Salt indigenous the Sahara desert was among the major trade goods of ancient West Africa whereby very little naturally occurring deposits that the mineral could be found. Transported via camel caravans and by watercraft along together rivers as the Niger and also Senegal, salt uncovered its means to commerce centres choose Koumbi Saleh, Niani, and also Timbuktu, where it to be either passed further south or exchanged for other items such as ivory, hides, copper, iron, and also cereals. The most typical exchange to be salt because that gold dust that come from the mines of southern West Africa. Indeed, salt was such a valuable commodity the it was quite literally precious its load in yellow in some parts of West Africa.

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The Salt Mines the the Sahara

The need for salt in old West Africa is here summarised in one extract from the UNESCO General history of Africa:

Salt is a mineral the was in great demand particularly with the beginning of an agricultural mode of life. Hunters and also food-gatherers probably acquired a large amount of their salt intake indigenous the pets they hunted and from fresh tree food. Salt only becomes an important additive whereby fresh foods items are unobtainable in vey dried areas, where body perspiration is likewise normally excessive. That becomes exceptionally desirable, however, among societies with relatively minimal diets, as was the situation with arable agriculturalists. (Vol II, 384-5)

In addition, salt was constantly in an excellent demand in bespeak to better preserve dried meat and also to give included taste to food. The savannah an ar south of the west Sahara desert (known as the Sudan region) and also the forests of southern West Africa were bad in salt. Those areas near the Atlantic coast could obtain the mineral indigenous evaporation pans or cook sea water, however sea salt walk not take trip or keep well. A 3rd alternative to be salt obtained from the ashes of charred plants choose millet and also palms, however again these were not so well-off in sodium chloride. Consequently, for many of the Sudan region, salt had actually to come native the north. The unwelcoming Sahara desert to be the cook natural resource of absent salt, either acquired from surface ar deposits caused by the desiccation procedure such as discovered in old lake beds or extracted from fairly shallow mines whereby the salt is naturally developed into slabs. This salt, which was a creamy-grey colour, was much superior come the various other sources the salt native the sea or certain plants.


When exactly salt became a profession commodity is unknown, but the exchange the salt for cereals dates earlier to prehistory when desert and also savannah peoples each looked to acquire what they might not produce themselves. ~ above a larger scale, camel caravans were likely crossing the Sahara native at least the first centuries that the 1st millennium CE. These caravans would be operation by the Berbers that acted as middle-men between the north African states and West Africa. Salt to be their major trade good but they additionally brought deluxe items favor glassware, good cloth, and manufactured goods. In addition, with these trade goods came the Islamic religion, ideas in art and architecture, and cultural practices.

Whoever controlled the salt trade likewise controlled the yellow trade, & both to be the principal economic pillars of miscellaneous West afri empires.

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Salt, both its production and also trade, would conquer West African economic situations throughout the second millennium CE, with sources and also trade centres constantly transforming hands as empires rose and also fell. The salt mines of Idjil in the Sahara were a famous resource of the priceless commodity for the Ghana realm (6-13th century CE) and were quiet going strong in the 15th century CE. In the 10th century CE the Sanhaja Berbers, who controlled the salt mines in ~ Awlil and Taghaza and transportation with trade cities favor Audaghost, started to challenge the Ghana Empire"s syndicate of the trade. In the 11th century CE the Awlil mines were in the hands of Takrur, yet it would be the Mali realm (1240-1645 CE), v its resources at Niani, that conquered the sub-Saharan salt trade complying with the collapse of the Ghana Empire. However, semi-independent flow "ports" prefer Timbuktu began to steal trade opportunities from the Mali kings additional west. The following kingdom to overcome the region and the motion of salt to be the Songhai empire (15-16th century CE) through its good trading funding at Gao.

Salt may have actually been a rarity in the savannah however at desert mining towns favor Taghaza (the main Sudan resource of salt approximately the 16th century CE) and Taoudenni, the commodity was still so plentiful slabs of rock salt were offered to build homes. Naturally, together a an important money-spinner as a salt mine attractive competition for ownership, as as soon as the Moroccan leader Muhammad al-Mahdi attempted to muscle in on the sector by arranging because that several significant Tuareg salt traders to be murdered in ~ Taghaza in the mid-16th century CE. Rather literally, whoever controlled the salt trade likewise controlled the yellow trade, and both to be the principal economic pillars of the various realms of West Africa"s history.