenants of Poro life to find out), even from the outside the smelter and blacksmith quite clearly represent an essential counterweight to the female in society in terms of power and the ability to create. The two are inseparable figures in this culture and, I suspect, among most agricultural peoples with iron technology.

Kpelle blacksmiths are not just forgers of metal. Within living memory they were smelters of metal as well–men who could coerce the rocks themselves to melt and give up the metal within them. Many of the older men know where smelters and mines were and are located, a few witnessed or participated in the process, and this power, though fading through disuse into oblivion, is part of the smith’s position within traditional culture.

Discussions of various dimensions of the education of a smith in Kpelle culture exist and need not be completely rehearsed here. (18) My objective in concluding this discussion of the fabrication of my cutlass is not just to document the process but to look at, momentarily, and speculate on this particular blacksmith: Flumo.

Impairment Does Not Equal Disability

From what I observed in most urban areas in Liberia and around the world, Flumo would be considered handicapped. During the United Nations “Year of the Disabled,” when Flumo made my cutlass, good sentiments were voiced about Flumo’s plight. In offices of government ministries one could see posters communicating this concern. At a few conspicuous points, ramps were built in public buildings, restroom stalls were enlarged to accommodate wheelchairs, special tools were devised, and an effort was made to compensate. But in his village, Flumo is not handicapped!  The physical impairment he suffers does not disable or even handicap him in his profession or in the life of his society.

Although I worked through the farming year cycle with a “kuu” in another village, I did not pay Flumo for my cutlass in the traditional way such work was normally recompensed: by working an agreed-upon number of days on the blacksmith’s farm. Within traditional Kpelle culture, however, Flumo would be assured of employment, food supply, and social position. (19) No special modifications had to be made in the workplace or the economic system to accommodate him: most African blacksmithing traditions have the smith sitting down at his work with everything close at hand, and very little time is lost in excess movement–a time-motion or efficiency expert’s dream. And Flumo’s legs bent more, and in certain situations seemed to provide better leverage than was enjoyed by his “unhandicapped” counterparts. Having observed both “normal” and “crippled” men engaged in the same manufacturing processes, it was obvious that one or another of Flumo’s feet could and often did serve better as a third “hand.”

Creating Handicaps

Early in 1982 I became involved in discussions with some personnel at the Liberian government agricultural research station (CARI) at Suakoko about a suggested plan from U.S.A.I.D. personnel in Monrovia to open a blacksmith’s shop where they could “upgrade” the skills of traditional smiths. The program had two basic flaws as I saw it. The first was that they consistently underestimated the skill of the local smiths, and the second was that they wanted to install workbenches and an elevated forge and western-style metal anvils, thus “modernizing” the workplace. I hope that my arguments helped them to understand that the ways we choose to structure a workplace can often, as in Flumo’s case, create handicaps and disable and unemploy able, skilled, and willing workers.(20) The project was, to the best of my knowledge, discontinued. (21)

I do not have quantitative data on how many individuals such as Flumo in Kpelle society have become smiths. Certainly the image of the limping smith is widespread far beyond Kpelle society, and while not all nor even most smiths are crippled, it is probable that some individuals in agricultural societies with metalworking technology occupied a peculiarly functional niche; their “handicap” was not a prerequisite, but at the same time it was in no way a liability in entering this particularly essential profession. Traditional weaving and leather-working are other occupations which, like blacksmithing, would be open to individuals such as Flumo. (22)

Lastly, when I look at Flumo within the context of the major constellations of power and authority of which the West African Poro is only a part, it is clear that here again his position is not what it would be in the urban setting. He is a man of power who through his technological/ vocational education and esoteric initiation understands and controls, if not commands, elemental forces of creation that, even after the introduction of kwii iron and factory mass-produced implements, still give him a place within the social and spiritual life of his people. His social position is completely contradictory to the status he would be likely to enjoy in the “developed” world, either of urban Liberia, America, or Europe.

Post-War Implications

For many years the Samuel K. Doe dictatorship in Liberia was the highest per capita recipient of direct U.S. military aid in sub-Saharan Africa. That was because the U.S. maintained in Liberia the largest collocation of its strategic installations on the continent, and “paid” Sgt. Doe well to keep those facilities secure (Thomasson, 1990). Those proportionally enormous military subsidies to the dictatorship resulted, as intended, in a huge build-up of weaponry that was designed and only good for repressing, maiming, and killing the nation’s own population. And as a result, the ouster of the Doe regime was a far longer, even more prolonged and bloody conflict than could ever have occurred without U.S. assistance. Charles Taylor grindingly approached Monrovia, the nation’s capital, from the south. He indiscriminately used huge numbers of irregular, untrained, and ill-disciplined “soldiers” (many in their young teens) with automatic weapons, while his rival Prince Johnson brought to bear a very small body of highly-trained troops from the east to counter Doe’s entrenched army. (Eventually evidence seems to have emerged that the U.S. was giving support to several sides at once.)

Genocidal intertribal warfare, something new and unprecedented in Liberia, also resulted first from the economic and political favoritism which Doe showed to his own people (the Krahn), and from the widespread support which he dishonestly claimed to have among all the Islamic Mandingo population (only a very few, whom he used prominently, actually favored Doe–the rest were innocent victims). Antagonism toward those peoples was both reciprocated and magnified as a result of the repression and death Doe visited upon the peoples of Nimba County (especially the Mano), whom he mis-identified as the seat or core of the rebellion against him, refusing to recognize that virtually the entire country had never accepted his refusal to allow democracy in Liberia. And inter-ethnic antagonisms and violence have not improved in the Taylor years.

With too few interruptions from the December 24, 1989 invasion to the present Liberia had gone through hell. But whenever the violence finally appears to be ending, beyond government working to disarm and return thousands of regular and irregular armed forces back to their pre-military lives, (23) there will be the need to restore agricultural and economic productivity (Thomasson 1991b, 1991a). Then the country will face another problem: massive rehabilitation of victims of the conflicts.

The countless thousands of deaths that have occurred during Liberia’s most uncivil wars are matched by the creation of enormous new populations of amputees, paraplegics, and other long-term medical victims among Liberia’s peoples. Liberia as a country will have to begin the long process of recovery and must develop a national policy on the social and economic future of all individuals who were disabled by the wars and their aftermath. (24) The injuries result, on the most basic level, from obscene amounts of American military aid in the 1980s, and the U.S. should bear much of the financial burden for rehabilitation of those who have suffered. But that assistance is not likely to be forthcoming, if at all, in either large enough amounts or for long enough to meet the often lifelong needs of many of the war victims. And even if unlimited money were to be forthcoming, another equally great problem will be how these victims are seen and treated in Liberian society. Will they be defined as handicapped and essentially written out of productive and fulfilling lives in the society, or will Liberia be as creative as its traditional cultures in finding meaningful and rewarding places for them to remake their lives.

Liberia’s struggling economy of recovery will not be in a position to support a huge population of permanently “handicapped” people. As a result, the example of Flumo is more pertinent in 2002 than it was in 1991, or even than it was in the 1981 U.N. “Year of the Disabled.” In 1981 I saw him as an example of what the world needed. When the wars end he tragically will have become a model for solving some of Liberia’s greatest problems. Not every person who was “disabled” in village Liberia was handicapped. And physical limitations within the traditional culture did not necessarily result in people becoming “welfare cases,” beggars, or “burdens” as too often I have observed in urban areas around the world, including in the supposedly more enlightened First World. In the rehabilitation of Liberia’s war-injured population, Flumo and traditional social systems may well provide better models for equitable re-integration than any imported model. Both Liberians and those who would assist in Liberia’s rebuilding should consider how this physically injured population may be returned to a spiritually, physically, socially, and economically better life, along with the rest of the country.



Atherton, John H.

1970-1971 “Liberian Prehistory.” Liberian Studies Journal III:2 (1970-1971):83-111.

Bishop, Timothy and Tommy Garnett.

2000 Civil Conflict and the Environment in the Upper Guinea Forests of West Africa. Washington, D.C.: Biodiversity Support Program, Disasters and Biodiversity Project, Washington, DC/U.S. Agency For International Development, March 2000. Beside English and French print editions, this book can be found online at www.bsponline.org, and in the CD Rom “Biodiversity Support Program” [A consortium of World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and World Resources Institute funded by USAID], WWF © 2001.

Brokensha, David W., D. Michael Warren and Oswald Werner, eds.

1980 Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Development . Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.

Chomsky, Noam.

1993 Year 501: The Conquest Continues . Boston: South End Press, 1993. It appears the same year in Spain as Año 501: La Conquista Continúa.

Clastres, Pierre.

1977 Society Against the State: The Leader as Servant and the Humane Uses of Power Among the Indians of the Americas , trans. by Robert Hurley. New York: Urizen Books.

Eliade, Mircea.

1971 The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy . New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Gay, John.

1980 The Brightening Shadow . Chicago: Intercultural Press.

1973 Red Dust on the Green Leaves: A Kpelle Twins’ Childhood , with an introduction by Jerome Bruner. Thompson, Connecticut: Inter Culture Associates.

Gershoni, Yekutiel.

1996 “The Changing Pattern of Military Takeovers in Sub-Saharan Africa” in Armed Forces & Society 23 (Winter 1996):2:235-248.

HRW (Human Rights Watch Africa Staff, Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Project Staff / Human Rights Watch)

1994 Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia .

Lancy, David F.

1980b “Becoming a Blacksmith in Gbarngasuakwelle.” Anthropology and Education XI:4 (Winter 1980):266-274.

1980a “Work and Play: The Kpelle Case.” In Helen B. Schwartzman, ed., Play and Culture: 1978 Proceedings of the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play . West Point, New York: Leisure Press: 324-328.

1975 “The Play Behavior of Kpelle Children During Rapid Cultural Change.” In David F. Lancy and B. Allan Tindall, eds., The Anthropological Study of Play: Problems and Prospects, Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play . Cornwall, N.Y.: Leisure Press: 72-79.

1974 “Work, Play and Learning in a Kpelle Town.” Pittsburgh, Penn.: Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

McNaughton, Patrick R.

1988 The Mande Blacksmiths: Knowledge, Power and Art in West Africa . Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Miller, Duncan E. Miller and Nikolaas J. Van Der Merwe.

1994 “Early Metal Working in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Review of Recent Research” in Journal of African History 35 (1994): 1-36.


Núñez del Prado, Oscar, with the Collaboration of William Foote Whyte.

1973 Kuyo Chico: Applied Anthropology in an Indian Community . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Connor, Stanley J.

1985 “Metallurgy and Immortality at Candi Sukuh, Central Java.” Indonesia 39 (April 1985):53-70.

Orr, Kenneth G.

1971-1972 “An Introduction to the Archaeology of Liberia.” Liberian Studies Journal IV:1 (1971-1972):55-79.

Parsons, Neil, and Robin Palmer.

1977 “Introduction: Historical Background.” In Robin Palmer and Neil Parsons, eds., The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press: 1-32.

Quigley, John.

1993 The Ruses for War: American Interventionism Since World War II. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.

Schulze, Willi.

1973 A New Geography of Liberia . London: Longman Group.

Schwab, George.

1947 Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland , Vol. XXXI of the Papers of the Peabody Museum. Edited, with additional material by George W. Harley–Report of the Peabody Museum Expedition to Liberia. Cambridge, Mass.: Published by the Museum.

Thomasson, Gordon, C.

1995 “Kpelle Steelmaking: An indigenous high technology in Liberia.” The Cultural Dimension of Development: Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Warren, et al. London: Intermediate Technology Publications. An earlier version appeared as “‘Primitive’ Kpelle Steelmaking: A High Technology Indigenous Knowledge System for Liberia’s Future.”Liberian Studies Journal XII:2 (1987):149-164. Miller and Van der Merwe (1994:5, note 14) comment regarding this article, “With these more recent developments we are rescued from a proliferation of discoveries of ‘special’ circumstances and can begin to appreciate the social contexts of indigenous metal production.”

1991b “Liberia’s Seeds of Knowledge” in Cultural Survival Quarterly: Intellectual Property Rights–The Politics of Ownership . 15 (Summer 1991) 3:23-28. Cited in Bishop and Garnett (2000: note 44 and in the surrounding text), and discussed at length in Chomsky: 1993: 222-224. Also cited in Miller and Van Der Merwe (1994).

1991a “The Once and Future Liberia: Restoring the Rural Sector” in Africa Notes: Women in Development (Cornell University Institute of African Studies). Feb. 1991:7-8. A Voice of America interview with me on this topic was rebroadcast by their Africa Service in May-June 1991.


1990 “Liberian Disaster: Made in the U.S.A.” The New York Times 14 July 1990:21 (OPED). (Reprinted in the 17 July 1990 International Herald Tribune under the title “The Liberian Disaster Displays American Fingerprints”). Cited in Quigley (1993):257, notes 4 & 5, and in Gershoni (1996):240, note 31. See also citations by Clifford Kraus in the New York Times 13 June 1990:A3; an interview with extensive citation on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” on 30 July 1990; & an extended interview on the World Service (international short wave news) of the Christian Science Monitor on 13 Sept. 1990.

1987 “Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Sciences, and Technologies: Ethnographic and Ethnohistorical Perspectives on the Educational Foundations for Development in Kpelle Culture .” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Ph.D. Dissertation.

Warren, D. Michael, et al., eds.

1995 The Cultural Dimension of Development: Indigenous Knowledge Systems . London: Intermediate Technology Publications.




1. I must dedicate this essay to five people: first, to the man I call Flumo-I can only pray he has survived the decades of war in Liberia and still can ply his trade; second, to the memory of my friend, the late Norma Henley, whose spirit was never confined to her wheelchair, and who did her best to make sure that airlines, buses, and the world allowed her body as much freedom to travel; third, to the late mentor of my Ph.D. fieldwork, William Foote Whyte, who never allowed polio and crutches to disable him in working to assist others through action anthropology; fourth, to my friend John Robert Holland, whose legal work, among other landmark court cases, has made public transportation more accessible in Denver, Colorado, and the nation; and lastly, to my mother’s father, John Conrad, who apprenticed as a metallurgist in Switzerland well over a century ago, spent his adult life casting iron and steel machine parts and consequently died of silicosis, but gave me an eye for the beauty of metalworking.

2. Gordon C. Thomasson is an action anthropologist and historian. Having taught at a number of institutions of higher education, he currently is on the World History faculty of Broome Community College (SUNY), in Binghamton, New York. His Cornell University doctoral dissertation, “Indigenous Knowledge Systems, Sciences, and Technologies: Ethnographic and Ethnohistorical Perspectives on the Educational Foundations for Development in Kpelle Culture,” dealt with field research on traditional Kpelle agriculture, metallurgy, medicine, and education. While he did his research he was on the social science faculty of Cuttington University College (March 1980 to July 1982), and also taught on the faculty of the Nursing Program there. He also was a visiting faculty member at the Cuttington University College Rural Development Institute, at St. Paul’s College and Major Seminary in Gbarnga, and for a short time at the Gbarnga School of Theology. He was a steering committee member of the C.A.R.E. Liberia Health Education project and participated in studies with the Liberian Cancer Society. Besides teaching, he has worked in research projects dealing with tropical soils, the place of animals in small farming systems, the development potential of semi-arid lands, and refugee resettlement in the Sudan. He was president (1990-1991) of the Liberian Studies Association.

3. An early version of “Flumo Forges A Cutlass” was first presented to the Seminar on Social Philosophy at St. Paul’s College and Major Seminary, Gbarnga, Liberia, in 1981. In more mature form, “Flumo Forges a Cutlass in the 1981 U.N. “Year of the Disabled” and Its Implications for Rehabilitation of Amputees and Paraplegics in 1991 Post-War Liberia,” and a companion article “Agricultural Priority in Rebuilding Liberia: Policy For After the Disasters Past, and For Minimizing the Disasters Yet to Come,” were both solicited, completed, delivered, and submitted for publication. The promised-to-be-published “Proceedings of the University of Pennsylvania Conference on LIBERIA: RECONSTRUCTION AND UNITY FOR THE COMING DECADES 4-6 Jan. 1991″, never appeared. It has been revised and updated for this conference.

4. This discussion is based upon fieldwork I conducted with the Kpelle people in Liberia from 1980-1982 on the development potential of “indigenous knowledge systems” (Thomasson, 1995, 1991b, 1991a, 1987; Brokensha, et al., 1980, Warren, et al., 1995).

5. The round-roofed iron smelter employed by the Kpelle who mined and smelted iron was also referred to as a “furnace kitchen.” While the blacksmith’s kitchen is not open to women, and overt disputes are prohibited there (which has very practical safety as well as what are probably religious implications), the smelter was an even more restricted area in terms of who could come there, and with regard to the requirements of ritual purity and abstinence from witchcraft imposed on those who were allowed on its precincts.

6. Palava derives from the Portuguese word meaning “word” and is used extensively in West Africa to refer to court disputes or any argument which can lead to a lawsuit. (Perhaps coincidentally, lacking a hearth does not mean that heat cannot be generated by the discussions that occur there.)

7. These three English terms, marked with an asterisk  ( * ,)

seem to well-represent the general technological and superficial social aspects of their relationship. In the course of an afternoon, a number of pieces were submitted to the old man for his inspection and approval, or, at times, his touching-up. Other roles and relationships, though important, are irrelevant to our purposes here. See also David F. Lancy’s “Becoming a Blacksmith in Gbarngasuakwelle” (1980). It is useful to contrast Patrick McNaughton’s description of Mande blacksmiths (1988), with information concerning the Kpelle.

8. Blacksmiths’ anvils and furnaces are one of several man-made accumulations of stone to be found in Liberia that can help to guide archaeological research (Atherton, 1970-1971:108-109). Smelting furnace remains including ore accumulations and slag heaps are another. While Schulze under-rates the significance of traditional steel production and its metallurgical sophistication (Thomasson 1995), his information on iron production and especially slag heaps is useful (1973: 153-155). Especially significant is his documentation of the “largest slag dump … in the north-east of Palala with a length of one hundred and fifty feet, a greatest width of forty feet and a height of approximately nine feet.” (Schulze 1973: 155)

9. The link between iron tools, blacksmithing, and rice cultivation is essential on many levels. It is no accident that historical archaeologists have classified a range of implements produced and employed by the blacksmith’s kitchen, the farm, and the family kitchen all as “rice farming” artifacts (Orr, 1971-1972:68).

10. Informants present were uninhibited in identifying the bellows’ specifically phallic symbolism, which was confirmed by decorations on some of the bellows I saw. The long tube, passing between the man’s legs with the two round bellows chambers on either side, penetrates through the one mound and into the hearth space where it discharges, feeding the flame, and could hardly be more explicit. The bellows were not hidden from the view of women and young girls who were in the vicinity. Sexual symbols clearly reflect the generative role of the blacksmith’s science, as well as his powerful position in society. He takes what comes out of that hearth–a symbolic womb–and fashions it into tools that, in turn, are used to work the land to produce new rice from seed, so that people may eat, live, and reproduce. In East Africa, for comparison, surviving smelting furnaces, also fed by clearly phallic bellows, have female breasts molded on them.

11. The shape of the traditional cutlass blade is noteworthy. In my cutlass and others I inspected, the metal is shaped so that the majority of the mass of the blade is located from just behind the “j” shaped tip back towards the handle, approximately 11-15 centimeters. This appears to create a “sweet spot” where the blade is thickest, which results in greater cutting power than can be obtained with an imported or “kwii” machete. In cross-section, the cutlass blades look something like a closed pair of parentheses: thus (). By contrast, western-style machetes are the same thickness from the tip to the handle, and appear visually in cross-section, lengthwise, or from above or below as two parallel lines: thus ||. The mass of the machete blade is more or less uniformly distributed along the entire length of the blade/handle, and despite its length and potential “tip speed” due to its length, did not demonstrate the cutting power of the cutlass in either depth or width of cut.

12. The dual-purpose smaller anvil-hammer (which George Harley reports in Mano is called the yini) and the anvil-sledge (kpume ) discussed, which I observed in use, are identical in virtually every basic detail to those described in Schwab (1947:136-146, pictured in Fig. 64). The traditional Mano forge implements and products in that plate confirm the claim in Schwab that the Mano technology is generally representative of blacksmithing, though not smelting (1947:137). It would seem, given the apparent absence of a smelting tradition among the Kpelle’s neighbors, that smiths’ tools, especially the anvil-hammers in general use, all have come from Kpelle smelters. From reports I gathered, small scale smelting persisted longer than has commonly been supposed, up through the 1920s at least, to supply themselves and other blacksmiths with these implements.

13. This view, that Kpelle iron did not rust, was reinforced less than two weeks later when an old Sande zoe in a very distant village looked at my cutlass and pronounced it well made, except that it was “ kwii iron.” She elaborated, rubbing her fingers across the blade and indicating the rust: “Kpelle iron didn’t rust like this.” This was not an idle claim. Laboratory analysis of the slag from Kpelle smelters (Thomasson, 1995) shows that the low carbon steel they produced was an alloy of various ores that provided a substantial manganese content (yielding higher strength), as well as significant chromium content (enhancing rust-resistance). The titanium, which appeared as sand-like granules in my Laterite samples, could not liquify at the temperatures obtainable in Kpelle smelting furnaces. Nevertheless, potentially they might function somewhat akin to gravel in cement, with the more liquified alloy cooling around them. Though the technology looks “primitive,” its product is anything but that.

14. In preliminary examination of museum pieces from Liberia in the United States, I found marked differences in the degree of freedom from rust under identical storage conditions.

15. I assume that the larger traditional anvil-sledge belonged to the master and was brought out for use on this occasion. I did not see one at any other forge. The demonstration and use of these implements was one of the most positive steps taken by the smiths in the long and cautious “courting” relationship which my inquiries about Kpelle iron and smithing had begun.

16. Without endorsing his method, for a general overview of the subject in many cultures see Mircea Eliade (1971), especially chapters 9 and 10.

17. In contrast, it is apparent that among some peoples the smith’s position was anything but enviable and that they suffered systematic discrimination. Nevertheless, they are clearly a group set apart, and in some ways feared even where their status is apparently lowest.

18. David F. Lancy has written on this topic on several occasions (1980, 1975, 1974). Professor John Gay’s two novels, which capture in literary form some of his fourteen years of experience among the Kpelle, reflect through two of the protagonists some of what Dr. Gay learned about traditional blacksmiths in Kpelle society (1980, 1973).

19. Unlike some societies, the Kpelle blacksmiths are neither a dominant class nor a subjugated caste, and access to the profession was quite easy. Among the Kpelle it was not the case that:



From at least the Early Iron Age we may begin to distinguish rich and poor, in a class sense, within the same society on the basis of differential access to and control over the means of production. But though one may equate as a general rule the bringers of iron technology with its controllers, one should not assume that smiths or miners, or even Bantu-speakers, necessarily formed an aristocracy. The dark-skinned Bergdama iron-makers of Namibia were probably non-Bantu in origin and were subordinate to Khoisan cattle-herders, while mine-labor–at least in the Later Iron Age–was considered to be the lowest social status apart from serfdom among the Tswana (Parsons and Palmer, 1977:10).


Kpelle society much more closely matches the models of traditional society advanced in Pierre Clastres’ study of “The Leader as Servant and the Humane Uses of Power” (Clastres, 1977).

20. It is worthwhile to compare Núñez del Prado’s candid analysis of the failure of his attempt to elevate Kuyo Chico’s fireplaces off the floor (Núñez del Prado, 1973:90-91) with the project that had been proposed to the engineers at CARI.

21. In my doctoral dissertation (1987) and other articles, I discuss the potential for Liberia to be self-sufficient in the production of traditional farming tools made by smelting local ores. This would save considerable foreign exchange, albeit at the expense of decreased profiteering for coastal merchant-importers of implements which are often less-well engineered, poorly manufactured, and maladapted to local needs and conditions.

22. David Lancy reports on a leather worker in the village where he studied. There are, of course, potential markets for some products such craftsmen can produce in the developed world.



Leather-working has diffused from Saharan Africa and passed into Liberia from Guinea [this is not an exotic path–the village in question is linked in exogamous marriage patterns with several Kpelle villages in Guinea]. Y el ek e (whose name means skill) was the only leather-worker in the village and he had learned his trade from a Guinean. Using untanned skins is probably not new, but what has been introduced [Or re-introduced (?) to the rainforest dwelling Liberian Kpelle from the savannah-dwelling Kpelle of Guinea, where keeping cattle is much more practical.] is tanning, working and dying the leather. … Y el ek e, because he is crippled from the waist down, must leave the hunting and skinning to his sons, and his friend the blacksmith tans the skins (1974: 96-97).


Lancy continues, describing how the leather-worker makes many implements that can only used by a very powerful zoe, and thus cannot be manufactured by just anybody.

23. In the case of child-soldiers who have matured at war this will be more or less impossible. Adult lives must be constructed for them through education and career guidance. (HRW, 1994)


These problems of rehabilitation could, of course, be worse: witness the case of RUF amputee-victims in Sierra Leone.