Ancient Gold Mines in Africa

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

Have you ever wanted to know more about the vast mineral wealth of the continent of Africa? Well, this lesson is for you. In this lesson, you will find information on the many gold mines found on the continent of Africa and their history.

The Mineral Wealth of Africa

The continent of Africa is the location of the birth of humankind. It has forever been the cradle of life for all of humankind's needs, wants, and desires. Within the earth is a veritable treasure trove; wonders of beauty and stores of energy that have long since propelled people to greatness with the acquisition of their bounty.

Gold was first used industrially in Egypt around 3100 BCE. It was mined from the granite filled mountains that are found in the eastern part of the country as well as in what once was called Nubia. Slave labor was used to mine for the gold because so much of it was required for the worship of the god Ra, to build temples, and for personal adornment.

Gold in West Africa

In West Africa, an ancient people called the Akan populated the location that we now call Ghana around the 11th-century CE. Among the many tribes of this ancient civilization, could be found, the ethnic groups of the Ashanti and the Fanti, who mined for gold along the rivers Volta and Ankobra. The Akan divided gold collection based on sex.

Akan women were responsible for panning for gold along the rivers. After a heavy rainfall, women could find gold littered along the riverbed that could be easily obtained by hand. These pieces of gold were mainly small nuggets. Women could easily see these nuggets after the rainy seasons of the spring and would use wooden bowls to dig in the sand along the shore.

Afterward, they would shake the bowls, allowing the sand and gold to sink to the bottom. They would pour out the water and pick the gold from what remained. This process continued by transferring the remaining sand and dirt to smaller bowls with water, and shaking until all of the gold had been picked from the sand that had been collected initially.

Akan men were responsible for mining for gold, which was much more dangerous and painstaking. Mines within the earth were notorious for collapsing after the heavy spring rains, and many Akan men lost their lives. Men dug 60-foot holes into the ground with iron tools, then, as a team, they transported wooden bowls from deep within the mines, filled with dirt and gold to the top.

Gold Akan Artifact
Golden Akan Artifact

This gold was then traded for salt and slaves with the Berber tribes of northern Africa. The Akan needed salt for food preservation, and the Berbers used the gold and salt for currency and trade with the Arab world, of the Middle East. By the 1400s, the Portuguese arrived in western Africa and began trading gold with the Akan again for slaves and other things like brass. The Portuguese found so much gold along the rivers of western Africa that soon other Europeans would be attracted to the area.

By the 1600's the Portuguese had been replaced by the Dutch who later joined by the British in 1651. The two vied for dominance over tribes like the Akan in order to control the gold trade in West Africa which was also thriving on the slave trade. The British would emerge victoriously and would control the area known as the Gold Coast until 1957 when the area became known as Ghana.

Throne of Ashanti Rulers-Golden Stool
Golden Stool

Gold in South Africa

Between the 10th and 13th centuries CE, the South African kingdom of Mapungubwe thrived due to natural resources like gold. Located in the areas of modern-day Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa, Mapungubwe did much to encourage the gold trade. This would lead to the creation of Great Zimbabwe by the 1300s, at which time trading in gold had begun with the port city-state of Kilwa Kisiwani which was on the Indian Ocean.

Gold that was mined in Great Zimbabwe was transported to Kilwa Kisiwani in exchange for pottery, porcelain, and silk from China and Persia. The Zimbabwe Plateau was as it is today-rich in minerals like quartz, platinum, and gold that were mined by the Shona. The inland Limpopo and Zambezi rivers were also rich in gold, and the Shona panned for gold along their shores as well.

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