Trade in Ancient West Africa

The civilizations that flourished in ancient West Africa were mainly based on trade, so successful West African leaders tended to be peacemakers rather than warriors. Caravans of camel riding merchants from North Africa crossed the Sahara beginning in the seventh century of the Common Era. Traders exchanged gold for something the West Africans prized even more: salt. Salt was used as a flavoring, a food preservative, and as today, a means of retaining body moisture.

The first people to make the trek across the Sahara were the Berbers of North Africa who carried their strict Islamic faith across the desert. 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, were animists who believed that many gods existed in nature. They did not accept the Muslim belief in one God.


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Mr. Donn has an excellent website that includes a section on Africa.

West African trade routes (map)

West African trade routes

Merchants and traders in West Africa saw many advantages in converting to Islam

  • Literacy spread because belief in Islam encourages Muslims to learn the Quran.
  • Many Muslims speak Arabic, the language of the Quran. In time, Arabic became the common language of the merchants and traders of West Africa.
  • Strict Muslims follow Islamic law. It is easier to solve disputes when both parties agree on the laws.
  • Conversion to Islam opened up new trading possibilities across North Africa and in Arabia. Many Muslims journey to Mecca at least once. This encouraged them to meet new people and discover new cultures.