Family, Labor, Technology and Trade

Essential Question

How did family, labor, technology, and trade allow for West African society to develop?

Family, Labor, Technology, and Trade

Families, Villages, and Labour

Thousands of years ago, West Africa had a damp climate. About 5,000 years ago the climate changed, though, and the area became drier. As more land became desert, people had to leave areas where they could no longer survive. People who had once roamed freely began to live closer together. Over time they settled in villages. At the heart of village life was the family.

A typical West African family was an extended family. Usually the extended family included the father, mother, children, and close relatives in one household. West African society expected each person to be loyal to his or her extended family. In some areas people took part in another type of group. In these groups-called age-sets-men who had been born within the same two or three years formed special bonds. Men in the same age-set had a duty to help each other. Women, too, sometimes formed age-sets.

Loyalty to family and age-sets helped the people of a village work together. Everyone had specific duties. The men hunted and farmed. Among the crops that men tended were millet and sorghum. These hardy grains grew well in the savannah in spite of the poor soil there. After being harvested, the grain could be made into a thick paste or ground into flour to make bread. Cattle could eat the grain. Farmers also raised goats and sheep.

Like the men, West African women worked very hard. They farmed, collected firewood, ground grain, and carried water. Women also cared for children. Even the very young and the very old had their own tasks. For example, the elders, or old people, taught the family's traditions to younger generations. Through songs, dances, and stories, elders passed on the community's history and values. Among the values that children learned was the need for hard work. Children began working beside older family members as soon as they were able.

Another central feature of village life was religion. Some religious practices were similar from village to village. A traditional belief showed the importance of families. Many West Africans believed that the unseen spirits of their ancestors stayed nearby. To honor these spirits, families marked places as sacred spaces by putting specially carved statues there. Family members gathered in these places to share news and problems with the ancestors. Families also offered food to the ancestors' spirits. Through these practices they hoped to keep the spirits happy. In return, they believed, these spirits would protect the village from harm.

Within Africa, slavery had existed just as it did in many places throughout the world. In Africa, Bantu chiefs raided nearby villages for captives. These captives became laborers or were released for a fee. Africans also enslaved criminals or enemies taken in war. These enslaved Africans became part of the Saharan trade. However, as long as Africans stayed in Africa, hope of escape still existed. Enslaved Africans might also win their freedom through hard work or by marrying a free person.

The trade in humans also grew as the trade with Muslim merchants increased. The Quran forbade enslavement of Muslims. Muslims, however, could enslave non-Muslims. Arab traders, therefore, began to trade horses, cotton, and other goods for enslaved, non-Muslim Africans.

When Europeans arrived in West Africa, a new market for enslaved Africans opened. Africans armed with European guns began raiding villages to seize captives to sell to Europeans. Europeans were purchasing slaves to use them as free labourers in their sugar plantation. There enslaved Africans were treated inhumanly. They worked long hours, were given little food, and punished severly.

Technology and Change

As time passed, the people of West Africa developed advanced and diverse cultures. Changes in technology helped some early communities grow. Sometime around 500 BC West Africans made a discovery that would change their region forever. They found that they could heat certain kinds of rock to get a hard metal. This metal was iron. By heating the iron again, they could shape it into useful things. Stronger than other metals, iron was good for making tools. One of the earliest peoples to use this new technology was the Nok. Living in present-day Nigeria, the Nok made iron farm tools. One iron tool, the hoe, allowed farmers to clear the land more quickly and easily than they could with earlier tools.

As a result, they could grow more food. The Nok also used iron tips for arrows and spears. Iron weapons provided a better defense against invaders and helped in hunting. As better-equipped farmers, hunters, and warriors, the Nok gained power. They also became known for fine sculptures of animals and human heads they made from clay.

Iron tools also provided another benefit. They helped West Africans live in places where they couldn't live before. Iron blades allowed people to cut down trees to clear land for farms. Because they had more places to live and more farms for growing food, the population of West Africa grew.

Trade and West Africa

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 2OOs, 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.

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. Supplies could run out, thieves could attack, and caravans could lose their way.

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.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the importance of family to West African society?

  • How was labour divided in West African society? What work did they do?

  • What impact did iron have on West African society?

  • What impact did camels have on West African society?

Activity 1: How did family, labor, technology, and trade allow for the development of West African Society?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities