West African Gold First Reaches North Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the third century c.e., gold began to be transported from the West African mines near Buré and Bambuk through Ghana into North Africa.

Summary of Event

By the third century c.e., gold was being transported into North Africa via Ghana from fields in Buré and Bambuk. The gold fields were located near the upper Senegal River in the forest regions of modern-day Guinea. Ghana came into being at the beginning of the common era, when a confederation of Soninke clans came together under a politico-religious leader. The consolidation of populations in the inter-river region may have been a response to climate change and resulting socioeconomic pressures that caused Takrur, Berbers, Soninke, and others to contest control over land and resources. The empire that emerged from the confederation derived power and wealth from gold. The gold trade was primarily controlled by the ancient kingdom of Ghana, which had begun to emerge as a powerful centralized state through a concentration of wealth as early as the fourth century c.e.

The early occupation of land between the Senegal and Niger Rivers may have had little to do with the presence of gold; however, the emergence of a strong centralized state in this region is not incidental to the presence of gold. Gold served as the primary basis of the wealth that financed the strong, centralized state of Ghana. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that Kumbi Saleh, which become the capital of Ghana in the eighth century c.e., had been occupied by at least the fifth century. The available evidence suggests that a population was present in the area before it became a centralized state.

Ancient Ghana lies about 400 miles (650 kilometers) northwest of modern Ghana and is not related to modern Ghana geographically, politically, or ethnically. The old Ghana Empire was located just north of the gold fields in Bambuk and Buré. Ancient Ghana’s borders extended across the southern borderlands between modern-day Mauritania and Mali and into the northern parts of modern-day Senegal. Ancient Ghana stretched across the territory between the two major rivers of western Africa, the Niger and Senegal, and was just south of major Sahelian market towns and key transshipment points on the trans-Saharan caravan route such as Awdaghust. The kingdom was just west of important pre-Islamic, pre-Arab Middle Niger towns such as Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne (Djenné), which also served as the southernmost points on various caravan routes. Ancient Ghana was thus ideally located for transportation of goods between forest, Sahara, Niger River, and Senegal River populations, and it was located in the midst of densely populated urbanizing regions that produced large food surpluses.

In the western Sudan, gold dust was used as a valuable item of trade, similar to a currency. Internal African trade among inhabitants of the forest, savanna, Sahel, and inter-river communities preceded the trans-Saharan gold trade and made ancient Ghana attractive to the Roman gold markets and in medieval times attracted Arab and Islamic traders. Gold was mined in woodland savannas of the upper Niger and Senegal Rivers and then traded north to the Sahel in the first three centuries c.e. Available evidence demonstrates that the arrival of West African gold in North Africa coincides with the use of the camel to cross the Sahara into the Sahel from the third century c.e. The camel facilitated long-distance trade of heavy commodities such as salt, gold, and cloth across the desert. With the increased use of the camel after the fourth century in the Sahara and Sahel, the amount of goods—particularly gold—that was transported on caravans across the desert increased significantly.

The gold region of the Ghana Empire, also known as Wangara, was the foundation and starting point of the later trans-Saharan trade routes. The gold produced there was the main commodity sought by trans-Saharan traders. The king of Ghana maintained tight control over the gold production. To keep gold prices high, common folk could possess gold dust, but only the king could possess gold nuggets, which allowed him to accumulate great wealth. By the Islamic age, when large caravans traversed the Sahara, the king had begun levying tariffs on traders who used trade routes that passed through the Ghana Empire, particularly those caravans passing to Sijilmasa and the salt regions of Taghaza.

Significance

Ancient Ghana’s early wealth came from the state’s ability to control the distribution of gold as it was passed from mining areas in the Bambuk and Buré regions to Jenne and further north. Ancient Ghana is an example of a state in ancient times collecting taxes to ensure its own political and economic strength.

By the third century c.e., trans-Saharan gold trade was creating strong commercial links between the forests of western Sudanic Africa and the Sahara-Sahel. These early commercial links were the foundation of a large and prosperous medieval trans-Saharan trade system. Gold from western Africa helped fuel commerce in the Mediterranean world. Coins began to appear in the eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa as currency for commerce early in the first millennium c.e. By the third century, gold was in great demand at the Roman mint in Carthage. Beginning in the late third century, trans-Saharan trade from West Africa supplied the Roman Mediterranean world with a proportion of its gold resources from the bullion and gold dust of Guinea, just south of ancient Ghana.

By the eighth century c.e., the trans-Saharan trade routes were highly lucrative, and this trade intensified the Ghana Empire’s success. Merchants from the north brought foodstuffs and salt to the kingdom to exchange for locally produced goods such as cotton, leather, metal, and, most important, gold. The increased demand for gold from the northern Islamic states after the eighth century brought great attention to medieval Ghana, which came to be referred to by the Islamic states as “the Land of Gold.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andah, B. Wai. “West Africa Before the Seventh Century.” In Ancient Civilizations, edited by G. Mokhtar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Includes a section on ancient trade in western Africa. Excellent resource on the history of ancient Africa. Many bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillipson, David. African Archaeology. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Includes brief discussion of early gold trade, including a map of ancient Ghana. The primary focus of the sections on the gold trade is post-Islamic rather than the ancient trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Posnansky, Merrick. “Aspects of Early West African Trade.” World Archaeology 5, no. 2 (1973): 149-162. Includes maps and a discussion of key issues to consider in West African trade history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneider, Klaus. “Das Gold der Lobi: Aspekte historischer und ethnologischer Interpretation.” Afrika-Studien 36 (1990): 277-290. Schneider examines the place of Lobi gold within the larger historical picture of trading systems in the Sahel. The Lobi gold mine is less known than Bambuk, Buré, or the Akan goldfields in terms of West African economic history. In German.

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