As the people of West Africa grew more food, communities had more than they needed to survive. West Africans began to trade the area’s resources with buyers who lived thousands of miles away.
For a long time, West Africans had ventured into the desert for trade. However, those early travelers could only make short trips from oasis to oasis. Their horses couldn’t go far without water.In the AD 200s, the situation changed. At about that time, Romans started to use camels to carry goods throughout northern Africa. These long-legged animals could store water and energy in their bodies for long periods of time. They could also carry heavy loads.
Traders preferred camels over horses for crossing the desert.
With camels people could cross the Sahara in two months. Traders formed caravans to make the trip. A North African people called the Berbers used their knowledge of the desert to lead the caravans. Even with camels and the Berbers’ skills, crossing the Sahara was dangerous. Sup- plies could run out, thieves could attack, and caravans could lose their way.
What group controlled the trans-Sahara trade?
Despite these dangers, West Africa’s gold and salt mines became a source of great wealth. Camels carried salt from the mines of the Sahara to the south to trade for gold. Traders then took the gold north, to Europe and the Islamic world. Along with gold and salt, traders carried cloth, copper, silver, and other items. They also bought and sold human beings as slaves.
Some of the places where people gathered to trade grew into towns. Timbuktu (tim-buk-TOO), for example, began as a camp for traders in about 1100. Within two centuries, it would become a bustling city and a center of culture and learning. It would lie at the center of great empires that rose to power through the riches of the trans-Sahara trade.