Reconstructing the history of medieval Mali is a complex project requiring use of multiple sources. The Sundiata, told by griots, is a classical heroic origin or foundation story, telling in narrative form the great deeds and events leading to the birth of an empire. Scholarly studies in the field of oral traditions have looked at such tales across multiple cultures, and found consistently that they serve common purposes and have common characteristics.
The Sundiata has two purposes, one being to preserve the history of the Mali Empire and the second to preserve its values. It is not history in the western sense, in having a single purpose of scientific accuracy; instead, its value lies in how it serves to guide the Mali people. While the story of the woman with the buffalo spirit is not historical, it conveys important information. First, the hunters and king are rewarded for their good treatment of an old, hunchbacked woman. This teaches a moral lesson about hospitality and kindness being rewarded. Sundiata's handicap also tells a moral lesson of triumph over adversity and not discounting people because of physical disability. The character of Balla Fasseke, the griot, shows the historical importance of griots as possessors and transmitters of knowledge. On an historical level, the exile of and invasion by Sundiata, shorn of their colorful and mythic elements, do represent major geopolitical shifts in power in the region.
To supplement Sundiata, and determine which elements are mythic and which historical, we have two major types of source. The first is archaeology, which uses material remains from the period to determine the dates of certain types of event and certain elements of daily life such as what people ate and wore, how their dwellings looked, and what weapons they used.
The second major supplementary source consists of the Timbuktu manuscripts, a collection of over half a million miscellaneous works written primarily in an Arabic script and kept in private collections, covering the period from the twelfth through the twentieth century. The Timbuktu Manuscripts Project and other NGOs are attempting to preserve and publish these works even as an Islamist insurgency is pillaging and destroying them.