Eighth Century : Subsaharan Africa


The 8th century in Subsaharan Africa witnessed the continued steady growth and spread of farming and iron-working peoples, especially those of the Bantu language group. They moved throughout the grassland plateaus situated south of the dense rain forests of the Congo basin and gradually absorbed or dispossessed the Stone Age hunters and gatherers. The generally southward spread of farming settlements involved a corresponding extension of the range of domesticated cattle of the Sanga breed and of millet and sorghum cultivation. To the east, the range of the banana plant, which had been brought to the Indian Ocean coast from Indonesia centuries earlier, was being extended inland. But as the soil was poor and they had few reliable food crops, the emerging farming peoples continued to live a partially nomadic life and to rely on hunting and gathering to supplement their diet. Here and there in the central southern interior, markets began to support the earliest forms of long-distance as well as purely local trade. The production of copper and gold ingots for exchange probably started in the 8th century, although on a very small scale.

Swahili- and other Bantu-speaking peoples along the east African coast began to benefit from Arab enterprise in steadily extending and enlarging the carrying trade of the Indian Ocean.

The earliest Muslim trading settlement along this seaboard appears to date from the 9th century, but there is little doubt that the Arabs made trading contacts there as early as the 8th.

In West Africa, the 8th century saw the first large expansion, since Roman times, of the cross-Saharan trade between North Africa and the western and central Sudan. The trade was chiefly the work of Muslim Berbers of the Ibadi sect, who established a network of trading towns in northwest Africa after 760, notably at Tahert and Sijilmasa, and used these as bases for trade with Subsaharan partners. The most important partners were the Mande-speaking Soninke, rulers of the empire of Ghana, which controlled most of the southern terminals of the cross-desert trade. Among the other partners were the Songhai of Gao, a southern trade terminal founded on the Niger River during this period.

In northeastern Africa the ancient empire of Aksum (Axum) had entered an eclipse, but the Christian kingdoms of Nubia—Nobatia in the north, Makuria (Maqurra) in the center, and Alodia (Alwa) in the south—had entered a period of brilliant development. About the year 700 the two northern states were united to form the kingdom of Dongola, which was strong enough to send an army as far north as the Nile delta in 754 and to forge valuable trading connections that endured until the 12th century.

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