Salt from the Sahara desert was among the major trade items of old West Africa wherein very small naturally arising deposits of the mineral might be found. Transported via camel caravans and also by watercraft along such rivers as the Niger and also Senegal, salt discovered its means to trading centres choose Koumbi Saleh, Niani, and Timbuktu, whereby it to be either passed more south or exchanged because that other goods such together ivory, hides, copper, iron, and also cereals. The most common exchange was salt because that gold dust that come from the mines of southerly West Africa. Indeed, salt to be such a valuable commodity the it was fairly literally worth its weight in gold in some parts of West Africa.

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The Salt Mines the the Sahara

The necessity for salt in ancient West Africa is right here summarised in one extract indigenous the UNESCO General history of Africa:


Salt is a mineral that was in an excellent demand particularly with the beginning of an farming mode the life. Hunters and also food-gatherers probably acquired a big amount of your salt intake indigenous the pets they hunted and also from fresh plant food. Salt just becomes vital additive wherein fresh foodstuffs are unobtainable in vey dried areas, whereby body perspiration is also normally excessive. That becomes extremely desirable, however, among societies with relatively restricted diets, as was the instance with arable agriculturalists. (Vol II, 384-5)

In addition, salt was constantly in good demand in order to better preserve dried meat and to give added taste to food. The savannah an ar south that the west Sahara desert (known together the Sudan region) and the forests of southerly West Africa were negative in salt. Those locations near the Atlantic coastline could obtain the mineral indigenous evaporation pans or boil sea water, however sea salt go not travel or store well. A 3rd alternative was salt obtained from the ashes of burnt plants like millet and also palms, but again this were not so well-off in salt chloride. Consequently, for many of the Sudan region, salt had actually to come native the north. The unwelcoming Sahara desert to be the chief natural source of rock salt, either gained from surface ar deposits resulted in by the desiccation procedure such as uncovered in old lake bed or extracted from reasonably shallow mines wherein the salt is naturally created into slabs. This salt, which to be a creamy-grey colour, was much superior come the other sources of salt from the sea or details plants.

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When specifically salt became a trade commodity is unknown, but the exchange of salt for cereals dates back to prehistory once desert and also savannah peoples each looked to obtain what they can not produce themselves. On a bigger scale, camel caravans were most likely crossing the Sahara from at the very least the an initial centuries of the first millennium CE. This caravans would be operation by the Berbers who acted together middle-men in between the phibìc African states and West Africa. Salt to be their significant trade an excellent but they also brought high-end items choose glassware, good cloth, and manufactured goods. In addition, with these trade items came the Islamic religion, concepts in art and also architecture, and social practices.


Whoever regulated the salt trade likewise controlled the yellow trade, & both to be the principal financial pillars of various West afri empires.

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Salt, both the production and also trade, would conquer West African economic situations throughout the 2nd millennium CE, through sources and trade centres constantly transforming hands as empires rose and also fell. The salt mines of Idjil in the Sahara to be a famous resource of the valuable commodity because that the Ghana realm (6-13th century CE) and also were tho going strong in the 15th century CE. In the 10th century CE the Sanhaja Berbers, who managed the salt mines in ~ Awlil and Taghaza and transportation with trade cities like Audaghost, started to difficulty the Ghana Empire\"s syndicate of the trade. In the 11th century CE the Awlil mines to be in the hand of Takrur, but it would certainly be the Mali empire (1240-1645 CE), with its capital at Niani, that dominated the sub-Saharan salt trade adhering to the fallen of the Ghana Empire. However, semi-independent river \"ports\" favor Timbuktu began to steal trade opportunities from the Mali kings more west. The following kingdom to conquer the region and the activity of salt was the Songhai empire (15-16th century CE) v its an excellent trading resources at Gao.

Salt may have been a rarity in the savannah yet at desert mining towns like Taghaza (the main Sudan source of salt as much as the 16th century CE) and Taoudenni, the commodity was still so plentiful slabs of rock salt were supplied to build homes. Naturally, such a beneficial money-spinner together a salt mine attractive competition for ownership, as when the Moroccan leader Muhammad al-Mahdi attempted to muscle in on the sector by arranging for several prominent Tuareg salt traders to be murdered at Taghaza in the mid-16th century CE. Fairly literally, whoever managed the salt trade likewise controlled the gold trade, and both were the principal financial pillars of the various empires of West Africa\"s history.