The Rock art in the Sahara suggests that northern Mali has been inhabited since 10,000 BC, when the Sahara was fertile and rich in wildlife. By 300 BC, large organised settlements had developed, most notable near Djenné, one of West Africa's oldest cities. By the 6th century AD, the lucrative trans-Saharan trade in gold, salt and slaves had begun, facilitating the rise of West Africa's great empires.
There are a few references to Mali in early written literature. Among these are references to "Pene" and "Malal" in the work of al-Bakri in 1068, the story of the conversion of an early ruler, known to Ibn Khaldun (by 1397) as Barmandana, and a few geographical details in the work of al-Idrisi.
In the 1960s, archaeological work at Niani village, reputed to be the capital of the Mali Empire, by Polish and Guinean archaeologists revealed the remains of a substantial town dating back as far as the 6th century.
Modern oral traditions also related that the Mandinka kingdoms of Mali or Manden had already existed several centuries before Sundiata's unification as a small state just to the south of the Soninké empire of Wagadou, better known as the Ghana Empire. This area was composed of mountains, savannah and forest providing ideal protection and resources for the population of hunters. Those not living in the mountains formed small city-states such as Toron, Ka-Ba and Niani. Through the oral tradition of griots, the Keita dynasty, from which nearly every Mali emperor came, traces its lineage back to Lawalo, one of the sons of Bilal, the faithful muezzin of Islam's prophet Muhammad, who was said to have migrated into Mali and his descendants established the ruling Keita dynasty through Maghan Kon Fatta, father of Sundiata Keita.
It was common practice during the Middle Ages for both Christian and Muslim rulers to tie their bloodline back to a pivotal figure in their faith's history, so the lineage of the Keita dynasty may be dubious at best, yet African Muslim scholars like the London-based Nigerian-British cleric Sheikh Abu-Abdullah Adelabu have laid claim of divine attainments to the reign of Mansa Mousa: "in Islamic history and its science stories of Shihab al-Umari and similar legendaries of Mansa Kankan Musa existed in early Arabic sources for West African history by the author of Subh al-a 'sha one of the final expressions of the genre of Arabic administrative literature, Ahmad al-Qalqashandi Egyptian writer, mathematician and scribe of the scroll (katib al-darj) in the Mamluk chancery in Cairo as well as by the author of Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik (Book of Highways and Kingdoms) Abū ʿUbayd Al-Bakri, an Arab Andalusian Muslim geographer and historian emboldened Keita Dynasty", wrote Adelabu.
Adelabu, the head of Awqaf Africa in London, coined the Arabic derivatives ك – و – ي K(a)-W(e)-Y(a) of the word Keita which in (in what he called) Arabicised Mandingo language Allah(u) Ka(w)eia meaning "Allah Creates All" as a favourable motto of reflection for Bilal Ibn Rabah, one of the most trusted and loyal Sahabah (companions) of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, whom he described (quoting William Muir's book The Life of Muhammad) as 'a tall, dark, and with African feature and bushy hair' pious man who overcame slavery, racism and socio-political obstacles in Arabia to achieve a lofty status in this world and in the Hereafter.
The Kangaba province
Genealogy of the kings of the Mali Empire based on the chronicle of Ibn Khaldun
During the height of Sundiata's power, the land of Manden (the area populated by the Mandinka people) became one of its provinces. The Manden city-state of Ka-ba (present-day Kangaba) served as the capital and name of this province. From at least the beginning of the 11th century, Mandinka kings known as faamas ruled Manden from Ka-ba in the name of the Ghanas.
The two kingdoms
Wagadou's control over Manden came to a halt after internal instability lead to its decline. The Kangaba province, free of Soninké influence, splintered into twelve kingdoms with their own maghan (meaning prince) or faama. Manden was split in half with the Dodougou territory to the northeast and the Kri territory to the southwest. The tiny kingdom of Niani was one of several in the Kri area of Manden.
The Kaniaga rulers
In approximately 1140 the Sosso kingdom of Kaniaga, a former vassal of Wagadou, began conquering the lands of its old masters. By 1180 it had even subjugated Wagadou forcing the Soninké to pay tribute. In 1203, the Sosso king Soumaoro of the Kanté clan came to power and reportedly terrorised much of Manden stealing women and goods from both Dodougou and Kri.
The Hungering Lion
horseman figure from the 13th to 15th centuries
According to Niane's version of the epic, during the rise of Kaniaga, Sundiata of the Keita clan was born in the early 13th century. He was the son of Niani's faama, Nare Fa (also known as Maghan Kon Fatta meaning the handsome prince). Sundiata's mother was Maghan Kon Fatta's second wife, Sogolon Kédjou. She was a hunchback from the land of Do, south of Mali. The child of this marriage received the first name of his mother (Sogolon) and the surname of his father (Djata). Combined in the rapidly spoken language of the Mandinka, the names formed Sondjata, Sundjata or Sundiata Keita. The anglicised version of this name, Sunjata, is also popular. In Ibn Khaldun's account, Sundjata is recorded as Mari Djata with "Mari" meaning "Amir" or "Prince". He also states that Djata or "Jatah" means "lion".
Prince Sundjata was prophesied to become a great conqueror. To his parent's dread, the prince did not have a promising start. Sundiata, according to the oral traditions, did not walk until he was seven years old. However, once Sundiata did gain use of his legs he grew strong and very respected. Sadly for Sundjata, this did not occur before his father died. Despite the faama of Niani's wishes to respect the prophecy and put Sundiata on the throne, the son from his first wife Sassouma Bérété was crowned instead. As soon as Sassouma's son Dankaran Touman took the throne, he and his mother forced the increasingly popular Sundjata into exile along with his mother and two sisters. Before Dankaran Touman and his mother could enjoy their unimpeded power, King Soumaoro set his sights on Niani forcing Dankaran to flee to Kissidougou.
After many years in exile, first at the court of Wagadou and then at Mema, Sundiata was sought out by a Niani delegation and begged to combat the Sosso and free the kingdoms of Manden forever.
Battle of Kirina
Returning with the combined armies of Mema, Wagadou and all the rebellious Mandinka city-states, Maghan Sundiata or Sumanguru led a revolt against the Kaniaga Kingdom around 1234. The combined forces of northern and southern Manden defeated the Sosso army at the Battle of Kirina (then known as Krina) in approximately 1235. This victory resulted in the fall of the Kaniaga kingdom and the rise of the Mali Empire. After the victory, King Soumaoro disappeared, and the Mandinka stormed the last of the Sosso cities. Maghan Sundiata was declared "faama of faamas" and received the title "mansa", which translates roughly to emperor. At the age of 18, he gained authority over all the 12 kingdoms in an alliance known as the Manden Kurufaba. He was crowned under the throne name Sunidata Keita becoming the first Mandinka emperor. And so the name Keita became a clan/family and began its reign.
The Manden Kurufaba founded by Mari Djata it was composed of the "three freely allied states" of Mali, Mema and Wagadou plus the Twelve Doors of Mali. It is important to remember that Mali, in this sense, strictly refers to the city-state of Niani.
The Twelve Doors of Mali were a coalition of conquered or allied territories, mostly within Manden, with sworn allegiance to Sundiata and his descendants. Upon stabbing their spears into the ground before Sundiata's throne, each of the twelve kings relinquished their kingdom to the Keita dynasty. In return for their submission, they became "farbas", a combination of the Mandinka words "farin" and "ba" (great farin). Farin was a general term for northern commander at the time. These farbas would rule their old kingdoms in the name of the mansa with most of the authority they held prior to joining the Manden Kurufaba.
The Great Assembly
The Gbara or Great Assembly would serve as the Mandinka deliberative body until the collapse of the Manden Kurufa in 1645. Its first meeting, at the famous Kouroukan Fouga (Division of the World), had 29 clan delegates presided over by a belen-tigui (master of ceremony). The final incarnation of the Gbara, according to the surviving traditions of northern Guinea, held 32 positions occupied by 28 clans.
Social, economic and governmental reformation
The Kouroukan Fouga also put in place social and economic reforms including prohibitions on the maltreatment of prisoners and slaves, installing documents between clans which clearly stated who could say what about whom. Also, Sundiata divided the lands amongst the people assuring everyone had a place in the empire and fixed exchange rates for common products
Mari Djata I/Sundiata Keita I
Mansa Mari Djata, later named Sundiata Keita, saw the conquest of several key locals in the Mali Empire. He never took the field again after Kirina, but his generals continued to expand the frontier, especially in the west where they reached the Gambia River and the marches of Tekrur. This enabled him to rule over a realm larger than even the Ghana Empire in its apex. When the campaigning was done, his empire extended 1,000 miles (1,600 km) east to west with those borders being the bends of the Senegal and Niger rivers respectively. After unifying Manden, he added the Wangara goldfields, making them the southern border. The northern commercial towns of Oualata and Audaghost were also conquered and became part of the new state's northern border. Wagadou and Mema became junior partners in the realm and part of the imperial nucleus. The lands of Bambougou, Jalo (Fouta Djallon), and Kaabu were added into Mali by Fakoli Koroma (Nkurumah in Ghana, Kurumah in the Gambia, Colley in Casamance, Senegal), Fran Kamara (Camara) and Tiramakhan Traore (Tarawelley in the Gambia), respectively Among the many different ethnic groups surrounding Manden were Pulaar speaking groups in Macina, Tekrur and Fouta Djallon.