Ancient African Trade

Trade played an important role in the economies of ancient African civilization. The continent of Africa is huge and there were hundreds of tribes living in the different sections.

While some tribes traded by sailing ships across the nearby oceans and seas, many others were landlocked. They formed trade routes by making caravans transported by camels and donkeys.

Trade Centers

Because of the size of the African continent, trade tended to be centered on large cities. Many of these cities were on the coast.

This meant they could trade by land or water. Over time, the ancient African cities grew, sometimes housing as many as 50,000 – 100,000 people. This doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but it was huge in ancient times.

There were numerous ancient trade centers. Some of the largest were:

  • Timbuktu
  • Djenne
  • Gao
  • Tunis
  • Cairo
  • Marrakesh
  • Agadez
  • Sijilmasa

Most of these trade centers had some connection to the water, even if it was on the banks of a river that connected to the Mediterranean Sea or the ocean.

Ships took a long time to develop and be capable to travel across the Indian Ocean. Most trade goods instead arrived by canoe, raft, or smaller boats that travelled down rivers like the Nile.
Aksumite gold coin of Endubis.

Others came from foreign traders who brought goods from as far as China and Europe.

Other goods came by land routes. Traders travelled using camels or donkeys that travelled in long caravans for protection from attackers. Camels were favored in North Africa because of the vast Sahara Desert.

Camels didn’t need as much water as donkeys and were well-adapted to the climate. Donkeys could carry a lot of goods but needed more supplies.

Caravans from mid to South Africa chose donkeys instead of camels because they were more common.

Trade Goods

Since most of the trade routes were in North Africa, the tribes traded a lot of goods taken from the Sahara desert.

A popular item was gold, which was mined by wealthy tribes and then traded or sold to the Egyptians, societies in Asia, or European cultures like the Romans.

The greatest gold mines were controlled by the empires of Ghana and Mali. The Mali even had one of the richest men in history, a king known as Mansa Musa, in the 15th century CE.

Another popular good was salt. This was taken from salt mines and traded between tribes to help preserve meat and other foods.

It was traded to the Romans and Egyptians as well and even brought to Asia by ship.

Between themselves, many tribes exchanged goods important to the functionality of everyday life. Some of these included beads, cloth, ivory, grains and nuts, metal tools, and slaves.


The ancient Africans had a thriving slave trade. The way in which the tribes were established required a large working class.

More powerful tribes would fight and defeat weaker ones. They would then capture the defeated men, women, and children and force them to work as farmers, miners, prostitutes, and domestic servants.

There is some debate among professionals about how well slaves were treated in ancient African civilization.

Some tribes seem to keep slaves as members of the family, while others viewed them as disposable.

The slave trade lasted for thousands of years. When Europeans arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries CE, they bought slaves from African slave traders to work in the mines and plantations of South and North America.


  • Where did the ancient Africans get their slaves?
    From other African tribes that they defeated.
  • Who was the richest king in African history?
    Mansa Musa.
  • Which two goods from mines were traded regularly?
    Gold and salt.
  • Which two animals were used by trade caravans on land?
    Camels and donkeys.
  • What were three of the eight primary trade centers?
    Timbuktu, Djenne, Gao, Tunis, Cairo, Marrakesh, Agadez, Sijilmasa