Gold and Salt Trade in Ancient Africa

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

If you're thinking about goods that you'd cross the Sahara for, gold probably comes to mind. Salt? Not so much. In this lesson, we'll see why both gold and salt were crucial trade goods in Africa.

Trade in Ancient Africa

Picture the great Sahara Desert of North Africa in your mind: desert as far as the eye can see, with shiftless dunes meaning that there is no easy way to navigate. But there, in the distance, you see a caravan. Crossing the dunes, the camels are weighed down with precious goods. You approach and investigate. Some of the camels are loaded with gold, just as you'd expect. But what about the others? Large off-white blocks seem to be their cargo. You notice the crystals and taste them; they're salt.

That's right, for thousands of years, and even to a certain degree today, the most valuable goods to cross the Sahara were gold and salt. In this lesson, we're going to take a look at the gold and salt trade across the Sahara, explore its long history, and discuss how it really took off after the spread of Islam to West Africa.

Basic Geography

First, we need to start with a basic geography lesson. For thousands of years, there have been many settlements to the north of the Sahara, namely within Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. These settlements have been connected to Mediterranean trade networks since their origins. Meanwhile, far to the south, rich settlements in what are now Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, among other countries, existed alongside some of the richest gold veins in antiquity. But how could traders tap into the region's great potential for trade?

The Sahara Desert

Salt from the Desert

The answer came from the nomads of the desert, the Berber people, who had long been crossing this route. With time, the Berbers would connect these two different spheres of Africa. However, they did not arrive as mere middlemen. The Berbers had access to some of the great salt deposits of the ancient world.

Salt may sound like a crazy thing to trade for, but if your civilization depends on animals, like camels or horses, then it's a necessity. Salt, an electrolyte, helps these animals better cope with long periods without reliable water.

Islam and the Growth of Trade

Like I said, these routes existed for hundreds of years, but they really became something incredible after the rise of Islam during the early Middle Ages. The Muslim faith spread along the routes and soon, both sides of the Sahara were Muslim. This meant that there was an incredible amount of cultural exchange going on. Two superb examples of this exist.

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