The story of Sundiata recounts the story of the founding of the Mali Empire in West Africa. The Mali empire was one of the three great medieval West African empires (preceded by the Ghana Empire and followed by the Songhay Empire), and was located around the Sudan, the fertile land that lies below the Sahara Desert. The Mali Empire is not the same as the contemporary nation of Mali, though it lies somewhat within its borders. It had a unique geography of savannas, agricultural lands, and the Niger River. The Mali Empire was strongly influenced by Islam, since one of its progenitors had brought the religion from the Middle East. However, Mali remained polytheistic and the religion of Allah was integrated into their belief system, rather than subsuming it.
While the epic is rich is myth and legend about the triumph of Sundiata over Soumaoro, Sundiata is known to have been a real person. Most of our information comes through the generations of re-tellings of his myth through the Mali griots. Griots are oral storytellers, similar to Greek bards, who are responsible for preserving and presenting the old stories. So this story, which recounts the heroism of the ruler while also celebrating the culture and tradition of Mali, has been preserved orally. What is most clearly historical is that the king Sundiata united several independent kingdoms and tribes that were being over-taxed under the tyranny of Soumaoro. Because of his triumph and the confidence he inspired, the tribes united as Mali and so were a new set of customs born and spread throughout the Sudan. While nation lines have obviously complicated allegiances in that region over the centuries, these ancestral bonds still exist. The creation of the Mali empire would have happened sometime around 1230's AD.
This version of the story was recorded in 1960 by D.T. Niane, who documented and translated into French the words of the griot Mamadou Kouyaté. While it follows the basic structure of the tale as most often presented, it should be remembered that as an oral tradition and a result of translation, many elements are unique to this work. In particular, spellings vary wildly depending on which version of the text or which translation one might consult, which reflects the way that different griots might have pronounced the names differently. Likewise, some details of the story – like the demise of Soumaoro – are often recounted in different ways. It is best to remember that these differences are a natural outgrowth of the Mali commitment to preserving history orally, and do not undercut the "truth" of the story any more than the differences between the Bible's Gospels would dissuade a strong Christian from believing that Christ was the son of God.
Note that griots performed their stories as long-form songs, accompanied by an instrument called the balafon. Professor Niane's transcription of the work, and its subsequent translation into English, present the work as prose rather than in its original lyrical form.