Early African Economy - African trade, and how African people made their livings.
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Early African Economy

weights from Carthage
Weights from Carthage (ca. 200 AD)

African traders have been selling things to West Asian and Indian traders and buying things from them since at least 4000 BC. And African traders have been buying and selling things between the different parts of Africa, too, using cowrie shells for money as they did in India and China. Trade has always been part of how African people live.

Roman lamp from Meroe
Roman centaur lamp found at Meroe (Sudan, ca. 100 AD)

One of the first things that African traders sold was ivory, from elephant tusks. People in Egypt and West Asia liked to make jewelry and fancy furniture out of ivory. They also sold ostrich eggs, because they were so big. And they sold wood, from the forests. They sold hard stones like diorite and granite, and they sold gold.

The African traders of Kush bought linen and cotton cloth, glass, jewelry, and perfume and wine from Egypt and West Asia (the Phoenicians were the main glass-makers of that time).

Glass trade beads
Glass trade beads found in Botswana
Indo-Pacific beads
Glass beads from India (ca. 300 AD)

By around 500 BC, people in North Africa and Egypt were using gold, silver, and bronze coins, which had been invented in West Asia.

By about 400 AD, people in southern Africa were trading with Indian and West Asian merchants as well, buying Indian glass beads and selling ostrich eggs, ivory, and especially copper and gold. These Indian glass beads soon appeared even in Zimbabwe and the Congo, carried overland from East Africa.

Beginning in the 600s AD, African traders sold men and women they had enslaved to the Fatimid Egyptians, and bought wheat and wine and cloth and sugar in exchange. And African traders sold ivory to the Byzantine empire in exchange for glass and jewelry.

Learn by doing: blow out a chicken egg the way people blew out ostrich eggs
More on the African economy

Bibliography and further reading about the African economy:

More about the African economy
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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