[Paleopsych] Gold Trade and the Kingdom of Ancient Ghana

Steve Hovland shovland at mindspring.com
Sun Jul 31 05:07:34 UTC 2005


Around the fifth century, thanks to the availability of the camel, 
Berber-speaking people began crossing the Sahara Desert. From the eighth 
century onward, annual trade caravans followed routes later described by 
Arabic authors with minute attention to detail. Gold, sought from the 
western and central Sudan, was the main commodity of the trans-Saharan 
trade. The traffic in gold was spurred by the demand for and supply of 
coinage. The rise of the Soninke empire of Ghana appears to be related to 
the beginnings of the trans-Saharan gold trade in the fifth century.

>From the seventh to the eleventh century, trans-Saharan trade linked the 
Mediterranean economies that demanded gold-and could supply salt-to the 
sub-Saharan economies, where gold was abundant. Although local supply of 
salt was sufficient in sub-Saharan Africa, the consumption of Saharan salt 
was promoted for trade purposes. In the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab 
merchants operating in southern Moroccan towns such as Sijilmasa bought 
gold from the Berbers, and financed more caravans. These commercial 
transactions encouraged further conversion of the Berbers to Islam. 
Increased demand for gold in the North Islamic states, which sought the raw 
metal for minting, prompted scholarly attention to Mali and Ghana, the 
latter referred to as the "Land of Gold." For instance, geographer al-Bakri 
described the eleventh-century court at Kumbi Saleh, where he saw 
gold-embroidered caps, golden saddles, shields and swords mounted with 
gold, and dogs' collars adorned with gold and silver. The Soninke managed 
to keep the source of their gold (the Bambuk mines, most notably) secret 
from Muslim traders. Yet gold production and trade were important 
activities that undoubtedly mobilized hundreds of thousands of African 
people. Leaders of the ancient kingdom of Ghana accumulated wealth by 
keeping the core of pure metal, leaving the unworked native gold to be m  
arketed by their people.

Gold Trade and the Mali Empire

By 1050 A.D., Ghana was strong enough to assume control of the Islamic 
Berber town of Audaghost. By the end of the twelfth century, however, Ghana 
had lost its domination of the western Sudan gold trade. Trans-Saharan 
routes began to bypass Audaghost, expanding instead toward the newly opened 
Bure goldfield. Soso, the southern chiefdom of the Soninke, gained control 
of Ghana as well as the Malinke, the latter eventually liberated by 
Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali empire. Mali rulers did not encourage 
gold producers to convert to Islam, since prospecting and production of the 
metal traditionally depended on a number of beliefs and magical practices 
that were alien to Islam. In the fourteenth century, cowrie shells were 
introduced from the eastern coast as local currency, but gold and salt 
remained the principal mediums of long-distance trade.

The flow of sub-Saharan gold to the northeast probably occurred in a steady 
but small stream. Mansa Musa's arrival in Cairo carrying a ton of the metal 
(1324-25) caused the market in gold to crash, suggesting that the average 
supply was not as great. Undoubtedly, some of this African gold was also 
used in Western gold coins. African gold was indeed so famous worldwide 
that a Spanish map of 1375 represents the king of Mali holding a gold 
nugget. When Mossi raids destroyed the Mali empire, the rising Songhai 
empire relied on the same resources. Gold remained the principal product in 
the trans-Saharan trade, followed by kola nuts and slaves. The Moroccan 
scholar Leo Africanus, who visited Songhai in 1510 and 1513, observed that 
the governor of Timbuktu owned many articles of gold, and that the coin of 
Timbuktu was made of gold without any stamp or superscription.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list