It is perhaps surprising that a place as comparatively close to Europe as West Africa should remain more or less unknown long after the colonization of the Americas. Indeed, it was not until 1828 that the first European saw Timbuktu and lived to tell the tale. This long isolation was due to many factors: the trackless wastes of the Sahara, the long distances from the coast to the Niger River fraught with danger and disease, and the desert and coastal peoples who preferred to maintain their exclusive position as trade middlemen between the Niger and the outer world. But this is no excuse for continuing near-ignorance in America and Europe of the fabulous history of the Middle Niger Valley in the modern Republic of Mali.
As early as 872 A.D. the Arab geographer al-Ya'kubi would write of the ancient state of Ghana (situated in part in the Middle Niger Valley) stating that it possessed a powerful king, with many lesser kings and kingdoms owing their allegiance to him, and that this king of kings controlled his country's mines of gold. Arab and Berber traders were already taking advantage of a profitable trade with the Empire of Ghana by the 9th century A.D., and were to continue to do so for centuries to come (see the Tuareg). However, to the western world, this land remained a mystery. The Niger River itself was misunderstood: Roman and Medieval European Geographers believed this great river to be part of the Nile and to flow westwards! Tantalizing rumors beckoned. In 1620, a British explorer of the West African coast, Richard Jobson, was told by an African trader (Buckor Sano) that far in the interior, two months travel away, was Timbuktu, "a great town, the houses whereof are covered in gold." Jobson returned to England and tried to fan interest in the exploration of the West African interior. But this was the dawning era of the Atlantic slave trade, and in comparison sources of gold seemed of little interest. Attention focused instead, for the next two centuries, on trade with African coastal powers who could supply slaves to the burgeoning plantations of the Americas.
It was not until the decline of the slave trade in the 19th century that foreign attention began once more to focus on the West African interior. Explorers such as the Scotsman Mungo Park and the Frenchman Réné Caillé sought to open new markets for European commerce and to broaden geographic knowledge. They were disappointed. The great kingdoms and commerce of legend had dissolved into the feuding of small armed factions and near anarchy -- only a momentary blip in the rise and fall of West African Empires to be sure -- but sufficient to give explorers a biased impression of local politics and facilitate a colonial take-over.
Colonial impressions of a 'barbarous' and 'indolent' Africa gave rise to a mass of unfortunate scholarly theories which were to persist until the 1970s. The great English archaeologist Grahame Clark wrote as recently as 1961 that Africa had "already during Late Pleistocene times slipped far behind in the race of human progress." Likewise, historians depicted the ancient West African states of Ghana and Mali as founded by 'Semitic races,' and in any event existing only as satellites -- reliant upon Trans-Saharan commerce for their existence.
Happily, the past few decades of scholarly research have begun to dramatically change these views. On a world scale, prehistoric Africa has been shown to be a major innovator in the development of ceramics (by 9,000 years before present), in the domestication of cattle (by 8,000 years before present), and in iron technology (by 2,800 years before present). Regarding Mali, the chronology and development of its ancient states has been re-cast. Instead of power centers being created by Arab run Trans-Saharan trade, beginning around 800 A.D., we now know that there were cities along the Middle Niger as early as 300 A.D. (Jenne-jeno, Dia, and others). These emergent urban centers featured mudbrick architecture, city walls, and thriving markets. Indeed, we may trace the origins of the complex societies which inhabited these towns to earlier Mande 'chiefdoms' which existed along the Dhar Tichitt-Oualata escarpment range in Mauritania (by 1250 B.C.). The roots of cultural complexity along the Niger appear to have been founded more on inter-regional trade in commodities (cattle, salt, grain, minerals, etc.) than upon the lure of exotic goods from the Mediterranean world. The archaeological landscape between Djenne and Timbuktu is dotted with the mounded remnants of hundreds of ancient towns and villages. So far only a handful of these have been even test-excavated and much remains to be learned from their investigation. Additionally, historians have begun to increasingly respect the oral historical legacy of Malian griots, whose generations of memorized knowledge now supplement and challenge Arabic textual sources.
Through the media and tourism Americans and Europeans are beginning to learn of such surprising things as the one thousand year old city of Djenné and its Sudanic architectural style (see Great Mosque of Djenne), the ancient "University of Timbuktu," (see Sankore Mosque) and the even more ancient accomplishments of the peoples of Mali. The substance behind the ancient myths of Mali, which enthralled 19th century explorers, is beginning to become clear, and the future promises to bring ever more of West Africa's cultural heritage to light.
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