Ancient West African Civilization, Culture & Religion

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

While Egypt, Carthage and Greece rose to splendor throughout the Mediterranean world, a number of cultures were beginning to develop in West Africa. This lesson examines the history, culture and religion of this fascinating region.

Ancient West Africa

West Africa is the region of Africa that is south of the Sahara Desert and extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Benegal Trough in the East. West Africa is a diverse region that has a varied landscape of savanna, mountains, rain forest and desert. The region first entered the Iron Age in roughly 1200 BCE, probably learning the processes through its contact with Egypt at that time. West Africa actually maintained connections with the Mediterranean world, initially through trade with Carthage, then Rome, and later the Caliphate during this era.

This was the beginning of the Trans-Sahara Trade Network which would go on to become so vital to the region in later centuries. West African peoples traded cotton, ivory, metal goods and gold to the north in exchange for horses, textiles and other goods. These trade routes, as well as the appearance of iron tools that allowed for more productive farming, led to the development of the region's first City-States. City-States are independent cities that often control the agricultural land outside of their borders and govern themselves. These city-states, in turn, would help spur the development of the first states and empires in the area.

The Nok Culture

One of the first cultures to develop during the early Iron Age in West Africa was the Nok Culture in modern day Nigeria. The culture appears to have begun around 1000 BCE and and lasted until 300 CE. Because they did not leave any writings behind, we don't know what the Nok actually called themselves. Instead, we call them the Nok after the modern day village where their artifacts were discovered by Europeans who were scouting the region for possible tin mines.

The most impressive aspect of Nok culture that has been discovered is their amazing array of sculptures. These terracotta clay sculptures were life-sized and depicted both male and female figures and are actually some of the first life-sized, human-shaped terracotta sculptures found in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Nok culture began to vanish by 200 CE and was gone a century later. However, no one has been able to determine what caused their decline and collapse.

Nok Terracotta Figurine
Nok Terracotta Figurine

The Kingdom of Ghana

The first true state in West Africa that we know of appeared with the rise of the Kingdom of Ghana around 300 CE, at the same time the Nok culture was fading. This Kingdom of Ghana was located in modern-day Mauritania and Mali; the modern nation of Ghana is not related to the old Kingdom. Much like the Nok, Ghana did not provide any works of writing in their own language. Much of what we know of the Kingdom comes from the accounts of Arab traders who often visited the region and wrote of the people. Ghana rose to power because of its position on the Trans-Sahara Trade Network, and specialized in the production of gold and salt-- goods that were in high demand throughout the Mediterranean world.

The King of Ghana appears to have ruled over the core of his Kingdom and also had a number of lesser kings that were his vassals. A vassal is a ruler who is closely allied with and carries out the will of a stronger state. Ghana appears to have fallen around the year 1200 CE; it is thought that this was the result of changing trade routes, which no longer went through the kingdom, as well as the opening up of newer, richer, goldmines outside of the territory of Ghana. It is known that the Kingdom of Tekrur, once a vassal of Ghana, became an independent power in its own right during this era.

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