Welcome to Ancient West Africa! The civilizations that flourished in ancient West Africa were all based on trade, so successful West African leaders tended to be peace makers rather than warriors. Caravans from North Africa crossed the Sahara beginning in the seventh century of the Common Era. Gold from West Africa was exchanged for something the West Africans prized even more: salt. Salt was used as a flavoring, a food preservative, and for retaining body moisture.