Ancient Empires of West Africa

Quite possibly, Africa is the world’s original “melting pot”. Surprisingly, even without as much written documentation as other regions of the world, there is quite a bit known about the ancient tribal empires of West Africa. African art, culture and keen oral history are largely responsible for that.


African Elephant Mask

Following the formation of the Sahara Desert around 3000 B.C., one of the earliest documented kingdoms was the Empire of Ghana. Made up of Mande peoples, the Ghana Empire grew to considerable size before the Islamic Sosso (Takrur) people and eventually the Mandinkas took over to form the new Mali Empire.

Founding a university at Timbuktu and expanding trade routes, the Mali Empire flourished under rulers such as Wali Keta and Kankou Musa in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Within the Mali Empire, the prominence of arts and crafts among several ethnic groups grew. Mandinkas and subgroups practiced many traditional rituals, most of which were accompanied by tribal percussion and stringed instruments. The Dogon people, for example, have become known for their secretive metal sculptures of human figures. Additionally, elaborately carved doors as well as African masks of the Dogon are still lauded today for their craftsmanship.

After a series of weak successors following Musa, however, the Mali Empire slowly gave way to the Songhai (Gao) Empire. This revived Islam in the region, though many Dogon of Mali were said to have successfully avoided Islamization. When a Moroccan leader eventually invaded the Songhai, Islam began to spread even quicker within the West African and Sahel regions and more smaller empires grew.


South of these empires, however, some tribal city-states established themselves as early as the fourth century. Such empires flourished in present-day Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast and Nigeria and today’s African mask makers within the region are largely influenced by the masks of their predecessors.


African Baule Mask

Traders from Europe arrived in greater numbers during the fifteenth century, and the Portuguese established trading ports of the coast of Senegal. Although the portuguese were among the first to capture Africans and bring them back to their country as slaves, Spain’s and England’s passing of law to legalize slave trading expanded the practice considerably.

During the demand for slaves by visitors from Europe, many African leaders tried to protect their own people’s freedom by warring with other African tribes and selling them into slavery. During and following the slave trade, colonization of Africa became a part of every African nation’s history except present-day Ethiopia.

Descendants of West Africans now can be found in significant portions of Caribbean, United States, and Brazilian populations. Some of the arts and crafts in the New World, such as dancing, drumming, and mask making, for example, take root during and after the fifteenth centuries when African slaves arrived on these shores.