West African Civilization (1400-1591) - West African Society
Standards: 7.4.2
  • Analyze the importance of family, labor specialization, and regional commerce in the development of states and cities in West Africa.
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West African Society

Key Terms and People

kinship: connection based on family relationships

lineage: a group of people who are related to a common ancestor

clan: a larger group of related families

ethnic group: an ethnic group shared a distinct culture, language, and identity

caste: social class


Section Notes

Kinship and Castes

  • In West Africa, people shared a strong sense of family. Large families formed lineages. Each lineage was a part of a clan. Clans lived together in a village. Several villages made up ethnic groups.
  • A person's caste was fixed at birth. Enslaved people came from groups defeated in wars, and others were born as slaves. Slaves worked as soldiers, farmers, and house servants.
  • Slaves had some rights:
    1. They could marry
    2. families could not be separated
    3. protected from harsh punishment
    4. could earn money
    5. buy their freedom

City and Village Life

  • Families lived in clusters in towns and villages. In the cities Arabic was the main language of trade and worship. In villages families spoke the language of their ancestors and worshiped ancient gods.
  • Villagers traded the things they produced (food: rice, yams, beans) with things they needed (salt, cloth) In the cities, the economy was based on trade, people bought goods using cowrie shells and gold coins.
  • Emperors supported trade:
    1. Askia Muhammad used armies to protected trade routes
    2. he used a system of weights and measurements
    3. he had his officials inspect the markets to guarantee honest trading
  • Tens of thousands of people lived in cities where trade was heavy, such as Gao, Timbuktu, and Djenné. Some buildings were made of stone, though moest were made of mud and wood.


Summary: Society in West Africa was based on family and caste. Trade helped cities grow and prosper.

Study Guide Questions

What caste groups made up West African society?

In what ways did trade change West African cities and towns?

How important were families and clans in West African society? Explain.

What were the main economic activites in West African villages?

How did social and economic life differ in the villages and cities? Give examples.

How did the leaders of Songahi Strengthen Islam and the Arabic language in West Africa?

Practice Test

Homework: Choose one
  1. Workbook Chapter 6 Section 2 (Page 74)
  2. Answer three of the study guide questions using complete sentences.
  3. Draw a picture of something important from this section and summarize this section of the text (three sentences minimum).