Claims for the Population of the Malian and Songhai empire

Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,638
Benin City, Nigeria
I would agree that it is entirely plausible, even probable, that the majority of west Africa's population during that time period would have been in the interior savanna and Sahel regions. Something in support of that idea was noted by Ray Kea in his paper "Expansions and Contractions: World-Historical Change And The Western Sudan World-System (1200/1000 B.C. – 1200/1250 A.D.)" when talking about the density of early settlement in parts of the western Sudan:

"At present, there are several current continent-wide archaeological survey projects. One project, “Mapping Africa’s Visible Archaeology,” began in 1996. Its purpose is “to map all of Africa’s visible archaeology, beginning with Nigeria and West Africa.” A quote from the project’s website report gives an idea of the importance and scope of its findings:

Between Lake Chad and the Atlantic Ocean, there are about 10,000 town walls, 25% or more of them on deserted sites. They represent the largest concentration of past urban civilization] in black Africa; yet only a handful [have] been surveyed. There are also about 250,000 unsurveyed tumuli, several million uncharted iron-smelting sites, and an unknown number of ancient terracotta sites, most of which have been looted. Old aerial photographs and more modern remote-sensing methodologies offer an opportunity to record much of what will otherwise soon be lost altogether (“African Legacy” n.d.)

One of the arguments of this study is that the productive forces of pre-13th century core areas of the Western Sudan world-system were responsible for many of the town walls, tumuli, and iron-smelting and terra cotta sites (for relevant references to some of the sites see Monod 1948; Mauny 1950; Mauny 1967; Raimbault and Sanogo 1991; McIntosh 1995; McIntosh 1998; Insoll 1996; Insoll 2000). Any historical analysis or interpretative and conceptual understanding of the West African dimension of the Afro-Eurasian oikumene has to begin with the visible archaeology—including artifacts and technologies—of the core zones of Sudanic Africa. As the archaeologist R.J. McIntosh notes, the visible archaeology, of the MNV floodplain is impressive.

The flood plain of the Middle Niger of West Africa is lined with hundreds of ancient tells rivaling those of Asia both in area and in clues to the emergence of city life…. The Middle Niger is dominated by numerous monumental tumuli (McIntosh 1991: 203).

Other archaeologists confirm this observation. The pre-12th century MNV was characterized by “an amazing density of settlement,” “several massive habitation sites,” and by “[monumental] elite tumuli burials” (Szumowski 1957; Mauny 1967; Mauny 1971: 78–81; Barth 1976; Barth 1977; Raimbault and Sanogo 1991; MacDonald n.d.). Tells, or tumuli, are artificial hills, formed entirely from the debris of human occupation. Many of the MNV floodplain tells are the remains of ancient cities or towns but most are the ruins of villages. They have been abandoned over the last 600–900 years. A smaller number of tells—truncated pyramids, some up to 18 meters in height on a base of 150 to 290 square meters—are the tombs or burial mounds of military-political elites. Intact tombs have yielded an abundance of grave goods."

Expansions and Contractions: World-Historical Change And The Western Sudan World-System (1200/1000 B.C. 1200/1250 A.D.) | Kea | Journal of World-Systems Research

So the thesis that most of west Africa's population during that time period was in the savanna and Sahel areas that would be considered part of the "western Sudan" (as opposed to areas of west Africa further south) is entirely plausible given the density of settlement in that region prior to the 13th century, and since Mali and later Songhai ruled over a large part of the western Sudan at their heights it is likely that they were ruling over much of west Africa's population.

However, without doing any further investigation, one problem I can see with D.T. Niane's assumption of the Mali empire having somewhere from 1/5th to 1/4th of Africa's population is that there is a statement in a contemporary source where Mansa Musa is quoted as telling a dignitary or official in Egypt (while on his famous pilgrimage) that although his kingdom (the Mali empire) was populous, in comparison to the population of the rest of the peoples of the Sudan (here most likely meaning not just Sahelian west, central and eastern Africa, but the entirety of black Africa, including pagan peoples much further south, far from the savanna and Sahel) it was like a "white birth mark on a black cow".

If the quote is reliable, it means that Mansa Musa's understanding of the situation in the early 14th century was that, although he ruled over a populous empire, in comparison with the entirety of black Africa, his empire was still a relatively small portion of the whole. It could be that he (Mansa Musa) had an exaggerated idea of the population of the rest of the continent, and perhaps he assumed that because the rest of the continent extended so far beyond his empire (he wouldn't have needed to know exactly how big the rest of the continent really was, he just needed to be aware that it extended far beyond his dominions, which it did), those other areas were similar in how populous they were (had a similar population density) to his own realm, when in reality many of those areas may not have been so populous.

Also, it isn't guaranteed that "in the late sixteenth century, the three Niger Bend towns of Jenne, Timbuktu, and Gao were the largest in West Africa". Portuguese, Dutch and English sources from the 16th century describe Benin City as a large city; an Italian source of the late 16th city (Giovanni Lorenzo d'Anania's L'universal fabrica del mondo ovvero cosmografia) refers to the capital of Borno (Ngazargamo) as a large city; Kano was described as a large city in a late 16th source (by a Ragusan merchant named Vincenzo Matteo)...and so on. The wording used in these descriptions suggests they considered those places to be quite large. There were some other large cities in other parts of west Africa besides these ones I've listed, although these three are the some of the most obvious contenders to be as large or possibly larger than the three cities mentioned in the excerpt from the book chapter cited in the opening post.

I'm not sure how the author (Joseph Inikori) of the book chapter you have cited got the impression that Mahmud Kati was an "Arab visitor". That's not how I would describe him. Perhaps that author (Inikori) made an error there because he is more of a specialist on the history and economics of the transatlantic slave trade and some closely related areas rather than being a specialist on the political history of west Africa in general.
 
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Tulun

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
3,877
Western Eurasia
Interesting I thought around 1 digit less, though I only calculated back from the numbers once found in the book by J.D. Fage and William Tordoff, A History of Africa. They wrote there that for the year 1700 the population of the whole West Africa is estimated to be 25 million, and the average population density estimated to be 4,6 person/ sq kilometer (these numbers were calculated back from modern population numbers considering population growth). Yearly population growth was estimated to be 0,15 % per year for the beginning of 18th century and 0,19 % in the end of the 18th century according to this book.
...

Well then, if we accept the wiki claim that Songhai during her maximum extent had 1,400,000 sq kms in the year 1500, that area would have a population of 1,400,000x4,6=6,440,000 in 1700... 200 years earlier, in the year 1500, counting with 0,15% yearly population growth, the same territory would have a population of 4,771,942 if I calculated well. Which tbh I find totally realistic, I mean in the same time Egypt had less population than this as far as I remember, so by continental standards it was still probably the highest in Africa.
We can also play this with Mali, wiki claims its maximum extent was in the year 1312, a total of 1,294,994 sq kms, for me the result is an estimated population of 3,330,087 by using the same method...

Sure there are many other factors to consider, climate changes, wars, epidemics and so on affecting the population growth, but interesting how different are the ranges, we could also say that there are only wild guesses :))
 
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Ighayere

Ad Honorem
Jul 2012
2,638
Benin City, Nigeria
Doesn't the 25 million figure in 1700 actually come from Patrick Manning, who was referring specifically to the population of the coastal and forest areas of west Africa in 1700, and not the savanna and Sahel region? He apparently concluded that the savanna and Sahel area in the interior of west Africa was less populous than the coastal and forest regions in 1700. Whether that would actually be true is not obvious to me, but the 25 million figure is apparently not meant to refer to the entirety of west Africa. But Manning is who I usually associate with that 25 million in 1700 figure. It's been years since I read Fage and Tordoff's book so I don't recall if they did their own calculation and came up with the same estimate or simply cite Manning and modify his reasoning.

Just as with the Americas, I don't think population estimates for west Africa can ever be straightforward and simple. Also, Egypt is actually held to have had a higher population than the figure you mentioned even as far back as 1345, apparently.

Consider the comments in the following excerpts:





Joseph Inikori - Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development, pp. 159-160









John Iliffe - Africans: The History of a Continent, pp. 141-143
 
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Tulun

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
3,877
Western Eurasia
Thanks for your reply, I used a Hungarian translation of the book and it doesn't include footnotes (maybe in the English original it did), but Mannings work is also mentioned in the end in the bibliography for the relevant chapter, so you could be right that they used him.