The Niger River: Ecosystems & Trade Routes in Africa (12th-16th Centuries)

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  • 0:08 Niger River
  • 1:04 Arable Ecosystem
  • 1:39 Trans-Saharan Caravan Trade
  • 2:53 Cities & Decline
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explores the history of the Niger River Valley. The lesson highlights the trans-Saharan caravan trade and the cities of Djenne and Timbuktu.

Niger River

When thinking of places like West Africa, it's easy to conjure up images of mounds and mounds of sand with no vegetation in sight. Although this picture of a sandy ecosystem is rather true, there's also the Niger River Valley, which doesn't fit this description. Quite the opposite—it's a fertile area of land created by the Niger River of West Africa.

Since the Niger River Valley is inseparable from the Niger River, let's take a few moments and familiarize ourselves with this massive river. Squeaking into the top 15 of the world's longest rivers, the Niger River is about 2,600 miles long. It begins in the modern-day area of Guinea and runs east through countries like Mali, Niger, and Nigeria. This massive river and its river valley, the subject of our lesson, defined much of West African history during the 12th through 16th centuries.

Arable Ecosystem

For starters, the waters of the Niger River have provided both the past and the present of West Africa with an arable ecosystem. With arable meaning suitable for growing crops, and ecosystem meaning the sum of the biological and physical characteristics of an area, this simply means that the Niger River gave the people of West Africa a place where they could live and water their animals. This put the area at a huge advantage over the other areas of West Africa that were arid, or filled with sand dunes and too dry to support vegetation.

Trans-Saharan Caravan Trade

With this huge advantage, the area surrounding the Niger River was able to become a bustling thoroughfare for trade across the region. Of course, this trade system was not at all what we modernized Westerners think of as trade. There were no interstates or big rigs making their way across the desert. Instead, trade was accomplished by caravans of merchants trekking across the hot desert. This trade system has come to be known as the trans-Saharan caravan trade, in which merchants traveled by caravan across the Sahara Desert.

As most of us know from watching movies, these merchants usually chose the camel as their mode of transportation. After all, camels can carry lots of weight and they can go quite a long time on just a little bit of water. However, even camels (and especially their drivers!) need to stop for water sometime—enter the area of the Niger River Valley. Sort of like our modern-day rest stops, this fertile ecosystem provided a perfect place for weary travelers to rest and replenish. However, it didn't just offer a place of rest. The Niger River Valley was a place where merchants could meet and swap their goods.

Cities & Decline

When speaking of important trading cities along the Niger River, most sources will cite the cities of Timbuktu and Djenne. Although today not as well-known as Timbuktu, Djenne was the first noteworthy trading center of the region. Here, merchants of the trans-Saharan caravan trade swapped things like grains, salts, and even dried fish for the precious gold found in West Africa. As well as being a center for trade along the trans-Saharan caravan route, Djenne was also famous for its production of iron. This thriving city of trade and iron production was soon joined by other trading posts in the region, the most famous of which was Timbuktu.

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