African Economy in the Middle Ages
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Medieval African Economy

Salt caravan
Camels carrying salt south to Timbuktu

Starting around 1000 AD, West African traders also sold gold. Traders with camels carried the gold across the Sahara from West Africa to North Africa. North African traders sold horses and salt from Saharan salt mines to West Africa and bought West African people. They enslaved their prisoners (mainly women) and forced them to walk across the Sahara Desert to North Africa. From there traders shipped the gold to Europe and to West Asia. Most of the women stayed in North Africa where they became enslaved servants for rich people. But by the 1300s West Africa was beginning to sell manufactured goods like locally made cotton cloth as well as raw materials like gold.

Djenne horse
A West African man on a horse (Djenne, ca. 1300 AD)

From Central Africa, beginning about the same time, traders sailed gold and furs and ivory down the rivers to the East African coast, where they sold it to West Asian and Indian traders in exchange for glass beads and fancy silk and cotton cloth. By the 1400s AD, East African traders were also beginning to sell coffee to Sufi people in Yemen, in the Arabian Peninsula, and as far east as India. African sailing ships left Mombasa and Malindi for the Persian Gulf and India, selling ivory, slaves, coffee and gold, and buying cotton cloth, cowrie shells, and glass beads. Within Central Africa, people were probably trading dried fish, copper, and other things from region to region, and using small copper crosses, cowrie shells, copper bracelets, and Indian glass beads as money.

pile of small copper crosses
Copper crosses used as money in Congo

But, just the same as in Europe and Asia, the most important parts of the ancient African economy were farming and fishing and hunting and gathering and taking care of animals. There weren't really very many traders, or salt miners, or gold miners. Most people in West Africa and East Africa and Kush and Meroe and Central Africa were farmers. In South Africa, a lot of people were shepherds and cattle herders, and in the Kalahari Desert, where the environment was not right for farming, the San remained hunters and gatherers, like the forest people deep in the Central African rain forest.

Learn by Doing - African Economy
More about the trade in cotton cloth
More about the later slave trade

Bibliography and further reading about the medieval African economy:

More about the trade in cotton cloth
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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.
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