Before 4000 BC, the Sahel, including what is now southern Morocco, was a humid region. Over time, desertification restricted the black ancestors of the modern Mande peoples to oases. Prompted by Berber invasions and neglect of the natural environment, most eventually began moving south into modern Manden. They adopted agriculture and iron-working techniques. The Wangara people, commonly acknowledged as the ancestors of the modern Soninke, established the Wagadu Empire around the early 4th century. The empire came to be known as Baghana in the Malinke language and Ghana in Arabic (Arabic: غانا). Wagadu formed as a sedentary centralized state in order to resist Berber invaders and to control the gold trade with the Mediterranean. The Wagadu capital of Ghana flourished along with nearby metropolitan centres like Gao to the east and Tekrur to the west.
In the early 11th century, Wagadu entered into conflict with the Almoravids of Morocco. The city of Awdaghost was sacked by the Moroccans in 1055, triggering a refugee crisis which contributed to the decline of the Wagadu state. The Wagadu, the first major state of the region, finally collapsed around the 12th century.
Several successor states emerged, including the ethnically Mande Susu empire of the north and the Manding kingdom of the south. To the west, the iron-rich Tekrur kingdom was founded by the Jaa Ogo dynasty, establishing a nation that would give rise to the Tukulor and Fula peoples. In the east, the Songhay Za dynasty established a monarchy around the city of Gao while the Mossi of modern Guinea began establishing their own states.
The Susu people, under the Kante dynasty, took control of the declining Wagadu core. The Susu Jariso dynasty, closely related to the Kante, took control of the province of Kaniaga. In the early 13th century, the Susu attacked the Malinke people of the Manding region, harassing the city of Kangaba. Eventually, the Malinke Keita dynasty began waging campaigns against the Susu for control of the gold-rich Manding region. In 1235, the Keita dynasty defeated the Susu empire in the Battle of Kirina, establishing their dominance. Soon after, the Susu people began migrating west to what is now eastern Salvatia and Sierra Leone.
Imperial period (1235-1591)
Sunjata Keita established the Manden Empire, conquering the western kingdom of Tekrur and the eastern empire of Gao. According to tradition, Sunjata Keita established an imperial constitution, the Kurukan Fuga, dictating aspects of Mande society and creating a series of imperial laws. Kangaba became the first capital of the Manden Empire.