Archaeological remains found in the coastal zone indicate that the area has been inhabited since the early Bronze Age (ca. 4000 BC), but these societies, based on fishing in the extensive lagoons and rivers, left few traces. Archaeological work also suggests that central Ghana north of the forest zone was inhabited as early as 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Oral history and other sources suggest that the ancestors of some of Ghana’s residents entered this area at least as early as the 10th century AD and that migration from the north and east continued thereafter.
These migrations resulted in part from the formation and disintegration of a series of large states in the western Sudan (the region north of modern Ghana drained by the Niger River). Prominent among these Sudanic states was the Soninke kingdom of Ghana. Strictly speaking, ‘ghana’ was the title of the king, but the Arabs, who left records of the kingdom, applied the term to the king, the capital, and the state. The ninth-century Arab writer Al Yaqubi described ancient Ghana as one of the three most organised states in the region (the others being Gao and Kanem in the central Sudan). Its rulers were renowned for their wealth in gold, the opulence of their courts, and their warrior-hunting skills. They were also masters of the trade in gold, which drew North African merchants to the western Sudan. The military achievements of these and later western Sudanic rulers and their control over the region’s gold mines constituted the nexus of their historical relations with merchants and rulers of North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Ghana succumbed to attacks by its neighbours in the 11th century, but its name and reputation endured. In 1957 when the leaders of the former British colony of the Gold Coast sought an appropriate name for their newly independent state – the first black African nation to gain its independence from colonial rule – they named their new country after ancient Ghana. The choice was more than merely symbolic because modern Ghana, like its namesake, was equally famed for its wealth and trade in gold.
Although none of the states of the western Sudan controlled territories in the area that is modern Ghana, several small kingdoms that later developed in the north of the country were ruled by nobles believed to have immigrated from that region. The trans-Saharan trade that contributed to the expansion of kingdoms in the western Sudan also led to the development of contacts with regions in northern modern Ghana and in the forest to the south. By the 13th century, for example, the town of Jenné in the empire of Mali had established commercial connections with the ethnic groups in the savanna-woodland areas of the northern two-thirds of the Volta Basin in modern Ghana. Jenné was also the headquarters of the Dyula, Muslim traders who dealt with the ancestors of the Akan-speaking peoples who occupy most of the southern half of the country.
The growth of trade stimulated the development of early Akan states located on the trade route to the gold fields in the forest zone of the south. The forest itself was thinly populated, but Akan-speaking peoples began to move into it toward the end of the 15th century with the arrival of crops from Southeast Asia and the New World that could be adapted to forest conditions. These new crops included sorghum, bananas and cassava. By the beginning of the 16th century, European sources noted the existence of the gold-rich states of Akan and Twifu in the Ofin River Valley.