The Mali Empire was supplanted by the Songhai (or Songhay) Empire in the 15th century after the Songhai people rebelled against Mali. Led by Sonni Ali, who came to power in roughly 1464, the Songhai began expanding their holdings, taking Timbuktu, Gao and Jenne (or Djenne). By about 1530 the Songhai Empire had become the largest empire in West Africa and ruled an area larger than Europe. Like the empires before them, their strength and wealth lay in gold and trans-Saharan trade.
After the Empires
As empires expanded and contracted, conquest and trade resulted in migrations to and from regions throughout western Africa. With the dissolution of the Ghana Empire, Soninke people dispersed through what is now Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. Traders from Mali extended their reach south into the areas of modern-day Ghana and Ivory Coast. As the Songhai Empire collapsed, and as trade shifted toward the Atlantic Coast, many migrated in that direction.
The Mali Empire was originally founded and ruled by kings from the Malinké, or Mandinka, people, a branch of the Mandé ethnic group. Later, between 1500 and 1900 during the height of the slave trade, up to one-third of the Mandinka were enslaved and shipped to the New World. As a result, many African Americans in the United States are descended from Mandinka ancestors.
Ethnic Groups of Modern Mali
Half of Mali’s population today belongs to the Mandé ethnic group—comprising the Bambara, Malinké and Soninke. The Fula (Fulani, Fulbe, Peul) account for 17% of Mali’s modern population. Historically, the Fula were nomads, known for keeping cattle. Some evidence suggests their presence in West Africa goes back centuries and possibly includes North African and Middle Eastern ancestry. They are also strongly linked to Islam, and some Fulani led jihads in West Africa as late as the 19th century.
Voltaic ethnic groups, named for the Volta River Basin, account for another 12% of Mali’s population. Another important group is the Tauregs, a Berber people who live primarily in the north and have traditionally been nomadic herders. (“Berber” is the name given to the indigenous people of North Africa.)
While each group has its own language, most Malians can speak a dialect of Bambara.