20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons

Tim Flight - January 2, 2019

Here’s a bold statement to begin: much of what you think you know about African History is plain wrong. Until relatively recently, the written history of Africa was largely influenced by colonial narratives of the nineteenth century. These sources were inevitably biased, and depicted Africa as a primitive continent which was only improved by the kindness of colonial overlords (who simultaneously made a pretty penny out of plundering its natural resources). Nineteenth-century historians justified the terrible human cost of the age of Empires through this effective whitewashing of history, and only now are people seeing through the veil.

But now historians and archaeologists specialising in Africa are revealing incredible facts about what was far from a backward place, finally giving a voice to the long-dead whose stories and remarkable achievements have been ignored for too long. Ignorance about African history is not just detrimental to our understanding of the continent’s past, but the history of the world at large. Read on to learn about the richest man in history, the invention of art and mathematics, and some of the wonders of the ancient world.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
315, 000 year old mandible found in Morocco in 2017. History

20. Africa is the birthplace of mankind

Africa is where it all began for Homo sapiens. Millions of years ago, the human family deviated from the great apes (gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees, and bonobos), and began the slow evolution into modern human. This all took place in Africa. The oldest member of this group of ancestors who diverged is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, which lived in what is now Chad. A piece of cranium found there in 2002 was dated to 7.2 million years ago. Other hominins, as these proto-humans are known, lived across Africa. And the quest continues to find the oldest ancestor of Homo sapiens, all in Africa.

Our closest relative, Australopithecus, lived from 4.4 million years ago. The oldest fossil of this hominin, called Lucy, is 3.2 million years old, and was found in the Afar Depression in Ethiopia. The oldest remains of Homo sapiens itself, of course, were also found in Africa. In 2017, the remains of at least five people were found in an old mine at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and dated to 315, 000 years ago. 56, 000 years ago, Homo sapiens began to leave Africa, and colonised other parts of the world. Africa is where our story begins.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
King Ezana’s Stela, a 4th-century obelisk, Aksum, Ethiopia. Wikimedia Commons

19. The Aksumite Empire was one of the most powerful in the world

Whilst the Roman Empire was just getting started, another powerful civilisation was beginning to flex its muscles in what is now Ethiopia: the Aksumite Empire. And whilst the name may not be familiar to you, it certainly was to the European civilisations. In 1 AD, the Periplus of the Red Sea, a Greco-Roman text describing navigation and trading opportunities, praised the city of Aksum as one of the most important places for ivory. Between this date and its approximate end in 940 AD, the Aksumite Empire grew to encompass, at its height, much of North Africa and even Saudi Arabia.

Aksum’s wealth was based on trade. Much of its produce was agricultural, but also included gold and iron, and was traded as far away as India and the Mediterranean. Its great wealth was spent on wonderful buildings, such as King Ezana’s Stela (above), an elaborate obelisk, and many palaces. The largest of these palaces that we know about is Ta’akha Maryam, which is 120 by 80 metres in area, but experts believe that others (which are now lost) were even bigger. Like all empires, the Aksumite declined, as other world powers encroached on its trading routes and provided insurmountable competition.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The Great Pyramid of Giza, finished in 2560 BC. Wikimedia Commons

18. The Pyramids of Egypt are breathtaking even today

Some of history’s greatest architectural achievements took place in Africa. Amongst these, by far the most famous are the pyramids of Egypt (although they weren’t alone in building them on the continent, as we shall see later). In Ancient Egypt, pyramids were funereal edifices, erected to remember the life of the great person buried beneath in an ornate tomb. The Ancient Egyptians built between 118 and 138 pyramids over the course of a staggering 2, 700 years, and the oldest known of the Egyptian pyramids is the semi-ruinous Pyramid of Djoser, which dates from the 27th Century BC.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, which probably took two decades to complete, was built for the Pharaoh Khufu (d. 2566 BC). At 481 feet in height, Khufu’s pyramid was the tallest manmade structure in the world until Lincoln Cathedral, England, was completed in 1311 AD. The Great Pyramid of Giza was reckoned one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and rightly so. In fact, it is not only the oldest Wonder on the list, but the only one still to survive, which is a testament to the architectural ingenuity of this ancient African culture.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
Aerial view of The Great Zimbabwe, near Masvingo in the modern country, begun in the 11th Century AD. Wikimedia Commons

17. The Great Zimbabwe is a mighty ruined city in the modern country

Colonial historians would have us believe that Africa was a backward and brutish continent before the arrival of the Europeans (notwithstanding the Egyptians). However, as long ago as 1000 AD Sub-Saharan Africans were building impressive cities out of stone, none more so than the Great Zimbabwe. The Great Zimbabwe was a vast palace and fortress complex, its 200 acres in area surrounded by 11-metre high walls, and formerly home to between 10 and 20, 000 people. The name ‘Zimbabwe’ is a Bantu word meaning ‘stone houses’, and it was this ancient stronghold that gave the modern country its name.

It is churlish to make reference to what the rest of the world was up to at the same time, but it is worth mentioning that there is no comparable contemporary stone structure from England, and that most European settlements of the turn of the first millennium were largely built of wood. But, then, Great Zimbabwe was the beating heart of a great trading empire that took gold to the coast of the Indian Ocean, and was extremely wealthy. Great Zimbabwe was abandoned in the 15th century, possibly when gold supplies were depleted or due to water shortages.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
Timbuktu is still impressive today. The Red Headed Traveller

16. Timbuktu was once one of the world’s most important centres of learning

If you wanted a cutting-edge education between the 1400s and about 1593, there was one place that stood head-and-shoulders above its rivals. Timbuktu in Mali had its humble origins in about 1100 BC, when it was founded as a seasonal camp by Tuareg nomads. However, its location just on the edge of a desert meant that it became an important trading capital, and by the 14th century it was fundamental to the salt and gold trade. Its educational tradition dates back to its 13th-century incorporation into the Mali Empire, where the dominant religion was Islam, and several mosques were founded.

The Islamic scholars at these mosques had terrific libraries, owing to the city’s wealth. Their reputation for learning meant that a university was founded, and soon people were flocking from far and wide to study with them. In 1450, there were around 25, 000 scholars in Timbuktu, roughly a quarter of the city’s population. Timbuktu’s status as a centre of education ended with Morocco conquering the city in 1591, arresting most of the scholars in 1593 and leaving the city to the mercy of attacking rivals. Today, about 70, 000 manuscripts on all manner of subjects from Timbuktu survive.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The Benin Ivory Mask of the Queen Mother Idia, 16th Century. Wikimedia Commons

15. The mighty Kingdom of Benin was known for its fabulous art

Until the late nineteenth century, the Kingdom of Benin was one of the great powers on the continent of Africa. Also known as the Edo Empire, this mighty kingdom in what is now Southern Nigeria flourished from 1440, and at its peak dominated trade from Lagos to modern day Ghana. Crucial to this dominance was the kingdom’s good relations with European nations, especially Portugal, and owing to its convenient coastline Benin more or less controlled trade between other African nations and Europe. Fantastically wealthy, the Kingdom of Benin came to be known worldwide for its superlative works of art.

Benin artists worked chiefly in cast bronze and carved ivory. The empire was ruled over by the Oba, a semi-divine figure, and much of the kingdom’s art was made to celebrate him or to adorn his palaces. Secular Benin art (artefacts not depicting the Oba or anything of religious importance) was purchased by the Portuguese and traded in Europe, where it attracted tidy sums of money. Benin was conquered by the British in 1897, who stole the jaw-dropping art adorning the Oba’s palaces. When the plundered art arrived in London, few believed that Africans could have possibly produced it.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The Baths of Antoninus, Carthage, dating from 145 AD. Planet Ware

14. Carthage was so powerful that it rivaled Rome and Greece

If you’ve been (un)fortunate enough to study Latin or Classics at school, you’ll know that the greatest rival to Rome and Greece for many years was the kingdom of Carthage. But did you know that Carthage was an African Kingdom? Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BC, and is now a suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Its site was no accident: Carthage offered good access to the Gulf of Tunis and the Mediterranean Sea, and was easily to defend against attack. Carthage grew wealthy through conquering other nations and controlling North African trade.

Ancient sources tell us that Carthage became the wealthiest city in the world, helped in no small part by its aggressive policy of sinking ships belonging to rival nations and expanding its commercial interests by sending explorers to the coast of Spain and Morocco. Unlike the later Kingdom of Benin (above), Carthage did not spend so much on fine art, but invested its wealth in maintaining a vast army of mercenaries. Carthage’s iron-grip in trade and military strength inevitably put it into conflict with Rome, and thus the three bloody Punic Wars erupted between 264 and 146 BC.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The Ishango Bone, an Upper Paleolithic artifact found in DR Congo, is amongst the earliest evidence for calculation in the world. Wikimedia Commons

13. Mathematics began in Africa with the Lebombo Bone

The ability to count and quantify the world around us is fundamental to human civilisation. This particular innovation all began in Africa during the Upper Paleolithic Era, and the earliest evidence for people adding-up comes from the Lebombo Bone. Named after the Lebombo Mountain range where it was found, this baboon fibula is marked by 29 notches along its length which most archaeologists have interpreted as tally-marks. Radiocarbon dating gives an age somewhere between 44, 200 and 43, 000 years ago. Debate about the object’s purpose only concerns whether the bone is a tally-chart or an astronomical calendar.

Much younger, but almost as impressive, is the Ishango Bone (c.20, 000 BC). Found in DR Congo in 1960 by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt, a Belgian geologist, the Ishango Bone is the fibula of a Baboon, and whilst its precise use remains a mystery, experts are near-unanimous that it shows evidence for arithmetic. For like the Lebombo Bone, along the length of the bone run deep scratches, which seem to be an ancient tally chart, showing that arithmetic was widespread in ancient Africa. The oldest non-African tally stick, from Czechoslovakia, is a mere 30, 000 years old.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
Pyramids at Meroe, modern Sudan, built between 2,700 and 2,300 years ago. Wikimedia Commons

12. The Ancient Kushite Civilisation built more pyramids than the Egyptians

Did you know that there are pyramids outside Egypt and Las Vegas? The undisputed kings of the pyramid-building world, in number at least, were the Kush Empire. This civilisation arose after the fall of the 24th Dynasty of Egypt in c.1000 BC, and ruled much of the country until they were expelled by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Kushites eventually moved their capital to Meroë (modern Sudan) in their remaining territory. Though they had left Egypt, Egypt had not left them, for they set about building hundreds of pyramids around their new capital, 350 of which have been discovered to date.

These pyramids are grouped across five sites, and were built as funeral monuments to great people and rulers. Though they are smaller than their Egyptian forebears, the Nubian Pyramids, as they are commonly referred to, are testament to a mighty empire with copious wealth. In the 1st Century BC, Kush fought against Rome, and though the European nation was victorious, Kush was never conquered. The empire ended when its traditional industries of pottery and iron tools, dating back to Ancient Egypt, declined, and Christianity took hold of the region. Kush was formally dissolved in the 6th Century AD.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The Ngwenya Mine, Swaziland, has been plundered for at least 43, 000 years. Mining Jobs in Africa

11. The oldest mine in the world is the Ngwenya Mine, Swaziland

Mining remains an important industry across the modern world, and had its origins in Stone Age Africa. At least 43, 000 years ago, people were mining for red haematite and specularite at the Ngwenya Mine in what is now Swaziland. Amazingly, the mine was worked to extract the ochre used in burial ceremonies and to colour peoples’ bodies, a coquettish hint at a complex culture we will never fully understand. The lustrous red ochre extracted from the mine was also used by later people for cave paintings, and more prosaically for iron ore smelting from 400 AD onwards.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider how tough it must have been to dig Ngwenya with only primitive stone tools, let alone how great lumps of rock could have been hauled out. Moreover, how the riches beneath the earth’s surface were discovered is itself a fascinating thought. Ngwenya, after all, is also on the Bomvu Ridge, a mountainous region which must have been extremely difficult, and not a little scary, to access. Exploiting the earth’s hidden natural resources all began here. Africa is ludicrously rich in metal and minerals, and mining remains an important industry on the continent today.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The Karnak Temple Complex of the ancient city of Thebes, now near the modern city of Luxor, begun c. 2150 to 1991 BC. Wikimedia Commons

10. Thebes was once the largest city in the world

At the height of Ancient Egypt, its bustling capital was Thebes, 419 miles south of Cairo where the modern settlement of Luxor now stands. Known to the Egyptians as Wase (‘City of the Sceptre’) or Nowe (‘City of Amon [an important god]’), Thebes was founded around 4, 000 BC. Long-associated with royalty, Thebes blossomed into a sprawling metropolis during the Eleventh Dynasty (2081-1938 BC), when its proximity to the Nile and the Red Sea was exploited for trade. Book IX of The Iliad, from Ancient Greece, describes how ‘in Egyptian Thebes the heaps of precious ingots gleam, the hundred-gated Thebes.’

In about 1500 BC, Thebes had a population of 75, 000, making it the largest city in the world, a title it held for the next 600 years. Although the Pharaohs moved their capital elsewhere on several occasions, Thebes remained an important city throughout the Ancient Egyptian period, and today it is best known for its stunning archaeological remains. The second-largest religious building in history, the Temple of Amun, was built there over the course of 2, 000 years, and Pharaohs, including Tutankhamun, were buried at the famous Valley of the Kings in spectacular tombs for over 500 years.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The oldest depiction of a ruddered boat from the Tomb of Menner, Egypt, c.1422-1411 BC. Wikimedia Commons

9. Africans were seafaring before anyone else

An obvious fact, if you read the first item on this list, but still an astonishing thing to bear in mind. Having evolved in Africa, ancient hominids appear to have been struck by wanderlust, and began taking their ships beyond local rivers to the great blue sea. Stone tools found on the Philippine island of Luzon suggest that the journey of around 10, 000 miles was made as early as 777, 000 years ago. The mind boggles as to how ancestors of Homo sapiens could have made a trip which is extremely difficult even today in such rudimentary vessels.

Ancestors of Homo sapiens reached Crete in the Mediterranean on rafts at least 130, 000 years ago, and left behind stone axes which were found in 2010. Although it is possible that they were simply blown off course, the Luzon evidence suggests it could well have been a deliberate voyage. History’s most famous African seafarers were the Ancient Egyptians. They built advanced vessels complete with rudders and sails, knowledge that was vital to the expansion and flourishing of their civilisation. They also built warships big enough to transport whole armies, which enabled them to attack and conquer surrounding territories.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
Caesarean-section performed by indigenous healers in Kahura, Uganda, observed by R. W. Felkin in 1879 and published in Edinburgh. Wikimedia Commons

8. Autopsies and Caesarean-sections were carried out in Uganda long before the arrival of the colonials

As mentioned in the introduction, an important part of colonial propaganda was the idea that Africans were living in appallingly primitive conditions that were only lifted when European settlers arrived. Crucial to the idea of a primitive Africa improved by kindly colonial overlords was the claim that local medicine was brutal and ineffective. People who arrived with this narrative in mind were thus shocked to see medical procedures successfully carried out. In 1879, for instance, the British explorer R. W. Felkin arrived at an isolated village in Uganda where he saw a pregnant woman give birth, assisted by a healer.

The healer first washed his hands and the woman’s abdomen, anaesthetised her with banana wine, removed the baby and stitched the mother back up. She made a full recovery, and Felkin was shocked to report that the practice appeared to be familiar and long-established from the healer’s manner. Other explorers in Uganda witnessed autopsies being carried out to determine the cause of a person’s death, a crucial weapon against disease and infection. Given what we have already learned about the intellectual tradition of but one African city, Timbuktu, medical knowledge amongst ordinary people should come as no surprise.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
A reconstructed Bloomery Furnace, the means by which steel was made in ancient Tanzania, built in modern Poland. Wikimedia Commons

7. Steel was produced in East Africa 2, 000 years ago

The Haya people of Tanzania can lay claim to an incredible discovery, centuries before many allegedly more-advanced Europeans caught up with them. That discovery was how to make steel, using only what they found lying around them. The Haya made kilns out of the mud from termite mounds, which they fashioned into a cone, roughly five feet high, and packed the kiln’s bed with charred swamp reeds, charcoal and iron ore. Eight men pumped air into the device with hand-operated bellows, and the temperature inside rose high enough to raise its carbon content, and voila! Steel was made.

This process was so effective that it hardly changed until the mid-twentieth century, when cheap foreign kilns became available in Tanzania. Although other countries produced steel at an earlier date, the Haya made the discovery entirely independently of these other nations, which is a mightily impressive feat. As you doubtless know, steel is still a fundamentally important material to many industries today. Unlike iron, its base metal, steel is much lighter and ductile, meaning that it can be manipulated into a range of different items. Making the discovery so early gave the Haya a strategic advantage over their rivals.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The Witwatersrand Basin, South Africa. Wikimedia Commons

6. Almost half of all the gold mined in history is from the Witwatersrand Basin, South Africa

Africa’s attraction to the colonial nations of the past, and nations looking to raise their GDP through trade deals today, is due to its bountiful natural resources. From precious metals to sugar, Africa has been singly blessed with things that other people want. As illustration, just think of the Witwatersrand Basin, South Africa. It is the largest gold deposit in the world, and the gold rush it inspired in 1886 led to the foundation of Johannesburg. Despite only being discovered 132 years ago, almost half of all the gold ever mined in the history of the world comes from Witwatersrand.

Once you’ve picked your jaw up from the floor, here are some more facts. Witwatersrand has yielded over 2 billion ounces of gold since 1886, and has an estimated 1.161 billion ounces remaining. To whittle out the remaining supply, mine shafts have been sunk 3, 900 metres below the earth’s surface, and it is extremely dangerous work. It is hard to quantify how long the rest will last (even assuming that the geologists’ predictions are correct), but it certainly won’t be anywhere near as long as the hundreds of millions of years it took for the gold to form.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The oldest piece of art in the world, found in Blombos Cave, South Africa, is 73, 000 years old. The Independent

5. The oldest art in the world comes from Africa

When you think of the oldest art in the world, naturally you think of prehistoric daubings on European caves, right? Wrong. The oldest art ever found is from the Blombos Cave, Blomboschfontein Nature Reserve, South Africa. There archaeologists found a piece of ochre, marked by a complex pattern of crossed lines, which is at least 77, 000 years old. The excavation’s leader, Christopher Henshilwood, described the rock as ‘a good indication of an ability to think in the abstract, to think in terms of the past, the present and the future, and that’s one of the hallmarks of modern behaviour’.

Interestingly, the date of the art makes it 30, 000 years older than the Lebombo Bone’s tally marks, which suggests the fundamentality of aesthetic experience to Homo sapiens, the species that made the ochre artefact and baboon fibula. Blombos Cave also seems to have been a centre of prehistoric art, long before the ochre carving. In 2008, two ochre-processing kits were found, consisting of bone, charcoal, ochre, grindstones, and hammer stones. The ochre produced was found stored in sea-snail shells. These kits were dated to roughly 100, 000 years ago. Blombos Cave is truly the genesis of art.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
The University of Al Quaraouiyine, Morocco, the oldest in the world. Wikimedia Commons

4. The University of Al Quaraouiyine, Fez, is the oldest continually-run university in the world

With its history of innovation and learning, it is no surprise to find that Africa is home to the oldest continually-run university in the world in Morocco. The University of Al Quaraouiyine, Fez, was founded way back in 859 AD by a Tunisian woman, Fatima al-Fihri. Al-Fihri spent her generous inheritance on building a huge mosque with an associated school (madrasa). The mosque, which has a capacity of 22, 000 worshippers, is still the largest in Africa, and the university is still going strong today, largely due to the generosity of some very wealthy people over the centuries.

The university attracted investment because of its tradition of high educational standards. Gifts from wealthy donors were spent on accumulating a huge collection of manuscripts, eventually housed in a library built by Sultan Abu Inan Faris in 1349. From an early date, the university’s expertise in secular subjects including rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, and astronomy saw it attract leading lights from beyond the Islamic world. In a model of religious tolerance and openness that we would do well to imitate today, the eventual Pope Sylvester II studied there in the late 10th century, and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides a century later.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
Hannibal leads his war elephants at the Battle of Zama, 202 BC, depicted by Cornelis Cort, Rome, 1567. Wikimedia Commons

3. The Carthaginian General Hannibal took elephants across the Alps and occupied Italy for 15 years

We touched on the Punic Wars earlier in the list, but the exploits of Hannibal (247-c.181 BC) deserve an entry all of their own. Hannibal was the son of Hamilcar Barca, the great Carthaginian general, and was so impressive as an officer in the army that he was named commander in chief of Carthage’s entire military at the age of just 26. Unfortunately for Rome, Hannibal had sworn an oath of eternal hostility to the Republic on a trip to Spain as a youngster, and took the pledge very seriously. Almost immediately, he violated a peace treaty with Rome.

Having conquered parts of Spain which Carthage had sworn to avoid in the treaty, Hannibal brought about the Second Punic War, marching across Gaul with 90, 000 men and, most famously, 37 elephants. Amazingly, most of the animals made it through a series of ambushes and the chilly conditions to enter Italy. There, through a series of inspired military manoeuvres, he won several unexpected victories, and ruled much of the country for the next 15 years. Hannibal was forced to return to unsuccessfully defend Carthage from Roman attack, and was later betrayed and defiantly poisoned himself rather than be captured.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
Hieroglyphics from the tomb of the Pharaoh Seth-Peribsen, who ruled sometime between c. 2890-2686 BC. Wikimedia Commons

2. The Ancient Egyptians were writing around 3100BC

The Ancient Sumerian civilisation in the Middle East developed writing around 3400 BC, and a few hundred years later the Egyptians were doing the same. The Egyptians may have developed their system of symbols independently of Sumeria, but it is ultimately impossible to say. Nonetheless, Hieroglyphics are a fascinating topic in themselves, and a mightily impressive feat. Hieroglyphics were pictorial representations of words, concepts, and sounds, which were used for an array of purposes. The earliest instances of hieroglyphic writing are found carved into pottery and ivory in important tombs from the end of the 4th Millenium BC.

Those capable of writing Hieroglyphics began training at around 6 years of age, and enjoyed a very privileged place in society, avoiding taxes and military conscription. Hieroglyphics as a system of writing operated in a very different manner from modern scripts: a single picture could mean a whole word or part of another, and some were phonetic, meaning that a picture of an animal could be a homonym. We are only able to decipher Hieroglyphics with a degree of accuracy because of the Rosetta Stone, an ancient crib-sheet which provides the Ancient Greek for religious and secular forms of Hieroglyphics.

20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons
Mansa Musa depicted in a detail of The Catalan Atlas, Majorca, 1375. The Independent

1. Mansa Musa, the Emperor of Mali, was the richest man in history

The great Mali Empire (c.1235-1670) became extremely wealthy due to its gold deposits, bounty of salt (once more valuable than gold in Africa) and heavy taxation on trade in West Africa. At the height of its size and wealth, Mali was ruled by the emperor Mansa Musa I (c.1280-c.1337), who was the wealthiest man in the history of the world. As the picture above shows, Mansa Musa’s prosperity was well-known in Europe. On a famous pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, he took a caravan of 60,000 men (including 12, 000 personal slaves) all clad in the finest garments.

His baggage train for this trip consisted of 80 camels, each laden with 300lbs of gold, which he had his retinue casually distribute amongst the poor along the way. This generosity was a double-edged sword in Cairo, where gold prics plummeted and took years to recover. Arab chroniclers who witnessed this astonishing caravan said that Mansa Musa even put the sun of Africa to shame. Despite his great wealth, Mansa Musa was a very devout Muslim, and his single-minded intent to reach Mecca and pay his respects meant that he made several diplomatic faux pas along the way.


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Gomez, Michael A. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

de Graft-Johnson, John Coleman. “Mūsā I of Mali”.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Vintage, 2015.

Hunwick, John O., and Alida Jay Boye. The Hidden Treasures of Timbuktu: Historic City of Islamic Africa. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.

Meek, James. “World’s First Artwork Found in Africa.” The Guardian, January 11, 2002.

Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour. Public Affairs, 2014.

Mertz, Barbara. Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt. London: William Morrow Press, 2007.

Miles, Richard. Carthage Must be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Mediterranean Civilization. Penguin Books, 2012.

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Schmidt, Peter R., and D. H. Avery. “More Evidence for an Advanced Prehistoric Iron Technology in Africa.” Journal of Field Archaeology 10, no. 4 (1983): 421-34.

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Watson, Andrew. “Largest Gold Deposits in the World – Witwatersrand Gold Fields”.

Wilkinson, Toby A.H. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Random House, 2011.