The precious metal was found in the soil along rivers in various forms, including nuggets and dust. The gold was carried to the markets of North Africa and eventually made its way into Europe.
In exchange, West Africans traded for an equally important commodity, or valuable product—salt. Salt was rare in some regions of Africa. However, people need salt in their diet to prevent dehydration, especially in tropical areas. Salt is also used to preserve food. The Sahara had an abundance of salt. In fact, at Taghaza, in the central Sahara, people built homes out of blocks of salt. But in the savanna, several hundred miles south, salt was scarce. It was easily worth its weight in gold, pound for pound.
As farming and trade prospered, cities developed on the northern edges of the savanna. Soon strong monarchs arose, gaining control of the most profitable trade routes, and building powerful kingdoms. As the gold and salt trade expanded, so did the spread of ideas and religion. Traders brought their customs and ideas with them as they traveled throughout Africa, helping to spread Islam and the Arabic language to many places. Neighboring kingdoms strengthened their trading partnerships, which helped the region maintain peaceful relationships.
In what ways did farming affect the growth of African villages and cities?
Between about 800 and 1600, several powerful kingdoms won control of the prosperous Sahara trade. The first of these kingdoms was Ghana, located on the broad “V” made by the Niger and Senegal rivers.
Ghana means ruler and was the name used for this kingdom by Arab traders. The modern nation of Ghana is not located on the site of the ancient kingdom, but stands several hundred miles to the south. Ancient Ghana occupied lands in what is today northern Senegal and southern Mauritania.
By 800, the rulers of the Soninke people had united many farming villages to create the kingdom of Ghana. Given their favorable location, the rulers of Ghana controlled the gold-salt trade across West Africa. Two streams of trade came together in the marketplaces of Ghana, where the king collected tolls on all goods entering or leaving his land. So great was the flow of gold that Arab writers called Ghana “the land of gold.”
Ghana may have had several large cities that served as capitals during its long history. The last great capital was called Kumbi Saleh, and according to the custom of the time, it included two separate walled towns.
The people of early Africa developed a system of trade routes that connected much of the continent. Why do you think most of these trade routes bordered oceans and rivers?