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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 Megalithic Cushites mind-mapping diagram

Part Six
Southward Expansion of the Cushites
— 25 —
Megalithic Cushites

In East Africa, archeologists have unearthed evidences of true Neolithic cultures only in western Kenya, adjacent northern Tanganyika, and central Uganda. Elsewhere the Iron Age appears to have followed Paleolithic cultures without any intervening transition. The discoveries in Uganda may engage our attention first, since we have the least information on this area. Wayland (1934) and Lanning (1953) have reported a considerable number of extremely impressive prehistoric earthworks in the vicinity of the equator in central Uganda. They include artificial reservoirs, one of which exceeds 300 feet in length; earth dams for impounding water for irrigation; deep shafts of unknown purpose; and extensive systems of trenches, averaging as much as 15 feet in width and 11 feet in depth, which seem clearly to have served as fortifications, since they are sometimes concentric. With them are associated pit dwellings and middens containing the bones of cattle and game animals.
The construction of the earthworks must have required a mass organization of labor. The fortifications remind us forcefully of the massive defense systems of the Sidamo states, the more so since the Sidamo peoples also practice irrigated agriculture. Moreover, nowhere in East Africa are Negro peoples, either Bantu or Nilotic, known to have built structures even remotely comparable to these. Cole (1954) therefore seems justified in attributing the remains to “a Hamitic tribe that arrived from the north and apparently established an empire in Uganda.” These people can only have been Western Cushites of the Sidamo group, not only for the reasons advanced above but also because of the remarkable detailed resemblances between the political system of the modern Ganda (see Chapter 45) and the Kafa state of southwestern Ethiopia (see Chapter 23). We can, therefore, safely postulate a prehistoric expansion of the Western Cushites into central Uganda, though unfortunately we as yet lack any information on its approximate date.
Much richer information on the East African Neo lithic culture comes from western Kenya. Here unmistakable evidences of agriculture and domesticated animals begin to appear in the late habitation sites of the Caucasoid bearers of the Stone Bowl culrure . The Njoro River Cave, for example, has yielded stone pestles, grindstones, and gourd fragments as evidences of agriculture, as well as stone bowls, obsidian blades, and pottery akin to those in remains of earlier date. It also contained beads of agate, chalcedony, and amazon stone allegedly resembling those found in prehistoric Egypt and Nubia. The remains of cattle and sheep appear in Gumban sites of about the same age. Archeologists have estimated the date of these deposits as about 850 B.C., but indirect evidence suggests that this estimate may be too late by several centuries.
A new group of immigrants must. have brought these innovations, for leolithic remains are no longer confined to the narrow rift valley but begin to appear throughout the mountainous region of western Kenya and adjacent Tanganyika, an area bounded by Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro in the east, Mount Elgon and Lake Vicroria in the west, and Lakes Eyasi and Manyara in the south. Prominent among these remains are stone-walled habitation enclosures, pit dwellings, menhirs, stone-faced cultivation terraces, irrigation ditches, and graded r oads with a predominantly north-south orientation. They give evidence of a relatively dense population practicing an intensive form of agriculture coupled with animal husbandry. In the main, however, the sites are confined to elevated locations with substantial precipitation. The semiarid intervening country continued to be occupied, apparently, only by Bushmanoid hunters and gatherers with cultures of the Stillbay complex.
The Neolithic Caucasoids have left no obvious descendants in this region today, unless possibly the Southern Cushites derive from them rather than from the earlier Capsian immigrants as we have assumed. With this possible exception, no people either of Caucasoid race or of Cushitic language survives anywhere in the area, which is populated exclusively by Negroids of either Bantu or Nilotic speech. Who were the Neolithic Caucasoids, and what has become of them?
They can only have been Cushites, expanding southward from the Ethiopian plateau, as did the Western Cushttes tnto central Uganda. [though we shall shortly attempt to identify them, this identification can only be tentative, and it therefore seems advisable to give the vanished people a name of their own. We shall call them the Megalithic Cushite because of the prominence of stonework in their archeological remains. In addition to the stone walls and terraces already alluded to, we may note the characteristic large stone phalli which turn up in even the most remote regions to which these people once spread (see Chapter 26). In certain sections of southern Ethiopia, moreover, whole fields of stone phalli averaging around 12 feet in height provide one of our clues to their place of origin.
It seems in the highest degree improbable that a people as widely distributed as the Megalithic Cushites, and possessed of so complex a culture, should have vanished without a trace. The Bantu, coming from the tropical forest several centuries after the rime of Christ, must certainly have had at first a much simpler technology; and the Nilotes, arriving somewhat later from the northwest, were more concerned with herding than with cultivation. Why should the Megalithic Cushites have proved equally vulnerable in the face of both groups of immigrant Negroes? The answer may well lie in their dispersed distribution in restricted mountain locations where there was sufficient rainfall to conduct their irrigated agriculture. The newcomers, particularly the pastoral Nilotes, might have infiltrated the less favored intervening tracts of land, first isolating the Cushites in scattered enclaves, then gradually engulfing them through intermarriage, and ultimately producing a mixed population that had lost the Cushitic language and acquired a strong Negroid physical ingredient.
Various lines of evidence indicate that this is precisely what happened. It is certainly no accident that the Bantu of highland Kenya are commonly styled the “Hamitized Bantu” and that the Nilotes of the same general area are usually called “Nilo-Hamites” in contradistinction to their kinsmen in northern Uganda and the adjacent Sudan, where the Megalithic Cushites never penetrated. The peculiarities that distinguish the so-called “Nilo-Hamitic” languages from the closely related “Nilotic” languages of the Eastern Sudanic subfamily are almost exactly what one might expect to find in a population that once spoke Cushitic and gradually shifted through intermarriage to a Sudanic tongue.
Cultural evidence proves equally instructive. Intensive agriculture with terraced fields, irrigation, and the use of animal manure as fertilizer survives today in precisely those well-watered mountain areas where the Megalithic Cushites must once have been concentrated, e.g., among the Nilotic Hill Suk, Keyu, Kipsigi, and Nandi tribes northeast of Lake Victoria and among the Bantu Chaga, Meru, Pare, and Teita of the Mount Kilimanjaro region. The crops which the Bantu and Nilotes cultivate in the area consi t largely of those that were de,·eloped, like eleusine, or improved, like durra, in highland Ethiopia. A whole series of other culture traits distinctive of the Cushites occur also among the Bantu and ilotes, but only among tribes inhabiting country · formerly occupied by the Megalithic Cushites. The author has demonstrated this by plotting actual distributions for the following traits:

  1. Age-grades of the peculiar cycling type characteristic of the Galla and other Eastern Cushites, or forms clearly related thereto.
  2. The distinctive Cushitic taboo on the eating of fish.
  3. The practice of drinking blood drawn from the necks of living animals by means of a miniature arrow.
  4. The presence of despised and endogamous castes of smiths.
  5. Circumcision for both sexes as contrasted with its absence, its restriction to one sex, or, in the case of the Nilotes, with the extraction of the lower median incisor teeth as an initiatory rite.

The distributions of these traits reveal a remarkable degree of correspondence, not only with one another but also with the area of former Megalithic Cushite occupation. They occur in practically every Bantu and Nilotic people now residing south of the Ethiopian highlands, east of Lake Yicroria, and north of 6°S, but in practically no tribe of either linguistic group living west or south of the e limits. Altogether, the evidence seem conclusive that the Megalithic Cushites, far from vanishing without a trace, have transmitted a considerable part of their former culture to their Negroid successors and have doubtless also contributed substantially to their genetic composition.
The same cultural evidence sheds light on the probable origin of the Megalithic Cushites. Among the various Cushitic peoples residing in southern Ethiopia, we can probably eliminate the Sidamo group as ancestral since they lack cycling age-grades and do not drink fresh blood. The Somali likewise have no age-grades, and, moreover, are geographically too remote. The Galla, though they share many of the elements in question, do not build megaliths or practice intensive irrigated agriculture on terraced fields. This leaves one small group of Cushitic tribes, located between the Galla and Sidamo, that we shall designate as the Konso cluster, since the Konso are the best described among them. They exhibit in well-developed form all the traits that we have enumerated, as well as others that we have not mentioned. Among these is the stall feeding of animals, a rare practice confined, as far as we know, to the Konso, the Chaga of Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Kara of the island of Ukara near the eastern shore of Lake Victoria.
If the Megalithic Cushites do in fact represent an early southward ex pansion of peoples belonging to the Konso cluster, the surviving culture of the latter should shed light on the civilization of the former. Since, moreover, the Konso and their neighbors are characterized by a very strong infusion of Negroid blood on a Caucasoid base, the absence of more obvious Caucasoid physical traits in their further mixture with Bantu and Nilotes becomes entirely understandable. The surviving tribes of the Konso cluster, who probably number several hundred thousand people though they have never been enumerated, are listed and identified below.

  1. Darasa (Oarassa), with the neighboring Gudji, Jamjam, Sidamo. They are pagans.
  2. Kambata (Cambate), with the kindred Alaba (Allaba) Hadya (Adea, Gudela, Gudilla, Hadca, Hadiva, Konromba, Wutella) Tambaro (Sambaro, Tembaro, Tzambaro) The Kambata are Christians, the rest mainly Moslem. All have been strongly influenced by both the Sidamo peoples and the Amhara.
  3. Konso (Conso), with the Burji (Aiada, Cirra, Tchirra), Busso,Gamole, Gardula, Gauwada, Gidole (Ghidole), Gowaze, Majolo. They are pagans.
  4. Reshiat (Lareschiar, Rachiat, Rissiar, Russia) also known as the Dathanaic (Oarsonich, Dathanik), Geleba (Gallab, Galuba, Gelab, Gelubba, Gheleba, Goliba, Gullop), Marille (Marle, Marmale, Merelle, Morille). With them are included the neighboring Arbore (Harbora). They are pagan and in many cases seminomadic.

The tribes of the Konso cluster practice an exceptionally intensive agriculture, with irrigation and the terracing of mountain slopes with stone retaining walls. The staple crop is durra, a variety of sorghum, among the Konso and Reshiat, ensete among the Darasa and Kambata. Cotton is cultivated extensively, and varying quantities of maize, teff, barley, oats, taro, sweet potatoes, beans, peas, cabbage, ginger, coffee, and tobacco are also grown. The Reshiat, like many of the Galla, have become primarily pastoral but continue to practice at least some terraced cultivation.
Elsewhere animal husbandry holds a distinctly subsidiary position in relation to agriculture, and the Konso go so far as to keep their animals in stalls, feeding them by hand rather than grazing them, in order to conserve the manure for their fields. Cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys are kept in considerable numbers, as well as a few horses in the north and camels in the extreme south. Both the milk and the fresh blood of the animals are consumed. Hunting is insignificant, and fish are specifically tabooed as food. Trade is well developed, and all groups except the Reshiat have regular markets. Men do the herding and hunting and women the milking and market trading, but both sexes participate in agricultural labor.
Some of the tribes of the cluster live in neighborhoods of dispersed family compounds, but the Konso and the sedentary Reshiat occupy compact villages, which the Konso surround with massive wooden palisade. The prevailing house type is a round tructure with cylindrical walls of planks or wattle and daub and with conical thatched roofs, which in some instances extend to the ground. The western Konso, however, occupy pit dwllings with rounded stone walls and flat terraced roofs. One writer has called the Konso a “living megalithic culture.” In addition to the stone retaining wails of their irrigated fields and the stone construction of some of their houses, they erect stone menhirs over the graves of prominent men and on the plaza of their village, and outside each men's house there are stone back rests for its members. The Burji erect stone cumuli, and the sources contain unspecific references to stone phalli.
The Konso demand no consideration in contracting a marriage, but the other tribes require a bride-price. General polygyny prevails, each wife having her separate hut within the compound. Residence tends to be patrilocal but without producing an extended-family organization. The Konso constitute a partial exception in this respect, for the eldest son, who will inherit the home, continues to reside in his father's compound after marriage, and only younger sons build or purchase another dwelling. Descent is patrilineal, with exogamous but nonlocalized sibs. Both circumcision and clitoridectomy (or a more drastic operation) are practiced, the former normally occurring relatively late in life.
Slavery is presumably rare, being specifically reported only for the Burji, but pariah castes of smiths, tanners, and potters are general. With this exception, the peoples of the Konso cluster reveal a markedly egalitarian social system. They differ sharply from their Sidamo neighbors in this respect and likewise in the absence of a monarchical political structure, except where this has been borrowed from the west, as in the Kambata group. Integration at the tribal level is achieved, instead, by an elaborate age-grade organization, the so-called Gada system. The original Eastern Cushitic system, still preserved by the Reshiat as well as by most Galla tribes, comprises five cycling grades with promotion to the next higher grade occurring every eighth year, with a concentration of political functions in the fourth grade, and with sons entering the first grade as their fathers graduate from the fifth, i.e., forty years later. Since membership in a grade bears no necessary relation to actual age and since the average generation difference is less than forty years, such a system tends to be vitiated by “senectation,” i.e., by sons reaching a relatively advanced age before their father's graduation qualifies them to enter the first grade. Some tribes, notably the Darasa and Konso, have apparently sought to compensate for this by instituting changes in the system. The Darasa have seven cycling grades with promotion occurring every tenth year, but a son joins the first grade when his father enters the third, i.e., only twenty years later. The Konso system is worth summarizing in detail both because of its intrinsic interest and because it is unusually fully described.
To comprehend the Konso system one must distinguish between age-classes, age-grades, and age-sets. Age-classes correspond to actual age, and they exist for both sexes. A new class is established every thirteen years, at which time it is constituted of all persons of the appropriate sex who have reached nine years of age since the formation of the previous class. A boy at this time is assigned to a particular men's house, of which there are several in each village, and goes to live there. One who reaches puberty before his class is formed removes to a men's house anyhow, but does not become a member until the establishment of his class. A person remains a member of his age-class for life, and classes of males act as military units in warfare. A man must take his first wife from the female class corresponding to his own, and if she dies or is divorced he must take a substitute wife from the same class. Secondary wives, however, may be taken from junior age-classes.
An age-set consists of the men of a particular generation who enter the same age-grade together and advance together through successive grades. Thus membership in an age-set, as in an age-class, is for life.
An age-grade is a level in a hierarchical series of four, named respectively (1) Fareita, (2) Chela, (3) Gada, and (4) Orshada, through which age-sets advance periodically. Membership in a grade endures, not for life, but for a period of eighteen years. Once every eighteen years, at a spectacular tribe-wide ceremony, every age-set moves into the next higher grade. The previous occupants of the fourth, or Orshada, grade, of course, move out of the system entirely at this time, and the first, or Fareita, grade is filled by the sons of the men who are passing from the Chela into the Gada grade. A man thus enters any grade exactly thirtysix years after his father did.
Men of the first grade occupy themselves largely with community labor, e.g., in the construction or repair of palisades, plazas, public buildings, paths, and irrigation ditches. They are not permitted to marry, but sexual intercourse is not denied them, for they have the privilege of sleeping with the older married women. The husbands of the latter cannot object, for since a male is believed to be sterile until he has been initiated into the second age-grade, the paternity of children is not involved.
After eighteen years in the first grade a man enters the second, or Chela, grade. He marries and establishes a household at this time. This is compulsory, and his actual physical age does not matter. Whether he is a man of thirty-five or a boy of nine, he can neither marry before this time nor defer his first marriage until later. His period of eighteen years in the second grade he devotes primarily to founding a family and rearing c hildren. Under this system, of course, marriages occur in clusters eighteen years apart, with none except secondary unions occurring during the inten·als between.
The age-set which occupies the third, or Gada, grade fills most of the responsible political, ecclesiastical, and judicial offices in Konso society and runs the government over a span of eighteen years. Officials fall into two categories: Bogalla and Heiyu. The former are hereditary, with succession from father to eldest son in alternating grades, whereas the latter are elective, being chosen from rich and poor alike on the basis of personal qualifications. The Heiru serve mainly as judges, magistrates, and legal advisers, and the Bogalla hold administrative and priestly position. The highest Bogalla, called Abba Jila, acts a chief and high priest of the entire Konso tribe, assisted by his “opposite number” in the second grade, who will succeed to his office. A Miskatta Bogalla serves as headman in each village, and three special Bogalla, called “kings” though they exercise no political functions, live hermit lives in isolation on mountain peaks. Other lesser Bogalla have sacrificial functions.
On entering the fourth, or Orshada, grade, men relinquish the offices they have held and serve henceforth only in an advisory capacity to their successors. Formerly they were circumcised at this time and thereafter withdrew from all active sexual life. If an individual had held a particulary high office in the Gada grade, there are intimations that he now became a transvestite and assumed thenceforth the social role of an old woman.

Selected Bibliography