History of Western Africa

West Africa’s history begins in about 12 000 BCE (Before our Common Era), according to archaeologists who have made studies of the Mejiro Cave. This is believed to be the time when our human ancestors first arrived in West Africa and, more specifically, the Sahara. The Sahara was, at that time, a lush, fertile place where animals and humans thrived on the abundance of its water and vegetation.

Microlithic tools were found in the Savannah of West Africa. A microlith is defined as a small stone tool, usually made of flint, and measures 3cm (30mm) or less. These were made by agriculture farming tribes who hunted or defended themselves using spears and stone blades. In areas such as Guinea, the Sahel farmers would use bone to create these same tools. In the 4000’s BCE, other tribes and cultures moved into the area and introduced cattle farming, as fossilised findings have indicated. In 3000 BCE onwards, the civilisation of West Africa had become influenced by the new cultures to such a degree that major changes started to take place in terms of tool development and hunting / farming methods. Harpoons and fish hooks from this era have been discovered and these, although primitive, were effective in enabling the farmers to migrate towards the shore for food and industry. It was also at this time that the Sahara underwent massive climate changes, with dramatic alternating of moist / humid and dry spells. Eventually, the entire region became arid desert, uninhabitable to most life, animal or human.

In the third millennium BCE, Guinea’s Sahel farmers began to migrate as well, entering into the area of the other natives. This movement was prompted by the Sahara’s final devastation, and was instrumental in severing ties with Europe’s advancement in terms of culture and technology, isolating this civilisation. It took longer for technology to improve the quality of the weaponry being used by these native West Africans but, when it did, it allowed for the development of their societies.

In the first century BCE, West Africa had established a trade of gold between the Mediterraneans and the Berbers. Along with gold, cotton, metal and leather were in demand from North Africa. In return, the Mediterraneans supplied them with horses, salt and textiles, amongst other valued products. Eventually, these supplies extended to ivory and even slaves.

This trade created a stable economy and, from there, specific empires. The most significant of these was the Ghana Empire, established in the 700’s CE (Common Era). It was the Mandé people, the Soninke, who founded it around Kumbi Saleh city. Eventually, the Ghana Empire ruled the whole of western Sudan and boasted 200 000 soldiers by the 800’s. It was when Islam arose that internal conflicts began. This, coupled with the introduction of the Almoravids into the area, caused the Ghana Empire to disintegrate by the 11th century CE.

The Sosso tribe succeeded the Ghana Empire for a while, but were defeated by the Mandinka in the 1240 Battle of Kirina. This became the Mali Empire, which continued until the 15th century. During this time, trade escalated and free healthcare was administered to all Malians. This state of abundance declined due to a lack of strong Malian leadership. The Mali Empire was taken over by the Songhai, who restored trade and commerce. The Songhai also played an enormous role in making Islam the dominant faith once again. In 1591, Morocco invaded the Songhai Empire and conquered them successfully.

While Songhai was in the middle of its demise, West Africa was full of other, smaller powers springing up. These included the Bambara Empire (Ségou), the Bambara kingdom (Kaarta), the Malinké kingdom (Khasso), and the Kénédougou Empire (Sikasso).

Many West Africans were taken to North and South America to become slaves during the 18th century. Today, these areas are still home to large parts of the West African population of that time. In 1898, the last of these West African empires, Wassoulou, fell and resistance to French colonialism of this region was over.