What was West Africa like before Islam?
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West African History

Niger River
Niger river

People have probably been living in West Africa for tens of thousands of years. There are several good-sized rivers - the Niger, the Senegal, and the Volta - 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. Nobody knows for sure whether people in West Africa invented this process themselves, or learned about it from North African blacksmiths.

Around this same time, some West African people, perhaps 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. They probably didn't all leave at once, but in small groups, now and then, moving gradually through eastern and then southern Africa. These travellers are generally called 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. There was a powerful kingdom at Djenne-Djeno, in modern Mali, far up the Niger river in West Africa, around 250 BC. By 300 AD, the men and women of Djenne-Djeno were trading along the Niger river with other West African communities to get iron and good stone to make grindstones. They buried dead people in tall pots that stood in between their houses.

By 500 AD, there were about 20,000 people living in Djenne-Djeno, more than in most European towns of that time. There were also smaller towns around the main town. They kept on working iron, and by now were also working copper, which came more than 1000 kilometers (about 600 miles) to get to Djenne-Djeno. They sold their pottery up and down the Niger river as far as 750 kilometers (450 miles) away.

More West African history

Bibliography and further reading about African history:

East African history
North African history
Egyptian History
Central African History
African history
More about Africa Quatr.us home

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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Now that the weather's nice, try some of these outdoor activities! How about bicycle polo, or archery for a Medieval Islam day? Or kite flying or making a compass for a day in Medieval China? How about making a shaduf for a day in Ancient Egypt? Holding an Ancient Greek Olympic Games or a medieval European tournament? Building a Native American wickiup?