Salt from the Sahara desert was one of the major trade goods of ancient West Africa where very little naturally occurring deposits of the mineral could be found. Transported via camel caravans and by boat along such rivers as the Niger and Senegal, salt found its way to trading centres like Koumbi Saleh, Niani, and Timbuktu, where it was either passed further south or exchanged for other goods such as ivory, hides, copper, iron, and cereals. The most common exchange was salt for gold dust that came from the mines of southern West Africa. Indeed, salt was such a precious commodity that it was quite literally worth its weight in gold in some parts of West Africa.
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The Salt Mines of the Sahara
The necessity for salt in ancient West Africa is here summarised in an extract from the UNESCO General History of Africa:
Salt is a mineral that was in great demand particularly with the beginning of an agricultural mode of life. Hunters and food-gatherers probably obtained a large amount of their salt intake from the animals they hunted and from fresh plant food. Salt only becomes an essential additive where fresh foods are unobtainable in vey dry areas, where body perspiration is also normally excessive. It becomes extremely desirable, however, amongst societies with relatively restricted diets, as was the case with arable agriculturalists. (Vol II, 384-5)
In addition, salt was always in great demand in order to better preserve dried meat and to give added taste to food. The savannah region south of the western Sahara desert (known as the Sudan region) and the forests of southern West Africa were poor in salt. Those areas near the Atlantic coast could obtain the mineral from evaporation pans or boiling sea water, but sea salt did not travel or keep well. A third alternative was salt derived from the ashes of burnt plants like millet and palms, but again these were not so rich in sodium chloride. Consequently, for most of the Sudan region, salt had to come from the north. The inhospitable Sahara desert was the chief natural source of rock salt, either acquired from surface deposits caused by the desiccation process such as found in old lake beds or extracted from relatively shallow mines where the salt is naturally formed into slabs. This salt, which was a creamy-grey colour, was far superior to the other sources of salt from the sea or certain plants.
When exactly salt became a trade commodity is unknown, but the exchange of salt for cereals dates back to prehistory when desert and savannah peoples each looked to gain what they could not produce themselves. On a larger scale, camel caravans were likely crossing the Sahara from at least the first centuries of the 1st millennium CE. These caravans would be run by the Berbers who acted as middle-men between the North African states and West Africa. Salt was their major trade good but they also brought luxury items like glassware, fine cloth, and manufactured goods. In addition, with these trade goods came the Islamic religion, ideas in art and architecture, and cultural practices.
Whoever controlled the salt trade also controlled the gold trade, & both were the principal economic pillars of various West African empires.
Salt, both its production and trade, would dominate West African economies throughout the 2nd millennium CE, with sources and trade centres constantly changing hands as empires rose and fell. The salt mines of Idjil in the Sahara were a famous source of the precious commodity for the Ghana Empire (6-13th century CE) and were still going strong in the 15th century CE. In the 10th century CE the Sanhaja Berbers, who controlled the salt mines at Awlil and Taghaza and transportation through trade cities like Audaghost, began to challenge the Ghana Empire”s monopoly of the trade. In the 11th century CE the Awlil mines were in the hands of Takrur, but it would be the Mali Empire (1240-1645 CE), with its capital at Niani, that dominated the sub-Saharan salt trade following the collapse of the Ghana Empire. However, semi-independent river “ports” like Timbuktu began to steal trade opportunities from the Mali kings further west. The next kingdom to dominate the region and the movement of salt was the Songhai Empire (15-16th century CE) with its great trading capital at Gao.
Salt may have been a rarity in the savannah but at desert mining towns like Taghaza (the main Sudan source of salt up to the 16th century CE) and Taoudenni, the commodity was still so abundant slabs of rock salt were used to build homes. Naturally, such a valuable money-spinner as a salt mine attracted competition for ownership, as when the Moroccan leader Muhammad al-Mahdi attempted to muscle in on the market by arranging for several prominent Tuareg salt traders to be murdered at Taghaza in the mid-16th century CE. Quite literally, whoever controlled the salt trade also controlled the gold trade, and both were the principal economic pillars of the various empires of West Africa”s history.