Ancient West Africa (before Ghana and Islam)

Jul 2015
23
USA
#1
Do we have any reliable sources on West Africa in late antiquity? I'm talking between the foundation of Rome up to 300 AD. I know Ptolemy talked about this area but the Geographia is unreliable as heck in this area. I also know that Hanno the Navigator sailed down to either Guinea or Cameroon. Do you guys know anything about this area?
 
Oct 2012
3,279
Des Moines, Iowa
#2
Unfortunately, there is a complete lack of West African written sources from the period you are interested in. However, thanks to modern archaeology, there are several important things that we can say about early West African history:


1) Iron metallurgy was already known by West Africans during this period. Unlike other parts of the world, most West African societies had no Bronze Age, but proceeded directly from stone to iron. The Nok civilization in modern-day Nigeria, for example, seems to have independently discovered iron-working during the 1st millennium BCE, and from there the technology probably diffused throughout West and Central Africa.

Carbon dating on charcoal that Breunig gathered from a Nok iron smelter at a site called Intini yielded a date of between 519 and 410 B.C., suggesting that iron technology was established earlier than previous scholars, including Fagg, had realized. These may not be the oldest smelters in sub-Saharan Africa, however. French archaeologists have located evidence of iron-smelting in the Termit Hills of Niger from as early as 1400 B.C., but critics point out that the wood used for dating could have been centuries old, a problem that dogs carbon dating, especially in very arid places such as Niger, where the wood desiccates and lasts longer. Breunig acknowledges that the problem could distort dates for the Intini furnace as well. But he has an important piece of evidence—Nok pottery, found inside the furnace alongside the charcoal, suggesting that they were placed there around the same time.
Link: The Nok of Nigeria - Archaeology Magazine Archive

From the Taruga site, radio carbon dates of the iron furnaces have yielded a range from 920 B.C.E. (+/- 50) for sample Y-474; 300 B.C.E. (+/- 100) for sample 1-3400; 440 B.C.E. (+/-140) for sample 1-2960; and 280 B.C.E. (+/- 120) for sample 1-1459 (Willet 1971: 12). These dates indicate that Nok culture preceded iron working at Jene Jeno (2nd century B.C.E.), Daima (5th Century C.E.), Matara (Ethiopia 5th century B.C.E.), and Meroe (5th century B.C.E.). These sites show that there was intensive iron working in West Africa with each group probably devising its own techniques and methods to suit the resources available within the local environment. Such resources include the types of ore, kinds of wood for fuel, and local craftsmanship (Anozie 1979). Based on the early dates for iron working in West Africa, it is improbable that iron working traditions were first introduced to West Africa from external influences. The dates for Nok culture and the other mentioned dates for other early occurrences of iron working in the broad Sudanic zone are too close in time with the dates for Carthaginian and Meroitic “iron age beginnings” for us to safely envisage transmission of ideas from thesenorthern sources to other places so far away (Andah 1979).
Link: Dynamics of metal working Traditions in West Africa | Kolawole Adekola - Academia.edu


The terracotta figurines that have been recovered from the Nok Valley were
found mixed, in the same alluvial deposits, with items such as polished stone
axes and iron fragments (Fagg, 1969). Subsequent radiocarbon data determinations
obtained for these deposits put this material between 500 B.C. and A.D.
200 (Barendson et al., 1965). The archaeological context of these finds was, of
course, unclear, for it was not considered safe to regard them as belonging to the
same period until such an association was established in situ. This happened in
1960 with the excavations at Taruga and the finding of iron, Nok terracottas and
domestic debris in good association, dated to the late first millennium B.C.
(Fagg, 1969).

It is clear that this region (Fagg, 1969; Tylecote, 1975) was producing its
own iron by at least the fourth century B.C.
, with the following determining
critical stages: 400 B.C. ± 140, 300 B.C. ± 100, 280 B.C. ± 120, and 210 B.C. ± 95
Link: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001338/133843e.pdf


2) The emergence of cities had already begun in West Africa during the 1st millennium BCE. Most notably, the city of Djenne (famous for its medieval mosques) in modern-day Mali was already in existence by 250 BCE, and seems to have had a population of around 10,000 during this early period. Therefore, archaeology contradicts the previously held belief that the introduction of Islam was the impetus that led to urbanization in West Africa. It is far more likely that urban development happened as a result of indigenous processes in Africa, and that the opening of trans-Saharan trade routes increased the importance of cities that had already existed before.


3) Horses as well as chariots were known to the people of modern-day Mali, Mauretania, Niger, and Chad, as we have many examples of rock art which depict chariots. However, they seem to have been completely abandoned in later centuries in favor of ridden cavalry.

Here is a map showing sites where chariot artwork has been found. Based on the distribution, it is quite likely that chariots were introduced to West Africa from the Saharan region, where the Garamantes are known to have used chariots and horses.




These are some of the salient points that I can remember off the top of my head. I hope other members who are more knowledgeable in African history also contribute to this thread.
 
Last edited:
Jun 2015
5,578
UK
#4
Not much. The major states go back to about 1000 AD or the rough period of Islamicisation.

The issue is archaeology and lack of written records. There is so much land, consiting of jungles, deserts and grasslands, to dig up and no real written records to corroborate it. The most recorded history we know of, both by Africans and outsiders, is from circa 1000 AD onwards, when the first African states emerged.
 

mansamusa

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
3,308
#6
Not much. The major states go back to about 1000 AD or the rough period of Islamicisation.

The issue is archaeology and lack of written records. There is so much land, consiting of jungles, deserts and grasslands, to dig up and no real written records to corroborate it. The most recorded history we know of, both by Africans and outsiders, is from circa 1000 AD onwards, when the first African states emerged.
Old Ghana goes back to 350 AD.
 

mansamusa

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
3,308
#7
Do we have any reliable sources on West Africa in late antiquity? I'm talking between the foundation of Rome up to 300 AD. I know Ptolemy talked about this area but the Geographia is unreliable as heck in this area. I also know that Hanno the Navigator sailed down to either Guinea or Cameroon. Do you guys know anything about this area?
You should read Roderick J Mkintosh essay in "The Meanings of Timbuktu". The essay: Before Timbuktu: cities of the elder world. It gives a very detailed ecological history of the Niger valley and how that ecology affected the peculiar urbanization processes in that region.
 
Mar 2014
336
Carthage
#8
Not much. The major states go back to about 1000 AD or the rough period of Islamicisation.

The issue is archaeology and lack of written records. There is so much land, consiting of jungles, deserts and grasslands, to dig up and no real written records to corroborate it. The most recorded history we know of, both by Africans and outsiders, is from circa 1000 AD onwards, when the first African states emerged.

Ghana was circa 4th century AD.
 
Jul 2015
23
USA
#10
There's a map of Ancient West Africa here by the way: Index of /files/17124/17124-h/images (under Africa Antiqua), but I wouldn't trust some of the locations.

For example, the Daradus River is put in Senegal but everything hints it to be the Draa in Morocco, same with the island of Cerne which is most likely Herne (Dragon Island?) in Dakhla
 

Similar History Discussions