The first inhabitants of Djenné-Djono (a few kilometers from present-day Djenné) settled there as early as the 3rd century B.C.. The city of Djenné is built on an 88 hectare island between two branches of the Bani River, a tributary of the Niger.

The city was at its height during the 8th century A.D. spreading out over more than 30 hectares. Like many others like it, not much is known about this pre-Islamic civilization. However, in can be safely said that for nearly 1,600 years of uninterrupted occupation the city consisted of more than 10,000 inhabitants, with another 50,000 in its vicinity. The city eventually became the center of Islamic expansion in sub-Saharan Africa.

Archaeological excavations attest to an ancient long distance trade route leading past the mines and quarries of the Sahara (granite, sandstone, basalt). This activity had been important before the first imports from North Africa began to appear in Europe. Djenné has always been a crossroads for trans-Saharan trade. Goods from the north, particularly jewels and rock salt, were exchanged for products from the south like cola nuts, gold and ivory.

How can the disappearance of this ancient African civilization be explained? Two assumptions exist today. The first is of a political/religious nature: the continuation of the funerary tradition of the deceased being placed in an earthenware burial jar continued until the 14th century, which seems to show that all or a part of the inhabitants of Djenné-Djono refused to convert to Islam.

What happened to these people? Displacement, mass migration, were they driven off? This could explain the construction of the new Islamic city of Djenné.

The second assumption is that there may have been a series of successive droughts which would have obliged the residents to live closer to the Niger River. The two assumptions could also be taken together...

From the 12th to the 14th centuries Mali lived in an Islamic Empire. After more than one century of evolution, the country became quite structurally organized, and Mali (or Manding) took in the Sudanese (Sosso, Bambara etc). The country, a true federal state, experienced strong economic development thanks to the exploitation of gold and trade along the Niger River valley, an important outlet of the Sahara. This development would continue until the 14th century, while being continually Islamized, and trade developed with the neighboring Maghreb region.

In the 15th century, this state would subside under the combined and freqent raids by the Mossi, Songhaï and the Tuaregs. In 1443, Djenné was taken by the Tuaregs, then by the Songhaï Empire in 1470. Morocco took possession of Djenné in 1591. In 1670, Djenné belonged to the Bambara de Ségou kingdom, later it was conquered by Sékou Amadou (Peul Empire of Macina) in 1819, and then by the Toucouleur d' El Hadj Empire in 1862, before being taken by the French troops under Louis Archinard in 1893, in the French colonial era. It would then be integrated into French Sudan.