The Salt Trade of Ancient West Africa – by Mark Cartwright ( – February 18, 2021)

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.

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.

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