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

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

September 2016 - 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.

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. More and more West Asian and Indian traders began to sail to the coast of East Africa to trade. Then, about 500 AD, people invented a better camel saddle, and caravans of camels started to cross the Sahara Desert to trade with West Africa. They brought salt south from the desert, and traded it with the kingdom of Ghana for West African gold.

By this time, people in southern Africa were trading with India and West Asia too, 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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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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