A while back I had to write a term paper for one of my history classes. I really wanted to do a cross-historical comparison between the Trans-Saharan trade routes of the past and the modern smuggling routes used by drug traffickers and terrorists. One of the limitations of academia (or strength depending on your perspective) is that there is this strange gap where political science, history, and journalism do not quite merry up with each other.

Journalism doesn’t care about history very much. Political Science often ignores historical precedents and anecdotal evidence on the ground, and history is by its nature going to be 20 years or more behind the power curve because someone has to write white papers and PhD dissertations before the information can be cited as a source.

I’m hoping I can fill this gap to some extent with this series on the Trans-Saharan challenge, a series that will take an in depth look at the subject of trade, smuggling, conflict, and terrorism.

I hope readers don’t mind that I am going to blatantly recycle large amounts of the historical research I did for my history paper. From there I will move on to write the paper I wanted to all along, something that addresses what is actually happening right now and the challenges of Trans-Saharan terrorism and drug smuggling. For those who don’t think history is important, feel free to skip this. For those who know better, consider this a crash course of an area study for future operations.

Lets take it from the top…

The study of trans-Saharan trade routes is interesting from a historical, social, and religious perspective. How these routes evolved over the centuries is critical to our understanding of West African history. But how did these desert trade routes change over time and what were the social, political, and geographical drivers for that change?

To understand how trans-Saharan trade routes came into existence, we first need to understand how the desert expanse came into being in the first place. Geology and Palaeontology informs us that North Africa was not always a desert wasteland, but was once a fertile green pasture occupied by giraffes, elephants, and other large fauna. It was only during the beginning of the dry period in 3000 BC1 that that the geography of North Africa began to transform into the Sahara desert as we know it today.

Population centers collapsed to desert oases, into the Sahel, or further south to the Niger river bend where Jenne-Jao was established as a center of commercial activity sometime around 300 BC. People living in West Africa now began to settle and specialize in agriculture, metallurgy, and animal husbandry, which led to a need for trade between farmers, metal workers, and animal herdering pastorialists.

The ancient Greek explorer and writer, Herodotus, described the indigenous people of what is today modern Libya, the Garamantes, who may have been the first trans-Saharan traders to transport goods from sub-Saharan Africa to the North African coast. Three main trade routes are described during this era: Libya to Sudan, Algeria to Jenne-Jao by way of Mauritania, and Sudan to Egypt. There is, however, controversy amongst historians as to how much actual trans-Saharan trade existed during this time, well before the introduction of the camel.