The European colonial powers called Africa "the Dark Continent" when they began their explorations. They saw it as a vast and dangerous place filled with savage people, but Africa has been home to many advanced, exotic civilizations. Many have been buried beneath the sands of time, but we know of others, and archaeologists continue to uncover more clues about ancient African civilizations.
West Africa has a great oral tradition. A griot is a learned storyteller, entertainer, and historian. Often a griot will memorize the genealogy, or family history, of everyone in a village going back centuries. American writer Alex Haley met a griot in 1966 that had memorized the entire story of the village of Juffure to a date two centuries in the past when his ancestor was enslaved.
A great deal of what we know about West Africa comes from the griots, but archaeologists are often surprised by new finds. In the last fifteen years, scholars have concluded that civilization had developed in West Africa as much as one thousand years earlier than expected. We now know that Africa had an Iron Age culture with cities and trade routes about 250 years before the common era.
In 1928, archaeologists unearthed an amazing culture in the Nigerian village of Nok. We know very little about the ancient Nok culture of West Africa. We don't even know what they called themselves; we do know, however, that they uncovered the mysteries of iron.
Iron is a metal found in rocks. The Nok discovered that by heating certain rocks, they were able to "smelt" iron. Iron is a very useful substance. Iron is very malleable (or moldable). It can be reshaped to make weapons and plows. Iron conducts heat very well and can be used for cooking and heating. A civilization that had discovered iron would be more advanced than those that had not. The discovery of the uses of iron was a major technological achievement of the ancient Nok of sub-Saharan Africa.
Most ancient cultures discovered copper and bronze before iron, but the Nok apparently moved from the stone age to the iron age. Did the Nok teach themselves these skills, or did they discover the secrets of iron from other cultures? That question remains a mystery that archaeologists may someday understand.
The Phoenicians came from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in land we now call Lebanon. Their land was arid and inhospitable for farming, so they turned to the sea to become the greatest travelers and traders of their time. The Phoenicians invented the alphabet, and taught several cultures their advanced system of writing.
The Phoenicians extended their influence across North Africa and settled Carthage in the modern nation of Tunisia, as a trading post. The word Carthage means "new city". The Phoenicians chose Carthage because of its location in the center of North Africa, a short distance away from Sicily and the Italian Peninsula. When the Assyrians and the Persians conquered the original homeland of the Phoenicians, Carthage became an independent state.
It was against a rival city in Italy, Rome, that Carthage fought and lost three brutal wars that eventually destroyed the city. The wars were known as the Punic Wars because Puncia was the Roman name for Carthage. The Roman navy surprised the sea trading people in the first war in 238BC. The Carthaginians acquired a new base in Spain from which a great military leader named Hannibal led a team of elephants across southern France and into Italy. Hannibal won some early victories but his forces were outnumbered, allowing Rome to win an even more brutal war lasting almost fifteen years until 204BC.
Carthage lost all political and military power by the end of the second Punic War, but the Romans moved a half-century later to destroy the city. After a siege in 146BC, the Romans went from house to house slaughtering the Carthaginians. The few survivors were sold into slavery, the city and harbor were destroyed, and the Romans poured salt over the farmland to ensure its barrenness.
The civilizations that flourished in ancient West Africa were all based on trade, so successful West African leaders tended to be conciliators rather than warriors. Caravans from North Africa crossed the Sahara beginning in the seventh century of the Common Era.
Gold from West Africa was exchanged for something the West Africans prized even more: salt. Salt was used as a flavoring, a food preservative, and for retaining body moisture.
The first people to make the trek across the desert were the Berbers of North Africa, who brought their strict Islamic faith across the Sahara. The Berbers converted many of the merchants of West Africa to Islam, but most of the common people retained their traditional beliefs. The ancient West Africans, like Native Americans and the Sumerians, believed that many gods existed in nature. They did not accept the Muslim belief in one god.
The ancient African civilization we call Ghana existed in West Africa between the Niger and the Senegal Rivers. The rivers were important to Ghana because their economy was based on trade, and before the modern age, rivers were the fastest way to carry goods. Ghana became wealthy by collecting taxes from traders who passed through the kingdom. The people called their nation Wagadu; we know it as Ghana because that was the name of their war chief.
Ghana managed the gold trade despite the fact that the empire had few natural resources of their own. The gold and salt mines all lay beyond the borders of the empire, but the power of Ghana was based on their superior skill in working iron. Ghana used iron tipped spears to subdue the neighbors, who fought with less efficient weapons made of stone, bone, and wood.
Muslim warriors known as the Almoravids called a jihad ("holy war" in Arabic) on Ghana because the people of Ghana kept their traditional beliefs. The Almoravids were successful in weakening, but not destroying the empire. Ghana remained a shadow of itself for more than a century, and warriors from throughout the region formed many small states that threatened the vital trade routes through West Africa.
Samanguru was a warrior that managed to conquer a great deal of West Africa once Ghana was weakened. Samanguru was hostile to the Mandinka people who lived in the region. His taxes were high, he felt it was his privilege to carry off Mandinka women, and he failed to maintain law and order along the trade routes.
The griots of West Africa still speak of the story of the sickly young boy who grew up to become a great warrior. Sundiata was one of twelve brothers who were the children of a Mandinka warrior. Samanguru killed the twelve brothers, but spared Sundiata because he believed the boy would die anyway. That was a mistake that would lead to Samanguru's downfall, because the sickly boy recovered, and eventually assembled an army to confront Samanguru. Sundiata's forces killed Samanguru and destroyed his army in the Battle of Kirina in 1235. Sundiata then became mansa, or king of a new empire which we know today as Mali, or "where the king resides."
Sundiata proved himself a great warrior, but he was only interested in removing Samanguru and once again making West Africa a safe place to travel and trade. He converted to Islam, but only as a gesture of goodwill to the merchants and traders. To his own people, Sundiata presented himself as a champion of traditional West African religion.
Mansa Musa captured the attention of the Arab world when he left his home to make a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. Unlike Sundiata, Mansa Musa truly was a Muslim. Islamic law requires that all faithful Muslims make a pilgrimage, or holy visit, to the city on the Arabian Peninsula where the faith was started. Mansa Musa was said to have taken more than 500 people with him, each carrying a staff of solid gold. When Mansa Musa passed through Cairo, he gave away so much gold that the price of gold fell and the economy was effected for more than twenty years.
The appearance of a wealthy king from a far away land made a deep impression, and Mali began to appear on maps throughout the Middle East and Europe. Sub-Saharan Africa was well known north of the Sahara Desert for the first time. Mansa Musa was followed in power by less able leaders and in time, another kingdom, Songhai, had replaced Mali.
A bloody war with Morocco destroyed Songhai. The sultan of Morocco wanted West African gold, so he sent an army of 3000 men across the desert in 1590. The spears and lances of the Songhai warriors were no match for the cannons and muskets of the Moroccan army, but they continued to fight long after the Songhai government had been destroyed. The bloody war continued for more than ten years until the Sultan lost interest and abandoned his army in Songhai. The Moroccan soldiers were either killed or absorbed into the local population. The Moroccan invasion destroyed Songhai, and with it the trade routes that had brought prosperity to the region for hundreds of years.
No name makes people think of ancient Africa better than Timbuktu. Timbuktu was the greatest trading place in sub-Saharan Africa for more than four hundred years. Cities exist for a reason, and Timbuktu was no exception. Timbuktu was located on a bend in the Niger River. Traders mined salt in the desert. Miners would carry the salt to the city where merchants would transport it on the river to faraway places.
Timbuktu developed as a trading city, but the wealth of the city attracted others. In time, Timbuktu became well known as a religious and educational site. Mansa Musa built a great mosque, or Islamic temple in Timbuktu. Timbuktu began to decline in influence when the Portuguese showed that it was easier to sail around the coast of Africa than travel through the desert. The city was destroyed by the war between Morocco and Songhai. Today it remains a shadow of its former self, a mud built town of 20,000 people on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
The Karanga people ruled a great inland African empire from about AD1000 to AD1600. The Karanga were great traders who smelted gold and traded it on the shores of the Indian Ocean for glass beads and porcelain from China. European explorers discovered vast stone ruins of the Karanga in 1867. The site of the ruins was called Zimbabwe, which means "stone dwelling" in the native Bantu language.
The Europeans were unwilling to believe that sub-Saharan Africans could have built Zimbabwe; they theorized that ancient Phoenicians, Arabs, Romans, or Hebrews created the structures. Excavations in 1932 proved that the indigenous Africans created the ruins, but the white colonial government of Rhodesia attempted to deny the site's African genesis. The leaders of Rhodesia said the land was empty of people and culture before they arrived. When the government allowed people of all races to vote in 1980, the black majority of the nation discarded the name of Rhodesia and, looking to the past for nobler origins, chose the name Zimbabwe.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains a land of many mysteries. When the Europeans invaded the land they destroyed many of the historical records, leaving us asking many questions. The native black people of sub-Saharan Africa have controlled the entire region for less than a decade. The colonial rulers that preceded them had no interest in exploring Africa's glorious past; in fact they had reason to deny that Africans had a proud history. Archaeologists are finding new artifacts and changing what we know about Ancient Africa.
In the years to come, much of what we know about the history of the once "Dark Continent" may be brought to light. Maybe someday a "Rosetta Stone" will unlock the mysteries of sub-Saharan Africa and a Champollion from the future could tell us as much about Africa south of the Sahara as we know about Egypt. Someday that person could be you!