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What Was the Gold & Salt Trade?

William Spaulding, Kevin Newton
  • Author
    William Spaulding

    William has taught world geography, world history, and government for over 3 years. He has a Bachelor of Science in Education from Southwestern University. He is also certified to teach social studies and history from 7th to 12th grade in Texas.

  • 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.

Examine more about the gold and salt trade and how it was conducted. Explore the ancient African trade routes and find out why salt was so valuable in West Africa. Updated: 07/14/2022

Table of Contents


What Was the Gold-Salt Trade in Ancient Africa?

Trade is one of the most important parts of any economy past or present, and this was especially true for the economy of West Africa as they traded gold, salt, and many other things north across the Sahara desert. While gold and salt have been traded globally for much of human history, a common definition for the gold and salt trade is the large caravans traveling between West Africa and the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. This trade involved the large salt and gold mines that existed in modern-day Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso and the demand for these goods in Europe and the Middle East. This trade was crucial to the states of West Africa as gold was used by much of the world as currency, and salt was important as a preservative and chemical component. This trade was important for West Africa because it gave the region access to goods that were scarce to them such as iron, copper, textiles, and much later, advanced technology such as gunpowder and weapons.

Trade between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean has been occurring since pre-dynastic Egypt, as some Egyptian artifacts were found along these ancient trade routes that date back to 4000 BC. Over time the participants of the trade would change on both sides of the Sahara, but the trade would continue nonetheless and this interaction would prove to be highly lucrative for many. While the trade originated several thousand years ago, it would not become regular and organized until the domestication of camels in Africa around the 3rd century AD, and the spread of Islam in Africa around the 7th century AD. With the introduction of camels, traders could more efficiently travel across the desert as camels are able to store water in their humps and thus did not need as much water as a horse or human while transporting goods. The spread of Islam also increased the connections North Africa and the Middle East had with sub-Saharan Africa, and thus the gold and salt merchants.

Picture of a caravan of camels walking through the desert.

Camel caravan

Why Was Salt so Valuable in West Africa?

When evaluating the impact of this gold and salt trade, it is important to consider the value of these goods in order to understand why their demand was so high in the Mediterranean world. Gold as a trade good is easily understood as it has been used as a currency in many cultures all across the Afro-Eurasian landmass. Salt on the other hand might be more difficult to understand as it is usually a cheap item in modern markets, but its low value comes from its high supply in modern times. Salt has many uses that were crucial to improving the quality of life and the survival of many societies in the past. First of all, salt was valuable as a preservative because salt reduces the water activity in foods thus slowing down microbial growth, commonly known as mold. Other than this main use, salt is also important to human diets as it is an essential electrolyte. Symptoms of a salt deficiency include dizziness, confusion, muscle twitches, and seizures. While not all of this science was known to the people involved in the salt trade, they did understand that a lack of salt could cause disease, not to mention it is also a common seasoning in most cuisine. Salt was also important in the health of many pack animals, including the camels carrying the goods.

One of the most famous salt mines in West Africa was in the city of Taghaza. This mine and trading outpost produced much of the salt that would travel across the desert. This mine was so abundant and powerful that several Muslim scholars including Zakariya al-Qazwini and Ibn Battuta both wrote about how much of the city had walls made of salt and the mine was worked by a large number of slaves. While Taghaza would eventually be replaced by other salt sources, the operation seen there illustrates how important salt was as a trade good.

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  • 0:04 Trade in Ancient Africa
  • 0:57 Basic Geography
  • 1:31 Salt From the Desert
  • 2:06 Islam & the Growth of Trade
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What were the Difficulties of the Gold-Salt Trade?

The Ghana Empire was one of the first centralized states to express control over the gold and salt trade. The empire they created existed between about 300-1100 AD, and the way Ghana's gold and salt trade worked was that they made massive amounts of wealth by centralizing control over the trade routes and taxing imports and exports of all trade moving through their territory. Through these taxes, the rulers of Ghana were able to become the most powerful group in the region and could use their wealth to raise armies or even buy superior weapons from the Mediterranean world.

During the rule of Ghana, some of the first signs of domesticated camels appeared in the region. These camels would become important because before them, traders would have to move goods with horses or humans, both of whom needed large amounts of water daily. This caused a logistic difficulty as water is notably scarce in the Sahara desert. Camels did not need as much water because they could store water in their bodies. They were able to travel longer distances with less water, improving the efficiency of trans-Saharan trade. Another difficulty that would cause the trade to decline was that countries outside of West Africa, including the Almoravids (11th century AD) and the French (19th and 20th centuries AD), would exert more and more control and power over the region, causing trade to decline with an increase in conflict.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What were the gold and salt trade routes and why were they important?

The gold and salt trade routes were important trade network lanes that connected sub-saharan West Africa with the Middle East and Europe. This connection also made states in West Africa incredibly wealthy when they had control over the mines and trade routes.

What did the gold and salt trade do?

The gold and salt trade of Africa provided gold and salt to much of the Mediterranean world and Europe. In exchange for this trade, many cities in West Africa developed as rich urban areas with centers of learning.

What was the significance of the gold and salt trade in Ghana?

The trade helped Ghana grow into a rich and powerful state after they were founded in 300 AD. This was because Ghana controlled many of the gold mines in West Africa as a centralized state and could exert power and influence over their neighbors.

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