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A greenish bronze lamp with a leaping centaur molded into it: Early African economy

Early African economy: Roman centaur lamp found at Meroe (Sudan, ca. 100 AD)

African trade to Asia and India: cowrie shells

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.

Ivory and ostrich eggs

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. The early African economy also involved hard stones like diorite and granite, and gold.

What did traders sell to Africans?

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). People from Kush domesticated donkeys and used them to carry things to sell north to Egypt, and then back to Sudan.

Blue-green glass trade beads

Glass trade beads found in Botswana

Metal coins and East African trade

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.

Three strands of beads with yellow, white, and red beads

Glass beads from India (ca. 300 AD

Camel caravans cross the Sahara Desert

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.

Selling copper and gold and enslaved people

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. Even people in Zimbabwe and Congo soon were buying these Indian glass beads, 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.

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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 home