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Prehistory and Medieval West Africa

Updated: Feb 21, 2021

330000 BCE to 1400 CE


Black history doesn’t start with slavery. It starts with the history of Africa, and the history of the common ancestors shared by every human being on Earth.

Homo sapiens (read: modern humans) emerged as early as 350,000 years ago in East Africa, and we have continued in an unbroken family line since then. To date, the earliest Homo sapiens remains were found in Morocco and are dated as 315,000 years old. Humans have been decorating ourselves and creating tools for as long as we’ve been around. 130,000 year-old beads and other body ornaments have been found in Morocco. 279,000 year-old stone-tipped arrows have been found in Ethiopia. A 100,000 year-old workshop likely made to process ochre into paint was found in South Africa. Most interestingly to me, a 320,000 year-old site was found in Kenya with evidence of the use of paints and a long-distance trading network for obsidian. This suggests we’ve been both physically and behaviorally modern since we appeared on this planet. Humans began our journey across the globe around 55,000 years ago, and by 10,000 BCE we had spread across Afro-Eurasia. The peoples who migrated into West Africa developed a distinct language and culture from the rest of the continent. West Africa is of particular importance when speaking of Black American history, as nearly half of the 388,000 Africans forcibly transported to America came from what are now the countries of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Angola, Congo, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gambon. A large percentage of the other half came from modern day Nigeria and Cameroon.

The timeframe of prehistoric West Africa spans from 10000-5000 BCE. Around 9400 BCE, people in Mali and Niger-Congo had control of fire and independently discovered pottery and ceramics. Between 9000 and 5000 BCE, significant agricultural strides were made. Yams, rice, sorghum, millet, cowpea, oil palm, and black-eyed peas were among the crops that were tamed in West Africa during this time period. Later, gourds, watermelons, castor beans, and cotton were domesticated at the edge of the Sahara. Around 6,000 years ago, people around the Gobero site in modern day Nigeria were hunting, fishing, and herding cattle.

Copper smelting developed independently in Africa, separate from the technology developed in Egypt, around 3000 BCE. Iron smelting facilities have been found in Nigeria and carbon dated to 2000 BCE. These new tools let to significantly improved weapons and agricultural tools, allowing farm production to explode and empires to develop.

By 400 BCE, contact had been made with Mediterranean civilizations, and Herodotus (basically the world’s first serious historian, cool dude) mentions these key trade routes with the peoples of West Africa. Gold, cotton cloth, metal ornaments, and leather goods were exported from West Africa in exchange for copper, horses, salt, textiles, and beads from the Mediterranean. Later, these same trans-Saharan routes would be used to trade ivory and enslaved people.

There are several major West African civilizations from this time period. The Djenne-Djenno lived along the Niger river in today’s Mali around 900 BCE. Archaeological work at this site proved trade networks and complex societies existed in West Africa long before contact with the Mediterranean. The Nok people of central Nigeria mysteriously vanished in 300 BCE, but left behind thousand year-old miniature terracotta sculptures of human heads, elephants, and other figures. There are large stone megaliths throughout Senegal and Gambia left behind from the Serer people, which were the gravesites of a prosperous and organized society. There were the wild Sahelians who lived in the southwest Saharan grasslands and controlled the trade routes to the East. They specialized in owning and training camels and horses, and were a decentralized society with a great deal of autonomy. The Songhai people descended from fisherman along the Niger River, and were known for their strong cavalry and navy with fleets of canoes. The Dahomey Kingdom was a fierce and brutal empire. They had strict taxation laws, sacrificed a slave every year to honor royal ancestors, and had an all-female Amazon fighting unit in their army.

The Ghana Empire could be as old as 600 CE. It was a large and powerful empire, with an army of 200,000 soldiers at its peak. Ghana was a dual-city of urban Muslims and rural villagers who were loyal to the Ghana (king). The empire grew wealthy by taxing salt and gold trade routes, but the kingdom declined as the trade routes moved east to the Niger River. War and instability led to the collapse of the empire in 1230.

The Empire of Ashanti encompassed present-day Ghana and most of the Ivory Coast at its peak. It was born from the medieval kingdom of Akan, and they spoke a Kwa language distinct from the rest of West Africa. Their population and power exploded in the 1500s, as New World plants such as cassava and maize were brought over and cultivated and their gold trade boomed with the north. Their kings had the title of Osei. The empire was powerful until 1900, when it was destroyed by the British after a long series of four major wars.

The Mali Empire came to power in the 13th century, eventually creating a unified state over most of West Africa. A warrior king of the Mande people, Sundiata (Lord Lion), won many battles and conquered an area east to the Niger Bend, north to the Sahara, and west to the Atlantic Ocean. This included the remnants of the Ghana Empire. Salt and gold trading was important, but the agriculture and animal husbandry were critical to the Mali Empire. A cluster of villages was called a kafu, which was ruled by a farma, and the farma was loyal to the mansa. Dedicated armies were formed, including cavalry. Sorghum, millet, and rice were key crops, while cattle, sheep, goats, and camels were major pastoral activities. Sundiata’s son Uli made Islam the court religion around 1250 after a pilgrimage to Mecca. His court was staffed with literate secretaries and accountants. Learning and literacy were highly valued in Mali, and Mansa Sakura, a freed slave who usurped the throne in 1285, established the city of Timbuktu as a center of learning and commerce. He began a thriving book trade and book copying became a very respectable profession. Mansa Kankou founded a university in Timbuktu, and instituted free health care and education for all citizens of Mali. The university at Timbuktu was highly regarded throughout the Muslim world. Mansa Musa (1312-1337) represented the peak of the Mali Empire’s power. He was accompanied by 500 slaves, each holding a bar of gold, on his pilgrimage to Mecca. That trip devalued gold in Egypt for a decade. Mansa Suleyman was the last great king of Mali, and the empire began to decline in land and power through the 1400 and 1500s. A war was being waged to reclaim Timbuktu in the north, several large city-states seceded into their own kingdoms, and invading empires took over key goldfields and land tracts. The empire collapsed toward the end of the 16th century.

The trans-Saharan slave trade was the established foundation on which the Atlantic slave trade was built. The first enslaved people were brought to America in 1619.


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