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George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.


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Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Nuclear Mande mind-mapping diagram

Part Three
Sudanic Agricultural Civilization
— 11 —
Nuclear Mande

Until about 5000 B.C. the entire continent of Africa still lingered in the Stone Age—either the Upper Paleolithic period or the Mesolithic period, which in North and East Africa and in parts of West Africa provided a transition to the Neolithic. None of its inhabitants practiced any agriculture whatsoever or possessed any domestic animal, save perhaps the dog. Then Neolithic civilization, marked by a shift from food gathering to food production through the raising of cultivated plants and domesticated animals, made its appearance independently in two widely separated parts of the continent—Egypt and the western Sudan.
Ancient Egypt acquired agriculture and domestic animals from adjacent Southwest Asia. Here sedentary village life with tillage and the herding of goats had developed in the hills of east central Iraq by about 6500 B.C. These achievements spread throughout the Fertile Crescent and, with increments, reached Lower Egypt around 4500 B.C., as we know from radiocarbon dating. After more than a millennium of further elaboration they became the basis of the resplendent civilization of Pharaonic Egypt.

Culture Provinces of the Western Sudan
Map 10. Culture Provinces of the Western Sudan
(1-Nuclear Manda, 2-Voltaic peoples, 3-Plateau Nigerians)

It has hitherto escaped attention, however, that agriculture was independently developed at about the same time by the Negroes of West Africa. This was, moreover, a genuine invention, not a borrowing from another people. Furthermore, the assemblage of cultivated plants ennobled from wild forms in Negro Africa ranks as one of the four major agricultural complexes evolved in the entire course of human history.

Interestingly enough, the innovators have belonged to four distinct races. Along with the Caucasoids who developed the Southwest Asian complex, the Mongoloids who achieved the Southeast Asian complex, and the American Indians who elaborated the Middle American complex, we must now align the West African Negroes as one of mankind's leading creative benefactors.

Ceral factors account for the failure to recognize this contribution of the Negro. Botanists, though long aware of the African origin of many important cultivated plants, have had no means of determining their antiquity, and prehistoric archeology has been unable to supply the needed information because of the paucity of research in precisely the most crucial areas. Moreover Vavilov, the botanist who has contributed more than any other to our knowledge of the origins of cultivated plants and who personally investigated at first hand every other major and minor center of independent domestication in the world, never happened to visit Negro Africa. He thus fell into the error of ascribing its cultigens to regions where he found them, particularly to the lesser Ethiopian and Indian centers. The mistake was especially difficult to correct in the case of India; many of the more important crops of Negro Africa had spread there before the dawn of the Christian era, so that Europeans, who first encountered them in India, not unnaturally assumed them to be local cultigens. Finally, we cannot ignore the vulgar assumption, widespread among Asiatics as well as Europeans, that the Negro is an inferior race incapable of making any substantial contribution to civilization, with its corollary that all complex manifestations of culture in Africa south of the Sahara must have emanated from some other and “higher” race like the Caucasoid “Hamites.”

Identification of the Negro's contribution requires solutions to three distinct but interrelated problems: (1) a determination of which of the world's cultivated plants were first brought under cultivation in Negro Africa; (2) a delimitation of the precise location of the originating center or centers; (3) an estimation of the approximate date at which the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture first occurred south of the Sahara.
To solve the first problem, we began by excluding all crops which botanists agree were first brought under cultivation elsewhere than on the African continent, i.e., in the major centers of Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia, and Middle America and in the minor centers of China, India, the Mediterranean (southern Europe), and lowland America. A few doubtful instances, especially where botanists are in dispute about the African or Indian origin of a plant, were resolved by examining distributions. In most cases these crops were assigned to India because their cultivation in frica was found to center in eastern sections of the continent where archeology demonstrates that the introduction of agriculture has been comparatively recent.
The next step consisted in aggregating the indigenous cultigens of North Africa and Ethiopia from those of Negro Africa. Thi proved relatively easy. The opinion of leading boranists were found to coincide well with the distributional evidence. North African crops have spread south of the Sahara to a surprigingly limited extent—in almost no instance beyond the northern, or Islamic, fringe of the Sudan. Ethiopian cultigens, on the other hand, have often diffused far south into Bantu Africa, but in no case have they spread westward any considerable distance into the regions occupied far earlier by Negroid people. The list of plants remaining after these eliminations was considered to comprise those whose original domestication is to be credited to the Negro.
The second problem was to delimit the most probable center of origin within the area clearly occupied by Negro agricultural societies prior to the time of Christ. This is the great region bounded on the east by the Nilotic pastoralists, on the north by the edge of the Sahara Desert, on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the Gulf of Guinea and the northern border of the Bantu-speaking people. The Bantu were excluded because other evidence demonstrates that, with the probable exception of a few tribes along the present boundary between Nigeria and Cameroon, they did not occupy any of their present territory until less than 2,000 years ago, a date much too late to ascribe to them the origin of African agriculture. Lists of crops were compiled, mainly from ethnographic sources, on most of the tribes of this area, numbering well over 250.
When distributions were plotted for all the plants in these lists, a few, notably the Guinea yam and the oil palm, were found to center on the Guinea coast, all the rest in the Sudan. Within the latter area, moreover, they centered in the western rather than in the central or eastern Sudan. The more important crops, to be sure, extend from the shores of the Atlantic to Ethiopia and the coast of the Indian Ocean, but all those of more limited distribution were found to be confined to the region between Senegal and Northern Nigeria, with the g reatest concentration near the headwaters of the Niger River. This location receives modest support from archeologists, on the basis of admittedly fragmentary evidence from the very few relevant excavations reported to date, and from botanists who have identified the ranges of wild species from which the domesticated forms have presumably been ennobled.
The strongest confirmation, however, comes from linguistic distributions. We should expect the particular people who first advanced from a hunting and gathering economy to an agricultural one to have multiplied in number and to have expanded geographically at the expense of their more backward neighbor, with the result that the group of languages which they spoke should have spread over an unusually wide expanse of territory. This condition does not prevail in either the central or the eastern Sudan, where we find numerous linguistic groupings occupying areas of relatively modest size, e.g., Songhaic, Chadic, Kanuric, Maban, Furian, and the several divisions of Sudanic. Our criteria are fully satisfied, howewer, in the western Sudan by the far-flung Nigritic stock and particularly by its Mande subfamily, which centers on the upper Niger Riwer. Not only do the speakers of Mande exhibit Negro agriculture in it fullest and most developed form, but their distribution demonstrates that they have spread in all directions at the expense of their immediate neighbors—westward into the original habitat of the Atlantic subfamily, southwestward among the Kru group of the Kwa subfamily, eastward into numerous pockets among the tribes of the Voltaic subfamily, and even northward into some of the Saharan oases.
We therefore conclude that the invention of agriculture in Negro Africa is most probably to be credited to the Mande peoples around the headwaters of the Niger in the extreme western part of the Sudan, less than 1,000 mile from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is probably no accident that the earliest and most complex civilizations in this part of Africa of which we possess actual historical records, as we shall shortly see, were exhibited by Mande-speaking peoples.
Determination of the precise date of the invention of agriculture on the upper Niger must await archeological research using radiocarbon and other chronological techniques. In the absence of any evidence of this type to date, we can only arrive at a rough approximation by inference from other sources of information. One clue comes from ethnographic distributions. Agriculture must have been fully established in the Sudan before this region was exposed to the diffusion of Southwest Asian crops from Egypt, which could not have been many centuries after 4500 B.C., or else borrowing of cultivated plants from this source would surely have been more extensive than it has been in actual fact. Fewer than ten Negro tribes in the entire Sudan, for example, have adopted either barley or wheat, the staples of ancient Egypt, and in no single instance does either occupy a place in the economy comparable in importance to that of indigenous Sudanic cereals.
More decisive is the indirect evidence, to be presented in Chapter 19, that Sudanic agriculture had spread to the Nubian border of ancient Egypt by at least the end of the fourth millennium B.C. and by suggestions that it had reached Ethiopia by approximately the same date. These countries lie at the end of routes of diffusion of more than 3,000 miles, and over most of this distance the progress of agriculture involved the conversion of one reluctant hunting tribe after another, belonging to a number of different linguistic stocks, to an entirely novel mode of life. Comparative evidence indicates that this process is vastly slower and more difficult than the diffusion of new crops from one agricultural people to another. The time required for such a transcontinental tran mission is more likely to be measurable in millennia than in centuries.
Moreover, no new agricultural complex has ever sprung into being full-grown. Other regions invariably reveal a long period of cautious initial trial and error, followed by more confident attempts to improve old plants and experiment with new ones. Investigators of the origins of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent (e.g., Braidwood, 1958) allow at least a thousand years for the development of the full ourhwest sian complex from its first tentative beginnings, and a comparable period should presumably be accorded to the western Sudan. On the basis of these various inferences the writer inclines to the conclusion that agriculture was probably invented independently on the upper Niger before it had diffused from Asia to the lower Nile, though doubtless later than its earliest development in the Near East.
Since the cultivated plants indigenous to Negro frica were for the most part first developed in the Sudan rather than on the Guinea coast, we shall designate them collectively as the Sudanic complex. They can now be identified and listed by categories.

Cereal Grains*

Legumes

Tubers and Root Crops

Leaf and Stalk Vegetables

Vine and Ground Fruits

Tree Fruits

Condiments and Indulgents

Textile Plants

Oil Plants

The foregoing list excludes food plants of minor significance, such as those whose leaves are u ed like pinach, as well as all medicinal herbs.
Inspection reveals that, like the other three major complexes of the world, the Sudanic cultigens include representatives of all the principal categories of cultivated plants. Among them are some of genuinely outstanding importance, notably sesame, probably the world's foremost oil plant; cotton, the greatest of all textile crops; and sorghum, which ranks with American maize, Southeast Asian rice, and Southwest Asian wheat as one of the world's four leading cereal grains. In the realm of domesticated animals Negro Africa has not made a comparable contribution, the guinea fowl (Numida meleagris) constituting its sole original domesticate.
With the exception of the Guinea yam and the oil palm, whose center of distribution lies in the adjacent tropical forest, all the crops of the Sudanic complex extend practically throughout the western Sudan. They are cultivated with approximately equal intensity in the three culture provinces delineated in Map 10. On the basis of evidence from linguistic distributions and cultural complexity, however, we assume that they diffused at an early date to the Voltaic and Plateau Nigerian provinces from a center of origin among the Mande-speaking peoples.
The latter fall into two main divisions—the Nuclear Mande, or Mande-tan, and the Peripheral Mande, or Mande-fu. The Peripheral Mande (see Chapter 33) represent an early expansion southwestward into the tropical forest region among peoples of other subfamilies of the Negritic linguistic stock, where they have remained culturally stagnant or have perhaps even retrogressed. Though it was doubtJess the possession of agriculture that facilitated this spread, the actual origin of cultivation must be ascribed to the much more progressive Nuclear Mande, with whom we are concerned in the present chapter. Nor shall we deal here with a number of Mande tribes that are now found scattered in enclaves throughout the Voltaic province, where some have penetrated in a commercial capacity and others presumably settled during the periods of political expansion under the empires of Ghana and Mali.
The major ethnic groupings within the limited confines of the Nuclear.Mande province can be identified as follows.

  1. Bambara (Banmana), including the Somono, a caste of fishermen on the Niger River. They number about a million and are mainly pagan, though the Somono are Moslems.
  2. Bozo. This Moslem tribe, numbering about 30,000, lives largely by fishing and boat trade on the Niger and Bani Rivers but also engages in agriculture on the flood plains between them.
  3. Dialonke (Dyalonka, Jallonke). This tribe, displaced from Fouta-Djalon by the Fulani in the eighteenth century, numbers about 75,000 and is incompletely islamized.
  4. Kagoro (Bagane). This scattered group of pagans, numbering about 25,000, is a mixture of Bambara, Fulani, and Soninke elements.
  5. Kasonke (Kasson, Khasonke). This group, of mixed Malinke and Fulani origin, numbers about 70,000, mainly pagans.
  6. Konyanke (Konianke), with the kindred Mau (Diamande, Gyomande, Mahu, Old Diula), who are politically dominant over the Gyo tribe of Dan among whom they live. They number about 65,000 and are pagan.
  7. Koranko (Kuranko), with the detached Lele in Kissi territory. They number about 125,000 and are pagan.
  8. Malinke (Manding, Mandingo, Wangara), with the kindred Bambugu, Mikifore, Sankaran (Gingaran) Sidyanka, Toronka, Tubakay (Diakhanke), Wasulunka (Ouassoulou, Wasulu). They number about a million, most of whom are still pagan.
  9. Nono. With their fellow urbanized inhabitants of the town of Djenne, especially the Songhaic-speaking Djennenke. They number about 10,000 and are mainly Moslems.
  10. Soninke (Sarakole, Seraculeh), with the Diawara, the dispersed Marka, and Aser (Adjer), a small remnant group still inhabiting the desert oases of Tichit and Walata. They are considerably mixed with Bambara, Berber, Fulani, and Malinke elements. They number about 360,000 and almost all are Moslems.
  11. Susu (Soso, Soussou). They number about 300,000, most of whom are Moslems.
  12. Yalunka. A detached branch of the Dialonke, of which their name is simply an Anglicized version, they live in Sierra Leone. They number about 30,000 and about half are Moslems.

The Nuclear Mande, like their dispersed kinsmen, are typical representatives of the Negroid race (see Chapter 2) and speak related dialects of the Mande subfamily of the Nigritic linguistic stock. As the presumptive inventors of Sudanic agriculture, they early assumed cultural leadership in West Africa. Somewhat later, trade with the Berbers of Morocco across the Sahara Desert stimulated the development of handicraft manufactures, the growth of mercantile towns, and eventually the evolution of complex political institutions. In these advances the Soninke assumed the lead by virtue of their geographical position on the edge of the Sahara. When the Arabs first arrived on the fringes of the western Sudan, they found the Soninke organized in a powerful state known as Ghana, with its capital near modern Walata. It spanned most of the country from the Atlantic to the Niger, extended northward into Mauritania, and prospered greatly through a flourishing trade with Morocco. The Arabs were informed that it had had twenty-two kings prior to the Hegira, which would carry its founding back to perhaps the fourth century.

Our direct historical information concerning Ghana comes chiefly from El Bekri, an Arab who visited the country about A.D. 1067. He reports that the capital consisted of two towns about 6 miles apart-one occupied by Moslems and the other the fortified residence of the king and his court. The ruler was assisted by a number of ministers and claimed all gold found in the kingdom-the principal export commodity at the time. When a king died, there were human sacrifices at his funeral, and he was succeeded by a sister's son. From these scanty data it appears clear that the political system was a typical frican despotism.

In 1076 the capital was captured, sacked, and occupied for a time by the Almoravid Berbers from Marocco. The oninke fled to the southern proYince of oso and established a state there. This flourished for a while, and even reconquered Ghana in 1205, but the state never fully regained the splendor of the past.

In the meantime, during the eleYenth century, the Malinke had founded a mall state on the Niger River, later known as Mali. It expanded rapidly in the thirteenth century, defeated oso in 1235, and in 1240 occupied the remnants of Ghana. Mali reached its apogee about 1325 with the conquest of Timbuktu and Gao. It then dominated all West Africa from the edge of the tropical rainforest in the south to enegal in the northwest and Air in the northea t, and maintained diplomatic relations on a plane of equality with the ultan of Morocco and the King of Portugal. Gradually, however, Mali went into a decline, losing Timbuktu in 1433 to the Tuareg, and Djenne in 1473 to the Songhai.

With the onghai empire engaged in other directions, Mali retained a tenuous hold for a time on the homeland of the Malinke. About 1670, however, the subject Bambara threw off the yoke and established the independent states of Segou and Kaarta, which soon absorbed the last remnants of the kingdom of Mali. The Bambara occupied Djenne from 1670 to 18 10, and for a brief period Timbuktu as well. After 1810, however, the Fulani of Masina rose to dominance and, between 1854 and 1861, finally destroyed the Bambara states. In 1893, with the arrival of the French in Djenne, a new political era was initiated.

The civilization of the western Sudan, as of Egypt, lies deep in the past. Contemporary ethnography, which we shall now summarize for the province, can give little conception of the complexity of culture and the richness of life under the ancient empires of either region. This must await the spade of the archeologist, which has thus far lifted perhaps an ounce of earth on the Niger for every ton carefully sifted on the Nile.

The Nuclear 1ande subsist primarily by agriculture, which they occasionally conduct with the aid of irrigation but mainly by shifting hoe cultivation. As might be expected of the presumptive originators of the Sudanic complex, they sti ll raise practically all its component crops and, in addition, have borrowed onions from Egypt, rice from the Arabs, bananas and yams from Southeast Asia, and a substantial number of plants from the New World: haricot and lima beans, maize, manioc, peanuts, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes. The leading crop is millet, followed closely by rice, sorghum, and maize, but rice achieves first place among the Koranko and Susu. Cotton and fonio are likewise important.
Animal husbandry holds a significant, though subsidiary, place in the economy.

When the Negroes of the Sudan came into contact with the Neolithic peoples of North Africa, they readily borrowed the domestic animals of the latter, though rejecting most of their cultivated plants. They did not, however, adopt milking, which even today occurs in West Africa only where introduced in recent times by the Fulani.

All the Nuclear Mande peoples keep cattle, but these serve primarily for prestige, bride-price payments, and occasional sacrifices, since their meat is rarely used and they are milked only in tribes having Fulani herdsmen, like the Bambara and Soninke, and in others that have experienced strong Fulani influence, notably the Kasonke and Yalunka. Other domestic animals include goats, sheep, dogs (often eaten), chicken, guinea fowl, bees, and occasionally horses, donkees, and ducks.

Hunting is less productive than fishing, which constitutes the principal subsistence activity of the Bozo and is common elsewhere along the river. Most tribes gather considerable quantities of wild seeds, of baobab and other fruits, and of kola, palm, and shea nuts.

Trade assumes substantial proportion everywhere, and regular markets are apparently universal. Commerce with the northeast is largely monopolized by the Nono and with the Atlantic coast by the Susu, whereas the Diula and Marka, mercantile branches of the Soninke, conduct most of the trade that flows east, north, and south. The Nono of Djenne, who may serve as an example, export local agricultural products, shea butter, cloth and other native manufactures, and transshipped imports; they import dried fish and fish oil from the Bozo, milk and butter from the Fulani of Maasina, salt and livestock from the north, and gold, kola nuts, and slaves from the south. In the division of labor by sex, the men hunt, fish, tend livestock, conduct foreign trade, clear land, and do most of the agricultural work; the women gather, care for poultry, milk (wherever this is done), cultivate garden crops, and participate in market trading.

All the tribes of the province inhabit compact permanent villages or towns, which are sometimes fortified by an encircling palisade among the Malinke and Susu. The prevailing house type is a round hut with cylindrical walls of mud or sun-dried brick and a conical roof of thatch; these dwellings are typically grouped in compounds around a courtyard and surrounded by a fence. A very different kind of structure, of North African origin, occurs in the northeast-among the Bozo, the Nono, the eastern Bambara and Soninke, and a few Malinke. This is a rectangular house with a flat terrace roof of beaten earth, an interior courtyard, and an external wall of sundried brick surmounted by crenelated parapets. Towns with this type of dwelling are normally divided into separate wards, or quarters.

Marriage regularly involves a bride-price, paid in livestock, slaves, or cowrie , and often bride-service as well. Sister exchange can occur as an altemative among the Bambara, Bozo, and Malinke. The Moslem Bozo and Soninke permit unions between parallel cousins, and preferential cros-cousin marriage is reported for the Koranko (with MoBrDa only), Susu, and some groups of Bambara and Malinke. All the uclear Mande practice general polygyny, but only in the nonsororal form. The first wife enjoys a superior status, but co-wives are individually established in separate quarters and the husband usually rotates among them. Levirate unions are preferential, but usually only with the widow of an elder brother, and the sororate is optional. A son may inherit his father's widow, if she is not his own mother, among the Bambara, Malinke, and Nono, but not among the Koranko. Patrilocal extended families exist as the norm in every society of the province. Each has a patriarchal head, who administers the group's collective property and who is succeeded when he dies by his next younger brother.

Descent, inheritance, and succession follow the patrilineal principle. Agamous patrisibs with as ociated totemic taboos occur in most, if not all, societies. They are composed of lineages, which are exogamous except among Islamized tribes and are usually localized as clan-barrios in distinct quarters of a town or village. Cousin terminology of the Iroquois type is specifically reported for the Bambara, Malinke, and Susu and may well be general. Apart from El Bekri's report of matrilineal succession in ancient Ghana, the only suggestion of possible former matrilineal descent in the area is a pair of allegations, made independently for the Bambara and Malinke, that a maternal uncle has an obligation to provide his sister's son with a wife. Even these are more plausibly to be interpreted as oblique references to preferential marriage with a mother's brother's daughter.

Age-grades for both sexes, functioning in communal labor, are reported for the Bambara and Malinke alone, but puberty initiation ceremonies marked by circumcision and clitoridectomy are widespread. Secret societies are attested only among the Koranko, Malinke, and Susu, but even these tribes lack the famed Poro and Bundu societies of the adjacent coastal peoples.

Local government rests on a special supernatural relationship between the land of a community and the lineage which first settled it. The chief of the latter, called Master of the Land among most tribes but appropriately Master of the Water among the riverain Bozo, controls the land of the village, at least in theory, though it is usually parceled out in collective usufruct among the various extended families. He likewise exercises priestly functions, sacrificing to the ancestral spirits, and with the aid of a council of family heads he handles local administrative and judicial matters.

Villages are aggregated inro districts with similar priest-chief. The Koranko, Nono, Susu, and Yalunka have petty states with paramount chiefs. The Bambara, Malinke, and Soninke, though they retain no trace of the great monarchical states under which they were formerly organized, differ from the other tribes of the province in possessing a differentiated class of hereditary nobility. Until recently, however, slavery was universal and debt slavery widespread. Slaves born into a household usually enjoyed a preferred status as compared with those acquired by purchase or through capture in war, and after three or four generations they became assimilated to freemen. Long exposure to Arab influence presumably accounts for the widespread prevalence of despised endogamous castes, including smiths, learherworkers, sometime other artisans and fishermen, and usually the so-called griots, who are musicians, bards, and genealogists.

Selected Bibliography
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Boyer, G. Les Diawara. MIFAN, 29: 1- 122. 1953. [Soninke].
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Paques, H. Les Bambara. Paris, 1954.
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Saint-Père, L.J.B. Les Sarakollé du Guidimakha. Paris, 1925. [Soninke].
Sauer, C.O. Agricultural Origins and Dispersals. New York, 1952.
Schiemann, E. Entstehung der Kulturpflanzen. Handbuch der Vererbungswissenschaft, 3:1- 377. Berlin, 1932.
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