Commercial City of Jenne Is Founded on Niger River Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Excavations of a commercial city-state at Jenne on the Niger River revealed a high level of development and urbanization in Africa, long before the arrival of Islamic Arabs.

Summary of Event

Jenne (now Djenné, Mali) was one of the first urban centers of Africa, emerging by the last millennium b.c.e. The city had a thriving economy based on economic specialization and interregional trade by the third century b.c.e. It continued to be important as a commercial and religious center for western African and trans-Saharan trade networks for twenty-three centuries after its initial emergence.

Jenne lies in the Niger floodplain just south of Timbuktu and north of the western African forests at the interface of desert, savanna, woodland, and river economies, a position that makes it ideal for trade. Transportation from Jenne was unusual because it required shifting between overland and river transport at various points. Exported and imported goods were moved overland with pack animals such as the camel or donkey and in the middle Niger Delta by boats, which moved goods to transshipment points such as Jenne for further distribution in the Saharan, Sahelian, and forest zones.

One of the most prominent historical trends south of the Sahara between 1000 and 100 b.c.e. was the emergence of long-distance trading between forest and desert communities. The major reasons for this shift from domestic agriculture to long-distance trade and commerce most likely were economic specialization and increasing dependence across the wider Sudanic belt on iron and copper implements as common currencies of exchange. Although copper was available at sites such as Aïr in the Saharan mountains of western Africa, no major sources of copper existed in many regions of western Africa, and iron ore was scarce in the Niger Delta (metal ores were available about 60 miles, or 100 kilometers, east of Jenne). Without urban centers, people of Sudanic western Africa had to travel great distances to obtain desired metals such as copper or iron. Another product in high demand throughout western Africa was cotton cloth. Archaeology indicates that the weaving of cotton was already occurring along the Niger by 1000 b.c.e., and cotton cloth was another important commodity in Jenne’s social and economic life in the third century.

With the rise of commerce in the western Sudanic belt came communities or villages, formed by social stratification or caste divisions that evolved as people adopted or were forced into roles such as artisan, ruling elite, slave, or peasant. Artisans and merchants made up the core populations of the urban centers, and villages often formed around a central city and acted as suppliers and outposts of the market centers. One of the most widely known and best examples of this kind of commercial community is the cluster of cities around Jenne.

Archaeologists have determined that a permanent settlement first became possible in the Middle Niger around 1000 b.c.e. This initial settlement was the result of southward migration from the upper inland Niger Delta, which occurred because of a markedly dry period that reached its climax between 200 and 100 b.c.e. Before this time of low rainfall, the floodwaters of the Niger and its tributaries were higher and lasted longer in the Middle Niger, discouraging any long-term village settlement in the delta. During the arid last millennium b.c.e., farmers and herders of the Upper Niger Delta moved farther southward in their quest for dependable water sources. Moving southward, migrants discovered the interior floodplain of the Middle Niger, full of rich soil and a flood region suitable for rice cultivation.

Archaeological evidence strongly suggests that as soon as the initial urban settlements of the Middle Niger were formed, they began trading with outside regions. Archaeological excavations have uncovered smithed iron in the form of jewelry and tools dating from the third through first centuries b.c.e., indicating artisans were a strong presence in Jenne. Researchers have also discovered Roman beads and stone grinders dating back to this period, which indicate long-distance trade in ancient times.


The city of Jenne is one of the best sites for understanding the early history of urban development in western Africa because the site contains rich archaeological evidence of an ancient western Sudanic commercial city-state. Material culture from Jenne reveals how commerce progressed in western Africa. The city became a center for commerce in West Africa for many reasons, including its geographical location. Located on the eastern edge of the inland delta and surrounded by various channels of the Niger River, it became a major transshipment center. The Niger was a direct source of transportation of goods by boat from the east and west of the river. Jenne’s position on the eastern border of the delta meant that it had the advantage of close proximity to various important long-distance overland routes and iron deposits in the east. The use of boats along the river rather than circling the river overland by foot or donkey markedly cut a trader’s travel time.

As a transshipment point, Jenne was influential in the development of metalworking in other parts of western Africa. By the third century b.c.e., copper and iron, once rarities in many regions, were reaching the western Sudan from the east and traveling via boat along the Niger River. Once the copper reached the commercial center of Jenne, it would be taken south and west of the Niger by donkey along the main overland routes.

Jenne was not only a city of trade but also an agriculturally thriving locality. The city was surrounded by a moist, rich, alluvial soil along with a great floodplain, which was ideal for fishing and rice growing, even in a climatically arid phase. Jenne was an important town that exported agricultural products to the more arid regions outside the Niger Delta.

The archaeological significance of Jenne has been momentous in that it is a pre-Islamic urban and commercial center in Africa. After increased excavations of Jenne took place during the 1970’s and 1980’s, many earlier assumptions about the lack of a social, economic, or urban history in Africa before the common era were proven incorrect. Many archaeologists and historians once believed that the development of an urbanized commercial city-state based on long-distance trade in Africa had not taken place until after the arrival of the Islamized Arabs in North Africa during the seventh and eighth centuries. The excavations of Jenne have revealed that the rise of a commercial city-state at this site had begun at least as early as 200 b.c.e.

Jenne has important significance in the context of Africa’s urban history in the latter part of the last millennium b.c.e., and from the eighth century onward, it increasingly gained currency as a center of university learning, Islamic life and culture, and artistic developments.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bedaux, Rogier Michiel Alphons, and J. D. van der Waals. Djenné: Une Ville millénaire au Mali. Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, 1994. Examines the architecture of Djenné (Jenne) in historical perspective. In French.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McIntosh, Roderick J. “Clustered Cities of the Middle Niger: Alternative Routes to Authority in Prehistory.” In Africa’s Urban Past, edited by David Anderson. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2000. Examines the ancient history of Djenné as an urban settlement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McIntosh, Susan Keech, and Roderick J. McIntosh. “Jenne-Jeno: An Ancient African City.” Archaeology 33, no. 1 (January/February, 1980): 8-14. A discussion of the archaeology of the ancient city of Djenné in the Inland Niger Delta.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McIntosh, Susan Keech, and Roderick J. McIntosh. “Cities Without Citadels: Understanding Urban Origins Along the Middle Niger.” In Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals, and Towns, edited by Thurstan Shaw et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. This source traces the history and origins of early urbanism in the western Sudan that preceded Arab and Islamic influences in the region.

Categories: History