Early States of the Western Sudan
- LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0061
- LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0061
From the late 8th century to 1500 CE, a series of major polities emerged in the Sudanic zone between the Niger River and the Atlantic. All drew significant resources from long-distance and trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt, and slaves, according to contemporary chroniclers writing in Arabic. Both Ghana (or Wagadu, as the Soninke remember their ancient state) and Gawgaw (Gao) are mentioned between the late 8th and the 10th centuries, with considerable detail—especially for Ghana—provided by al-Bakri in the 11th century. Al-Bakri also furnishes the earliest mention of Takrur, located on the Senegal River. As the power of Ghana waned, smaller successor states emerged. In the 13th century, all these areas were consolidated within the hegemony of the Empire of Mali, known to us from Ibn Battuta’s eyewitness account, among others, and from versions of the riveting Epic of Sunjata. In the 15th century, as Mali declined, Songhay reasserted power from its capital at Gao. The antiquity both of trans-Saharan trade and these trade-based polities has been the subject of considerable discussion (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in African Studies article on “Trans-Saharan Trade” by Ghislaine Lydon). Was there a trade route from Libya to the Niger Bend in the mid-1st millennium BCE? Was the Ghana Empire founded as early as 400 CE, as one often reads? Archaeology is essential to evaluating these issues. Imports of copper and glass in sites just south of the Sahara increase during the period 400–800 CE. The latter half of this time period coincides with the initial Arab advance into North Africa, and the establishment of trading centers at Tahert and Sijilmasa in the Magreb. Large-scale desert transport of heavy commodities such as salt and metals was made possible by the spread of the camel as a desert pack animal in the 1st millennium CE. With the spread of Islam and literacy, more-expansive trade networks carrying far more goods were in place by 1000 CE. In the 11th century, a desert confederation of Sanhaja Berbers established the powerful Almoravid Empire, which provided a unified political field for trade from the Senegal River to Spain. The apogee of trans-Saharan trade extended from the 11th to 15th centuries, at which point European traders began to divert the gold traffic to the coast, and the states of the western Sudan subsequently declined.
General overviews of the history of the early states of the western Sudan are constructed around three major axes: political relations, trade, and Islam. Levtzion 1973 is a key source focused primarily on Ghana and Mali. Topical overview essays, some also by Nehemia Levtzion, are gathered in Ajayi and Crowder 1985, Fage 1978, Oliver 1977, and Hrbek 1992. Mauny 1961 presents a compendium of archaeological, historical, and geographic information relevant to the “medieval” period of the early states of the western Sudan. Kea 2004 considers a time frame similar to Raymond Mauny’s and views the archaeological and historical data for the western Sudan through the lens of world systems theory. Connah 2015 presents an overview chapter primarily grounded in archaeology of the development of civilization in the West African savanna.
Ajayi, J. F. A., and Michael Crowder, eds. History of West Africa. Vol. 1. 3d ed. London: Longman, 1985.
A still-useful collection of essays on precolonial West African regions. Unusual at the time, in that eleven of the fifteen distinguished Africanist contributors were professors at West African universities. See especially chapter 4 by Nehemia Levtzion, “The Early States of the Western Sudan to 1500” (pp. 129–166), and chapter 6 by John Hunwick, “Songhay, Bornu and Hausaland in the Sixteenth Century” (pp. 205–242). Originally published in 1971.
Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 3d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Geographically organized, primarily archaeological overview of the civilizations of tropical Africa. See chapter 6, on the West African savanna (pp. 149–184).
Fage, J. D., ed. The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol. 2, From c. 500 B.C. to A.D. 1050. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Of particular interest in this volume are “Trans-Saharan Contacts and the Iron Age in West Africa” by Raymond Mauny (pp. 272–341), and “The Sahara and the Sudan from the Arab Conquest of the Maghrib to the Rise of the Almoravids” (pp. 637–684) and “The Hegemony of Songhay” (pp. 415–462), both by Levtzion.
Hrbek, Ivan, ed. General History of Africa. Vol. 3, Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. London: James Currey, 1992.
Several chapters are still useful, especially 11 (on the role of the Sahara in North-South relations, pp. 146–162), 13 (on the Almoravids, pp. 176–189), and 14 (on trade routes in West Africa, pp. 190–215).
Kea, Ray A. “Expansions and Contractions: World-Historical Change and the Western Sudan World-System (1200/1000 B.C.–1200/1250 A.D.).” Journal of World-Systems Research 10.3 (2004): 723–816.
A five-part overview of archaeological and historical evidence contributing to an understanding of the development and chronology of urbanization, social systems, and trade networks in sub-Saharan West Africa and their relationship to worldwide historical change. Draws some conclusions and connections that exceed the quality of the archaeological data on which they are based.
Levtzion, Nehemia. Ancient Ghana and Mali. Studies in African History 7. London: Methuen, 1973.
In the decades since its publication, this remains the definitive study of the medieval states of West Africa.
Mauny, Raymond. Tableau géographique de l’Ouest africain au Moyen Age. Mémoires de l’Institut Français d’Afrique Noire 61. Dakar, Senegal: IFAN, 1961.
This important source pulled together all the colonial-period reports on archaeology and history in the French colonies in West Africa, as well as the relevant Arabic texts. Encyclopedic and erudite, it remains a key resource.
Oliver, Roland, ed. The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol. 3, From c. 1050 to c. 1600. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
In this volume, see especially “The Western Maghrib and Sudan” by Levtzion (pp. 331–462). The chapter by Fage on “Upper and Lower Guinea” (pp. 463–518) contains an important section on developments before the arrival of Europeans on the Atlantic coast, describing trade relations with the interior, including Ghana/Wagadu and Mali.
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