Socially Stratified Kingdoms Arise Around the Middle Niger River Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Kingdoms developed around the Middle Niger River in Africa, becoming socially stratified and increasingly complex.

Summary of Event

The Niger River has its source in present-day Guinea and meanders through Mali, Niger, Benin, and Nigeria. It is the third largest river in Africa, rising within 150 miles (240 kilometers) of the sea in the Fouta Jallon highlands on the borders of Sierra Leone and Guinea. It extends for 2,600 miles (4,180 kilometers), and its basin covers an area of approximately 580,000 square miles (1.5 million square kilometers), including the lake region between Sansanding and Kabara. The Benue River, a tributary of the Niger, has its source in the Cameroon highlands.

Artificial earth mounds, reflecting either settlement sites or graves (tumuli), are found in the three main areas of the Middle Niger region: the Niger-Bani confluence in the Bani valley, north and northeast of Masina and Segu, and the area to the extreme east of the bend of the Niger river, in present-day Burkina Faso. According to African archaeologist Bassey Wai Andah, thick-walled wares served as burial pots in all three areas. In Burkina Faso (Niger Rim), researchers found iron or polished-and-ground stone tools as well as domestic pottery. Bronze and copper implements were found in the Niger bend area. At Masina and Segu, fine dishes and bowls with thin walls, footed cups, jugs, and conical jars were found. The people were generally farmers of the Iron Age, cultivating millet and rice, and others were fisherfolk who used nets with terra-cotta weights as opposed to bone harpoons.

Archaeological evidence found in what was known as the Western Sudan and is now Nigeria and Mali suggests that desiccation and the constant growth of the Sahara precipitated the movement of pastoralists and agricultural producers southward and from the north and northeast between 5000 and 2000 b.c.e. There is some basis to suggest that certain species of rice such as the Oryza Barthii A. Chev (hardy rice) and Oryza breviligulata A. Chev and Oryza Roer may have been originally planted in West Africa in the middle Niger River region and that the delta of the Middle Niger was the point for varietal diversification of the rice species. Certain distinctive characteristics of the rice species such as the deciduous spikelets, the anthocyanin pigmentation of the flowers, the purple seed coats and the “floating” form, indicate a center of primary variation.

Oral traditions in West Africa, particularly in Northern Nigeria, from Wukari on the Benue tributary to Busa on the Niger, describe the Kisra Legend, which speaks about a royal ruler named Kisra from the east who migrated and forged numerous kingdoms. Remnants of this anecdote are also found in Songhai. Kisra has been associated with the Hausa words, Sarki or Seraki, and the Busa word, ki-shira. Traditions of eastern roots of ancient migrants to the Western Sudan are especially strong in Nupe and Borgu.

Archaeological sites such as Taruga, and to some extent, Bonga, Amo, Gurun, and Mongon in the Nok Valley in central Nigeria demonstrate the use of furnaces, indicating that ironworking was prominent and paved the way for the use of iron agricultural implements such as hoes and cutlasses, which revolutionized earlier agricultural practices. Findings of large beads of quartz, pottery, and bangles point to a thriving and increasingly sophisticated lifestyle of people in the Nok Valley. Just as the proximity of the Nile led to the emergence of the earliest civilizations around the Nile River Valley, so too, the communities that lived close to the Niger River in West Africa experienced radical changes in the evolution of their lifestyles and cultures.

Iron use changed the kinds of weapons and tools used by the people around the wooded Niger Valley in the middle of the first millennium b.c.e. Removal of trees for human cultivation in forested areas through fires and bark peeling was probably considered a time-consuming and energy-intensive process. Africans in the Middle Niger River Valley may thus have become more receptive toward developing a more energy-efficient technology to meet increased subsistence needs. Iron use provided an important avenue to relieve physical stress and harness resources of the material environment for better living in a more effective manner. Iron-ended hoes and axes replaced those made of wood or stone.

Another important factor was the sedentary lifestyle of the communities in the middle Niger River Valley. The archaeological evidence suggests that these communities engaged in iron production periodically and not perennially. Further, the task of iron smelting was left to the specialist blacksmiths and master smelters, using the wood and ore available in the forested regions of West Africa. It is also probable that gold and silver mining occurred in parts of West Africa at close proximity to the Middle Niger region from the beginning of the first century c.e., even though excavations at Jenne-Jeno later unearthed a gold earring from 800 c.e. Jenne-Jeno became a fully settled center starting in 300 c.e. What is evident is that technological skills were expanding in West Africa with the inception of the Iron Age.

As populations increased and social organization became more complex, the peoples of the middle Niger River Valley took to forming larger political structures that resembled states or institutions of governance and social maintenance. Trade began to expand, and with trade came enhanced economic prosperity, which beckoned people to organize themselves. Some became kings or community leaders and others the ruled or subjects. In other communities of West Africa, people collectively organized themselves into clans and familial units with no centralized authority, except a council of elders, as is the case in many African societies today. The net result of these evolutionary changes, the beginning of earnest trade and commerce, the emergence of marketing relations, and the formations of towns and villages, was the sparking of greater social differences and the exacerbation of social stratification among different segments of communities in the Middle Niger River Valley.

Graham Konnah, a Euro-Australian archaeologist, notes that the tumuli point to a formalizing of power by African leaders, derived from their control of iron and later gold deposits that led to further social stratification. It was this process of accumulation of wealth from mining and agricultural expansion that preceded the emergence of the vast Ghana Kingdom in the eighth century c.e. and the successive urban centers of the first millennium c.e.


What is clear in the chronology of events from 500 b.c.e. to 300 c.e. in the Middle Niger River region is that African civilizations were evolving as numerous other civilizations were in Asia, the Americas, and Europe. West Africa skipped the Bronze Age, showing that there is no law of historical evolution that demands a region go through such a stage of cultural and technological development. The view that Africans were undeveloped and West Africa was a land devoid of civilizations before European colonialism is shattered by the preponderant archaeological evidence demonstrating some of the most sophisticated civilizations of the era, equaling or exceeding cultures in other parts of the world. The Middle Niger River region’s cultures, from the first millennium b.c.e. through the first millennium c.e., reflect consistent technological innovation and social complexities that paved the way for the towering civilizations in Ghana, Mali, and Songhai that would last through the fifteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ajayi, J. F. A., and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972. A foundational text for understanding West African history, including ancient civilizations of the Niger River Valley.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alagoa, E. J., F. N. Anoizie, and Nwanna Nzewunwa in association with the University of Port Harcourt, eds. The Early History of the Niger Delta. Hamburg, Germany: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1988. A valuable work by African archaeologists discussing the economic, cultural, and linguistic history of early West Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diop, Cheikh Anta. The Origin of African Civilizations: Myth or Reality? New York: Lawrence Hill, 1975. A good reference text that argues for a continuity of ancient Egyptian civilizations with that of the rest of ancient Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fage, J. D., and R. A. Oliver, eds. Papers in African Prehistory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970. An important work of diverse essays discussing among other topics on African civilizations, botanic arguments on the origins of agriculture in tropical Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kense, François. African Occasional Papers, No. 1: Traditional African Iron Working. Calgary, Alta., Canada: Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary, 1983. An informative book discussing the complexities of iron technology in Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Konnah, Graham. African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa: An Archaeological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. This work provides a good discussion of archaeological evidence found in Africa substantiating the complexity of precolonial African societies, including a section on Middle Niger River findings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mokhtar, G., ed. Ancient Civilizations of Africa. Vol. 2 in General History of Africa. Paris: UNESCO and London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1981. This book provides important archaeological information on ancient African civilizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olaniyan, Richard, ed. African History and Culture. Lagos, Nigeria: Longman Nigeria, 1982. This work contains important essays by African scholars on the evolution of African societies from the ancient period to the present
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Osae, T. A., S. N. Nwabara, and A. T. O. Odunsi. A Short History of West Africa: a.d. 1000 to the Present. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Though this book covers a later period of West Africa, the background information provided in the first chapter is informative, particularly in discussing influences on West African civilizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sorgwe, C. M. A Textbook of Niger Delta History. Oyo State, Nigeria: Rescue Publications, 1997. A basic history of the area that covers ancient times.

Categories: History