14 Chapter 1
West African Civilizations
Like Africa as a whole, West Africa is physically, ethnically, and culturally
diverse. Much of West Africa south of the Sahara Desert falls within the
great savannah that spans the continent from east to west. West and
south of the savannah, however, in Senegambia (modern Senegal and
Gambia), stretching along the southwestern coast of West Africa, and in
the lands located along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, there are exten-
sive forests. These two environments—savannah and forest—were home
to a great variety of cultures and languages. Patterns of settlement in the
region ranged from isolated homesteads and hamlets through villages
and towns to cities.
West Africans began cultivating crops and tending domesticated ani-
mals between 1000 BCE and 200 CE. Those who lived on the savannah usu-
ally adopted settled village life well before those who lived in the forests.
The early farmers produced millet, rice, and sorghum while tending herds
of cattle and goats. By 500 BCE, beginning with the Nok people of the for-
est region, some West Africans were producing iron tools and weapons.
From early times, the peoples of West Africa traded among them-
selves and with the peoples who lived across the Sahara Desert in North
Africa. This extensive trade became an essential part of the region’s
economy and formed the basis for the three great western Sudanese
empires that successively dominated the region from before 800 CE to
the beginnings of the modern era.
The first known kingdom in the western Sudan was Ghana (see Map
1–3). Founded by the Soninke people in the area north of the modern
republic of Ghana, its origins are unclear. Its name comes from the
Soninke word for king.
Ghana’s kings were known in Europe and southwest Asia as the rich-
est of monarchs, and the source of their wealth was trade. The key to this
trade was the Asian camel, which was introduced into Africa during the
first century CE. With its ability to endure long journeys on small amounts
of water, the camel dramatically increased trade across the Sahara
between the western Sudan and the coastal regions of North Africa.
G U I D E T O R E A D I N G
Why is West Africa significant
for African-American history?
How and why was Timbuktu a
major center of trade and
What impact did Islam have on
What did the people of Central
Africa have in common with
those of the Guinea Coast?
K E Y T E R M S
Berbers, p. 15
forest region, p. 19
Guide to Reading/Key Terms
For answer, see the Teacher’s Resource Manual.
Living Words Audio Clips
Track 1 Ghana: Ewe-Atsiagbekor
Robert W. July. A History of the African People,
5th ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1998.
A comprehensive and current social history
with good coverage of West Africa and West
The Soninke succeeded in dominating their
neighbors and forging an empire through