Recent research has revealed that the richest person of all time lived in the 14th century in West Africa and went by many names, including Kankan Musa Keita, Emir of Melle, Lord of the Mines of Wangara, Conqueror of Ghanata, and the Lion of Mali II, but today he is usually referred to as Mansa Musa. Adjusting his wealth to modern values, he was worth about an estimated $400 billion as the Sultan of ancient Mali, which controlled the trade routes across the Sahara Desert.
About 6,000 years ago, the ancient Sahara was a tropical jungle with lush grasslands and substantial rivers until it moved north of the Equator as a result of tectonic plate movements. The seismic activity changed the location of land and the composition of the atmosphere.
By about 600 BCE, the terrain and habitat had become much less hospitable, so much so that it was no longer possible to use horses and oxen to carry commodities. As a result, trading became difficult and sporadic and slowly disappeared.
This all changed when camels were introduced to the Sahara, initially via Roman invaders and then by the Berber traders from Arabia moving across North Africa in search of gold and salt. As they reached southern Sahel, they encountered the old, established trading system and routes of the Garamantes, the people who handled the trade in and out of the Sahara from West Africa. The combination of the use of camels with the re-established West African trade routes brought about rapid economic progress that resulted in the area supplying more than half the world’s gold for more than a thousand years, beginning around 400 CE. Of course, this timing coincided with the rise of global trade routes such as the Silk Road and the beginning of Europe’s Age of Discovery.
The belief in the existence of fabled African kingdoms and kings ensured that real African kings were also shrouded in lore, and few would become as legendary as Mansa Musa.