What was West Africa like before Islam?
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West African History

Niger River
Niger river

August 2016 - People have been living in West Africa for tens of thousands of years. There are several good-sized rivers - the Niger, the Senegal, and the Volta - that run through West Africa, which make it easier to travel because you can use boats. There are fish in the rivers which are good to eat. These rivers also, when they flood, spread good silt all over the land, which makes the land good for growing plants. The rivers do also breed the mosquitoes that carry yellow fever and malaria, but people living in West Africa gradually developed some immunities to these diseases.


A blacksmith in Mali

West African people in Nigeria were smelting iron by around 300 BC, using pot bellows and skin bellows. Nobody knows for sure whether people in West Africa invented this process themselves, or learned about it from North African or Sudanese blacksmiths.

Around this same time, some West African people, maybe from a little further east in modern Cameroon, were beginning to leave West Africa and travel east, across the African grasslands south of the Sahara Desert, and south-east through the rain forests. Maybe this was because climate change was making the Sahara drier, and there were too many people squeezed into West Africa. The migrants probably didn't all leave at once, but in small groups, now and then, moving gradually through eastern and then southern Africa. We call these travellers the Bantu, which means "people" in their languages. The Bantu's iron weapons may have helped them to force their way into the communities they met.

By 400 AD these Bantu people had reached South Africa, where they began to marry some of the Khoikhoi and the San people. Some people in South Africa began farming or keeping sheep or cattle around this time; others, who wanted to remain hunters and gatherers, were forced off the best agricultural land and into the deserts.

But many Bantu people also stayed in West Africa. They started to form bigger kingdoms and empires. Around 250 BC, there was a powerful kingdom at Djenne-Djeno, in modern Mali, far up the Niger river in West Africa. Soon Djenne-Djeno traders were sailing along the Niger river trading for iron and good stone to make grindstones. By 500 AD, they were also working copper, which came from more than 600 miles (1000 km) away. Djenne-Djeno traders sold their pottery all up and down the Niger river. By this time, there were about 20,000 people living in Djenne-Djeno. There were also smaller towns around the main town.

A little later, about 400 AD, an even bigger empire formed as the Ghana Empire united western Mauretania and eastern Mali. (No, that's not where the modern country of Ghana is!) Using the new camel caravans to cross the Sahara Desert, the Ghana Empire acted as a middleman, selling gold from further south to North Africa in exchange for salt. They also traded with the Djenne-Djeno kingdom to their south-east. The Ghana Empire maintained an army of 20,000 archers.

About this same time, maybe fleeing the Vandal invasion of North Africa, people from Morocco and Mauretania began to migrate south into the Ghana Empire and then further south along the Atlantic coast. They married West Africans and became known as the Fulani.

Learn by doing: eating West African food
Medieval West Africa

Bibliography and further reading about African history:

East African history
North African history
Egyptian History
Central African History
More about Africa
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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, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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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