Part Four/North African Agricultural Civilization/Saharan Negroes and the Caravan Trade

George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Saharan Negroes and the Caravan Trade mind-mapping diagram

Part Four
North African Agricultural Civilization
— 16 —
Saharan Negroes and the Caravan Trade

The Sahara Desert covers slightly more than one-fourth of Africa’s land surface—an area greater than that of the continental United States. The region receives an average rainfall of less than 1 inch per year, and nowhere more than 5 inches. Several thousand square miles are completely uninhabited, consisting of scattered areas of erg, or shifting sand dunes; of hammada, or exposed bedrock; or of flat stretches of gravel and windblown sand, called reg. Contrary to common opinion, however, a considerably larger part of the Sahara’s surface is capable of supporting human life through animal husbandry and oasis agriculture and has actually been occupied by a sparse population from time immemorial. When one adds to this the barren reaches traversed by important caravan routes operated or controlled by the inhabitants, the area actually utilized by man constitutes so large a proportion of the total territory that we have rarely found it necessary to indicate unoccupied country in mapping tribal boundaries.
Racially, the Sahara affiliates with the Sudan. It had an indigenous Negroid population at the time of the Arab invasions, and the archeological discovery of a tall Negroid skeleton 250 miles north of Timbuktu indicates that the inhabitants had not undergone ethnic change since Paleolithic times. Economically and culturally, however, the Sahara affiliates with North Africa rather than the Sudan—a connection as clear in antiquity as it has been since the advent of Islam.
This tie almost certainly dates back to the original adoption of agriculture. Environmental factors and the lack of advanced irrigation techniques prevented early Sudanic agriculture from spreading northward into the Sahara, either through migration or through diffusion. But when the Berbers acquired the Egyptian complex, along with its associated domestic animals and methods of irrigation and fertilization, the situation changed. The Saharan Negroes could use what their northern neighbors had to offer, and borrowing became inevitable when the Berbers discovered the advantages to be derived from trade with the civilizations of the Sudan, advantages which could be achieved only by crossing the Sahara. In view of the manifest superiority of their own habitat, the Berbers lacked any incentive to colonize the Sahara, but they did need the cooperation of its inhabitants in exploring trade routes and probably also in the actual conduct of commerce itself. Through such intimate contacts the Negroes of the desert came to abandon their old life of hunting and gathering and to adopt the food plants, livestock, and associated techniques of their Caucasoid neighbors to the north, which have distinguished them ever since from their racial kinsmen to the south. Under the conditions of extreme aridity prevailing in the Sahara, human occupation depends primarily upon the availability of water. One source is provided by rivers, which arise in regions of greater ramfall and then traverse portions of the desert. The Dra and Sis, for example, carry water from the Atlas Mountains into the arid country of southern Morocco. A second but important source is the infrequent rains. They produce a lush temporary growth of grass and weeds highly nutritious to grazing animals, and their runoff in otherwise dry streambeds leaves enough subsoil moisture to nourish a quick crop. Thirdly there are cattered natural springs which bring subterranean waters to the surface where they can be distributed in canals with irrigated fields.
Finally, there is the permanent lens of underground water which can be tapped in various oases. It can be brought to the surface with buckets in artificial wells dug at suitable places along caravan trails to quench the thirst of man and beast, or, where more plentiful, can be raised by shadoof or well sweeps and coverted to irrigated fields. A particularly ingenious device is the foggara, an underground tunnel constructed at a slight slope from a natural source of subsurface water, which is then conducted by gravity, sometimes for miles, to the place of use without loss through evaporation. Another is the sunken garden—a pit sometimes as much as 40 feet in depth, at the bottom of which crops are grown on prepared soil at an elevation so low that their roots can reach ground water without irrigation.
Through these means the scattered oases of the Sahara support an amazingly rich and varied agriculture. The crops include most of those of the Egyptian and Greco-Roman complexe as well as numerou introductions from the Sudan and America. All chose enumerated below are specifically reported in ethnographic sources for true oases, i.e., excluding those watered by permanent streams.

  • Grains: Asiatic miller, barley , maize, miller, rice, rye, sorghum, wheat.
  • Legumes and forage crops: alfalfa, broad beans, chick peas, hyacinth beans, lentils, peas, vetch.
  • Root crops: beets, carrots, chufa, onions, radishes, turnips.
  • Leaf and stalk vegetables: cabbage, celery, okra, purslane, rape.
  • Vine and ground fruits: cucumbers, eggplant, gourds, grapes, melons, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, watermelons.
  • Fruits and nuts: almonds, apples, apricots, dates, figs, jujubes, olives, oranges, peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, quinces.
  • Condiments and indulgents: black caraway, coriander, cumin, garlic, peppers, tobacco.
  • Textile plants: ambary, cotton, flax, hemp.
  • Dye plants: henna, indigo, saffron.

Animal husbandry, which is of subsidiary importance to the tillers of the oases, becomes the primary basis of subsistence to an approximately equal number of pastoral nomads. These people live in part directly on the meat and milk of their herds, in part indirectly on the “protection,” i.e., tribute, which they exact from caravan merchants and the sedentary population. Cattle and horses are few in number, the principal animals being sheep, goats, donkeys, and camels. The camel, more properly called the one-humped dromedary and more poetically « the ship of the desert, » dates only from the Roman period. First mentioned historically in 46 B.C., it did not become established m substantial numbers until the fourth century.
Despite a widespread belief that the Sahara is undergoing progressive desiccation, there is no actual evidence that its water resources have diminished appreciably during the past 7,000 years. The impression stems basically from the fact that wells and water holes along the caravan trail have grown fewer through disuse and lack of maintenance with each technological advance permitting a longer journey without water —the shifts first from human porters to donkers, then from donkeys to camels, and finally from camels to automotive vehicles. It has also, of course, been accentuated by cases of actual abandonment due exclusively to political factors.

The Sahara assumes importance less for its sparse human population and their ingenious adaptations to an unfavorable environment than for its crucial role in history as an artery of trade and cultural diffusion between the Mediterranean region and Negro Africa. Old caravan trails crisscross it in every direction, following routes where dependable sources of water succeed one another at the shortest maximal intervals. Along these routes the native inhabitants have traded with one another, and with the Sudan and the Mcditerranean littoral, from time immemorial, and have brought the products of the heart of Africa to the ancient seats of civilization, and vice versa.

Map 12. Trans-Saharan Caravan Routes
(1 – Taodeni Trail. 2 – Gadames Trail. 3 – Bilma Trail. 4 – Selima Trail)

This traffic doubtless dates from early in the Neolithic period, for along stretches where some of the principal trails pass over rocky hammada the bedrock has been polished smooth by the bare feet of countle thousands of human porters before animal transport came into general use.
Map 12 above shows the principal caravan routes. Four of them occupy positions o f especial historical importance.

The first of these, proceeding from west to east, is the Taodeni Trail, linking Morocco-via Abuam, Terhaza, Taodeni, and Arawan—with Walata and the middle Niger region at Timbuktu. The second, the Gadames Trail, connects modern Tunisia and ancient Carthage with the Hausa country of Nigeria via Gabes, Gadames, Gat, Assiu, and gades. The third, or Bilma Trail, links Libya in the north with the native states of Bornu and Kanem on Lake Chad by way of Sokna, Murzuk, and Bilma. The fourth, the Selima Trail, connects ancient and modern Egypt with Darfur and vVadai in the central Sudan via the oases of Kharga, Selima, and Bir-Natrun. Alternative or combined routes, of course, might also be chosen; two of the most popular in the early Middle Ages led from Egypt to Gao and Timbuktu—the one passing through Siwa and other northern oases and thence southwest through Murzuk, Gat, and Tamanrasset, the other running southwest through Kufra and thence via either Tekro and Nguimi or Bilma and gades. Of considerable consequence, too, are the routes leading south from Algeria either through Wargla and In-Salah or through Kanatsa and Adrar.

To the trade along these routes the oasis dwellers have contributed their own products-dates, livestock, hides, dried and salted meat, milk products, saltpeter, and especially air, which has always been in high demand in the Sudan. Important salt mines are located near Tekro and In-Salah, but the greatest producer is Taodeni. The fact that salt caravans from Taodeni to Timbuktu have been observed, even in the present century, with as many as 25,000 camels each gives some conception of the magnitude of the Saharan traffic. The products shipped southward from the Mediterranean region throughout the historical period have consisted chiefly of grain to the Sahara and of arms, glass, other manufactured goods, and luxury items to both the Sahara and the Sudan. The Sudan has supplied the ahara with grain, dried fish, kola nuts, and cor.ron goods, and the Mediterranean region with a constant flow of ivory, gold, ebony, ostrich feathers, and slaves. A substantial proportion of the gold and ivory held by the people of Europe and the Near East prior to the Discoveries Period seems to have been derived ultimately from egro Africa through the trans-Saharan trade.
The contribution of Africa to economic history can scarcely be overestimated.
West of Nubia, where culture history has followed a very different course, the Sahara falls ethnically into three divisions. In the east, from Tibesti south to the borders of Bornu, Bagirmi, and Wadai, the Negroes still substantially hold their own. In Greek and Roman times, when they were known as the Garamantes, they extended considerably farther north, occupying all of Fezzan, where Negroid physical traits are still prominent. The Arabs expelled them from the oasis of Kufra as recently as 1813. The modern descendants of the Garamantes, like the inhabitants of Bornu to the southwest, speak languages of the independent Kanuric stock (see Map 6) and fall into the following tribal groups.

  1. Berti. These people, who are linguistically akin to the Zaghawa, inhabit the Tagabo Hills in Darfur.
  2. Bideyat (Anna, Awe, Baele, Bedeyat, Terawia), with the kindred Gaida (Gaeda) and Murdia (Mourdia) of Ennedi and the Unia of Unianga. Numbering about 18,000, they are partly pagans and partly indifferent Moslems. Their language is closely r elated to but not mutually intelligible with Zaghawa.
  3. Bulgeda (Boulgheda), including the Bultoa (Bolto), Dalea (Dalia), Irie (Iria), Jagada (Diagada), and Sangada (Koroa, Sagada) of Borku.
  4. Daza (Dasa, Dazagarda), including the Dogorda (Gorane), Dongosa (Doza, Dozza) , Famalla (Haualla, Medela), Kokorda, Nakaza (Akaza, Anakarza, Takatsa), Wandala (Ouendallah), and other subtribes of northern Kanem. With the Bulgeda they number about 20,000, all Moslems.
  5. Kawar. The natives of Kawar are partly Teda, partly Kanembu and Kanuri, with Kanuri as the prevailing language. They number about 6,000.
  6. Kreda (Karra) , including the kindred Kacherda, each having numerous subtribes. They number about 20,000 and speak a language akin to Daza.
  7. Teda (Tebu, Tibbu, Toubou, Tubu). This tribe, comprising about 10.000 in Tibesti and another 2,000 in Fezzan, was converted to Islam in the late eighteenth century.
  8. Zaghawa (Shoghaua, Zegaoua, Zorhaua). This tribe, resident in northern Darfur, is still only partially Islamized.

Of these Saharan tribes, the Berti and Kawar are sedentary and primarily agricultural, the Bideyat, Bulgeda, Kreda, and Zaghawa largely pastoral, and the Daza and Teda almost equally composed of nomadic herders and of sedentary or semisedentary tillers. They grow most of the Saharan crops previously enumerated, with the date palm usually the staple. All tribes keep numerous camels, sheep, goats, and donkeys, and all except the Kawar and Teda have cattle as well. They do very little hunting and fishing but gather quantities of wild-palm nuts in season, and the caravan trade looms very large in their economy. The men herd and milk the larger animals, engage in trade, and hunt, whereas the women gather, fish, and tend and milk the smaller livestock. Both sexes share the labor of cultivation where this is not performed by slaves.
The sedentary tribes live, at least seasonally, in permanent compact villages, whereas the nomads wander in migratory bands. Three house types are reported. The nomads occupy rectangular or elliptical tents with dismountable wooden frames, vertical walls, and either flat or pitched roofs covered with palm-leaf mats or, occasionally with skins. The Kawar and most of the sedentary Daza have rectangular dwellings with mud walls and gabled roofs thatched with palm leaves, but the sedentary Teda, a few of the Daza, and probably the Berti live in round huts with cylindrical walls of dry stones or mud and conical thatched roofs.
Each local community, which is structurally often a patrician, has a hereditary headman. He is in some instances essentially autonomous and in others subordinate to a petty paramount chief. The Kawar and Teda each have a tribal “sultan,” selected in rotation from two or more noble lineages, but he possesses only nominal authority. The Bideyat and Zaghawa acknowledge the suzerainty, respectively, of the Wadai and Darfur states. All tribes possess slaves and have despised and endogamous castes of smiths, and the Daza, Kawar, and Teda distinguish certain noble sibs from ordinary commoners. Warfare, though frequent, is confined in the main to raiding and blood feuds.
Marriage involves a substantial bride-price in livestock and is universally forbidden with any first cousin. Polygyny, though everywhere permitted, is only moderately common among the Daza, Kreda, and Teda. Patrilocal residence prevails, but it is preceded by an initial period of matrilocal residence among the Bideyat, Daza, and Tecla. The evidence on social organization, though scanty, strongly suggests the prevalence of agamous patrisibs divided into exogamous lineages, and at least the Teda have cousin terminology of the Iroquois pattern. Inheritance and succession follow the patrilineal rule. Primogeniture prevails among the Zaghawa, but the other tribes conform approximately to Islamic law, according to which a portion of a man’s estate is reserved for his widow and the remainder divided equally among his children with full shares to sons and half shares to daughters.
The central portion of the ahara, to the west of the Kanuric-speaking Negroes, is dominated today by the Tuareg (see Chapter 53), a nation of camel nomads who speak a Berber language and are unquestionably Caucasoid. Among them and outnumbering them, however, lives a depres ed caste of Negroes who are usually known by the Songhai name of Bella, though locally called Haratin. Various facts belie the common assumption that the Bella are descendants of Negro slaves imported from the Sudan. The Tuareg do possess such slaves, whom they employ as house servants, but they call them Iklan and distinguish them sharply from the Bella, who are agricultural serfs owned by or attached to particular Tuareg families or lineages whom they support by their labor either directly or through annual tribute in agricultural products. This status suggests subjugation and exploitation rather than slave descent.
The Bella subsist by sedentary agriculture, and even today have not adopted the Tuareg tent but live either in hemispherical shelters of poles covered with grass mats or in rectangular huts with flat roofs and walls of sun-dried brick or stones laid in mud. The Tuareg, on the other hand, follow an exclusively pastoral mode of life—a relatively recent development in North Africa—and refrain contemptuously from any kind of agricultural labor. This intimation that they are latecomers to the Sahara is confirmed by historical evidence, cited by Urvoy (1936), that they originally inhabited Tripolitania, whence they were forced into the desert by the pressure of Arab expansion between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Records from classical antiquity, moreover, show that oases as far north as Gadames in Tunisia and Gurara, Tuggurt, and Wargla in Algeria were then inhabited by Negroes. The Berber seizure of Wargla, indeed, can be specifically documented as occurring in the ninth century.
If Negroid peoples still occupied the central Sahara until medieval times, as now seems indisputable, to what linguistic group did they belong? Urvoy (1936) tells us explicitly that the present Tuareg country of Air was originally inhabited by Hausa-speaking Negroes, who retreated thence into Gobir under pressure from the invading Berbers. Moreover, for the oasis of Gadames, located at approximately the point where the present boundaries of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria meet, all the earliest European explorers—e.g., Richardson (1848), Duveyrier (1864), and Chavanne (1879)—report Hausa as the prevailing language of the Negro population, although they do not make absolutely clear whether they are referring to the Bella or to slaves imported from Nigeria. The Hausa nation of today enjoy a reputation throughout the Sudan for their mercantile propensities, which is precisely what one might expect in a people habituated for millennia to the trans-Saharan caravan trade. The conclusion that the ancestors of the Bella spoke Hausa would also solve a problem of linguistic distribution. It would bring the Chadic subfamily of Hamitic, to which Hausa belongs, into geographical contiguity with the Berber subfamily, whereas today the speakers of Chadic are eparated by the entire breadth and half the length of the Sahara Desert from any other representatives of the Hamitic linguistic stock except latecoming Arab and Tuareg groups.
The western third of the Sahara, extending from the Tuareg country to the Atlantic Ocean, is largely occupied today by a series of Arab and Arabized Berber tribes. In practically every instance we possess definite historical evidence of their derivation from the north, usually from Morocco, as a part of or in consequence of the westward expansion of the Arabs. We know, for example, that the Zenaga tribe had established themselves in the Hodh region of the French Sudan by the ninth century. With the exception of an uninhabitable section in the center, the western Sahara was originally inhabited exclusively by Negroes. They still survive there as the Haratin, a subject group of agricultural serfs whose status almost exactly replicates that of the Bella among the Tuareg and who are equally distinct from imported Sudanese slaves and their descendants.
In the north, we know that the oases of the Ora and Sis Rivers in southeastern Morocco originally had an indigenous Negroid population. The earliest historical sources likewise report the presence of Negroes as well as Berbers in present Shluh territory along the Atlantic coast and in the valley of the Sous River, but they had apparently disappeared from this region by A.D. 1100. We lack any evidence indicative of their possible linguistic affiliations.
On the fringe of the Sudan farther south, however, the present Haratin are probably descended from Negroes of the Mande subfamily of the Nigritic stock. It was these people, and not some unidentified Caucasoid group as is sometimes alleged, who formed the core of the great empire of Ghana, which flourished for centuries prior to A.D. 1000 in the general vicinity of modern Walata. Ghana maintained extensive trade relations with North Africa, and it was probably in this connection that a number of Mande peoples (variously called Dati, Diula, Marka, etc.) now scattered throughout the western Sudan, where they play an economic role comparable to that of the Hausa in the central Sudan, acquired their exceptional mercantile interest and skill. The fact that the Aser, a small remnant group of Mande speech, still survive in the desert oases of Tichit and Walata provides confirmation of this inference.

Selected Bibliography


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.