From the 7th to the 11th centuries AD in West Africa, salt was traded for gold. As salt was difficult to obtain in parts of the ancient world it became a valuable trade item, worth its weight in gold. The salt trade route brought great wealth to not only the salt-producing nations, but also to the cities and states along the way.
Salt was necessary for the preservation of food as there was no refrigeration. During the Roman period, soldiers were paid in salarium argentum, or “salt money”, from which the English word “salary” is derived.
In certain areas of the Sahara Desert, such as Taghaza and Taoudenni, salt deposits were found just below the surface. Mining operations were set up and slaves were imported to work there. The salt, in the form of blocks, were loaded onto camels and transported to the south, where they were traded for gold. By the 8th century AD, camel caravans were moving regularly between the Sahara and the gold-rich regions of West Africa.
At the designated trade location, the salt traders would display their salt, beat their drums announcing their intention to trade, and return to their camp. The gold traders, upon hearing the drums, would arrive to inspect the salt, and place an amount of gold they believed would be a fair trade. They would then beat their drums and retreat to their camp. The salt traders would inspect the gold, and if they were satisfied, they would take the gold, leave the salt, beat their drums, and depart.
Tariffs were imposed on the caravans all along the trade routes. This brought much wealth and led to great empires including the Ghana, Mali and Shonhai Empires. Moreover, important cities were established along the routes.
Although no longer regarded as a highly prized trade commodity, salt mining continues in the Sahara, who still rely on camels to transport the salt, though in much smaller quantities, and certainly not traded for gold!