Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Niger River is the principal river of western Africa, extending over 2500 miles (about 4000 km). It runs in a crescent through Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin and Nigeria, discharging through a massive delta, known as the Oil Rivers, into the Gulf of Guinea. The Niger is the third longest river in Africa, exceeded only by the Nile and the Congo River (also known as the Za´re River). Its main tributary is the Benue River.
The Niger takes one of the most unusual routes of any major river, a boomerang shape that baffled European geographers for two millennia. Its source is just 150 miles (240 km) inland from the Atlantic Ocean, but the river runs away from the sea into the Sahara Desert, then takes a sharp right turn and heads southeast to the Gulf of Guinea.
Ancient Romans thought that the river near Timbuktu was part of the Nile River, while early 17th-century European explorers thought that it flowed west and joined the Senegal River. The true course was probably known to many locals, but Westerners only established it in the late 19th century.
This strange geography apparently came about because the Niger River is two ancient rivers joined together. The upper Niger, from the source past the fabled trading city of Timbuktu (spelled Tombouctou in French, the language of Mali) to the bend in the current river, once emptied into a now-gone lake, while the lower Niger started in hills near that lake and flowed south into the Gulf of Guinea. As the Sahara dried up in 4000-1000 BC, the two rivers altered their courses and hooked up. (This explanation is generally accepted, although some geographers disagree.)
This unusual geography had made the northern part of the river, known as the Niger bend, an important area. The bend is the closest major river and source of water to the Sahara desert and it thus became the focal point of trade across the western Sahara. This lucrative trade made the bend the centre of the Sahelian kingdoms of Mali and Gao.
There is an opinion that the name of the river Niger came from the Tuareg language gher n gherem = "river of rivers", not from the Latin or Portuguese word for "black". The West African nations of Nigeria and Niger are named after the river.
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