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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 Central Sudanic Peoples mind-mapping diagram

Part Seven
Cultural Impact of Indonesia
— 28 —
Central Sudanic Peoples

The ancestors of the Malagasy, as we have seen, introduced a series of Malaysian cultivated plants on the Azanian coast during the centuries immediately preceding or following rhe time of Christ. Of these, three in particular, namely, bananas, taro, and yams, came subequently to play an extremely important role in the economic and cultural development of the African continent. They constituted, for example, the staple crops along most of the West African coast when the first Europeans arrived. The possibility of independent ennoblement from related wild forms on the Guinea coast and in Southeast Asia can be ruled out on botanical grounds. There are, to be sure, wild yams in West Africa, and some of them have been improved to produce the Guinea yam, but the latter belongs to different subspecies from the Malaysian yams. In the case of taro, no wild forms are known in Africa. The banana, as we have seen (Chapter 4), cannot have originated anywhere in Africa since both the cultivated species are complex hybrids of wild forms which occur only in India and Malaya. We can thus assume, as a firm induction from known facts, that the Malaysian food plants of West Africa came from Southeast Asia.
They cannot have arrived by sea around the Cape of Good Hope, for the Azanians, the Maanyan-Malagasy, and the later Arabs apparently never sailed farther south than Mozambique, and no shred of evidence exists that any navigator of any nation anticipated Vasco da Gama in rounding the Cape in either direction. Transportation by way of the as yet undiscovered New World lies, of course, completely beyond the bounds of possibility for this period. The diffusion of the ifalaysian crops to the Guinea coast must consequently have taken place overland acros the African continent from east to west.
Here, however, we run squarely up against the clear archeological evidence that most of East Africa from the Cape to the Horn and the entire Congo Basin were occupied exclusively by hunting and gathering peoples, Bushmanoid and Pygmoid, until a period very much later than the diffusion must have occurred. Societies without agriculture cannot transmit cultivated plants. We are compelled, therefore, to look for an uninterrupted corridor of agricultural peoples running, at around the time of Christ, across the Bushmanoid territory and north of the Pygmy country to the Guinea coast—a corridor, moreover, throughout whose length geographical conditions are favorable to the cultivation of bananas, taro, and yams.
In this and the ensuing chapters we shall explore this corridor, stopping occasionally on the way to describe the cultures of the indigenous peoples. Map 13 below outlines the cultural provinces of the Yam Belt, as we shall term this corridor because of the special prominence of the yam in this region. To be sure, bananas and taro invariably accompanied the yam, and commonly sugarcane as well. Here we must pause to explode a bombshell, for several sorts of evidence suggest that the sweet potato reached Azania as part of the Malaysian complex and accompanied the latter in its transcontinental diffusion.

Map 13. Culture Provinces of the Yam Belt
Map 13. Culture Provinces of the Yam Belt
(1—Kru and Peripheral Mande, 2—Twi, 3—Southern Nigerians
4—Cameroon Highlanders, 5—Eastern Nigritic Peoples, 6—Central Sudanic Peoples)

The author is aware, of course, that the sweet potato is botanically a New World plant. He also admits that in many parts of West Africa its distribution coincides so closely with the spread of other American root crops, notably malanga and manioc, as to indicate its probable introduction from the west along with the latter. He is, moreover, familiar with the controversial literature regarding the time and mode of the spread of the sweet potato from America to Oceania. The present status of this last problem appears to be that the tuber was carried by man—we do not yet know when or by whom—from South America to the Pacific islands prior to Magellan's voyage and that it there diffused throughout most of Polynesia and Melanesia as far west as New Guinea, where it has long been established as the staple crop in the mountainous interior. Most authorities have assumed, however, that it did not reach Indonesia and the Philippines, where it is an extremely important crop today until the beginning of the colonial period.
If the sweet potato actually arrived in Azania from the cast along with bananas, sugarcane, taro, and yams, its trans-Pacific spread must have taken place very much earlier than even the most uninhibited theorists have as yet dared to assume. It need not, of course, have become established more than locally in Indonesia until long after it reached Africa, for the seafaring Maanyan of Borneo, who ventured as far as zania and Madagascar, could certainly have made the short woyage to New Guinea and have picked up the plant there, provided it had already been locally adopted at the time.
The writer cannot bring himself to accept the early transmission of the sweet potato to Azania as more than a hypothesis worthy of special investigation. He feels, however, that the reader should be informed of the evidence which ultimately evoked in his mind the tartling possibility.
First, throughout the corridor which we shall shortly explore, the Sweet potato is associated as nearly invariably with bananas, taro, and yams as are these plants with one another.
Second, in many tribes of East Africa the sweet potato occurs without manioc, the most widely distributed of American tubers—even in regions, like southwestern Ethiopia, where the inhabitants subsist primarily through the cultivation of root crops and might be expected to accept a new one with avidity.
Finally, in certain societies which segregate their crop into groups with differential ritual associations, sweet potatoes receive the same ceremonial treatment as plants which have unquestionably been introduced via the Sabaean Lane and are differentiated in this respect from other American crops. Thus Gutmann (1913) divides the crops of the Chaga of Mount Kilimanjaro into three groups: (1) those cultivated by women with extremely elaborate rituals; (2) those grown by men with modest ceremonial associations; and (3) those raised indifferently by either sex and completely devoid of attendant rituals. He believes these reflect three successive levels of historical introduction. Sweet potatoes fall into the first and oldest group, along with taro, yams, and beans (of unidentified but presumably Indian species). The only other American crop of any consequence cultivated by the Chaga is maize, and this falls into the third group, that without ritual incrustations and thu presumably the most recent. What we need is a reasonable explanation of facts like these which does not resort to the unsatisfactory assumption of “historical accident.”
The Megalithic Cushites, of course, carried the Malaysian complex on the first leg of it westward journey, providing the necessary corridor through otherwise Bushmanoid territory. That the complex spread throughout the area of Megalithic Cushite occupation is demonstrated by the fact that even the remote Sidamo peoples cultivate bananas, sugarcane, taro, yams-and sweet potatoes. The Cushites must also have carried the complex to Uganda, where we have already encountered archeological evidence of a pre-Bantu civilization of Sidamo origin, since the Interlacustrine Bantu, who inhabit the country today, still grow the same five crops, with bananas as the ranking staple in most groups and yams occupying a prominent po ition in many.
This brings the entire Malaysian complex to the border of the Central Sudanic province, the particular subject of the present chapter. The speakers of the Central Sudanic languages, who occupy a position at almost the exact geographical center of the African continent, have played the role of mediators in a long series of important diffusion processes. It was certainly they who transmitted the udanic complex in the fourth millennium B.C. from the peoples of the Lake Chad region to the Eastern Sudanic inhabitants of the Nile Valley. It was again they who, in the third millennium B.C., mediated the westward diffusion of the Neolithic animals from outhwest Asia and the Nile Valley. Much later, as we shall presently see, they had an important part in the transmission of pastoral practices to the Interlacustrine Bantu. In passing on the Malaysian food plants, therefore, they were playing no unaccustomed role.
We have already encountered three tribes of Central Sudanic speech—the Bagirmi, Kenga, and Lisi—on the Sahara-Sudan fringe just east of Lake Chad. The remaining members of this linguistic subfamily form a fringe, as Map 13 reveals, around the northern, eastern, and southeastern borders of the Eastern Nigritic province. This suggests that they have been pressed back by the inhabitants of this province and extruded from a portion of their former territory. The last phase of this process, indeed, is a matter of historical record, occurring through the eastward expansion of the Azande during the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.
All the tribes of the Central Sudanic province are fully Negroid in physical characteristics, and all speak languages of the Central subfamily of the Sudanic stock. Certain regional differences in culture and history, however, make it advisable to divide them below into separate northern, eastern, and southeastern clusters.

Sara Cluster

The tribes of the northern, or Sara, cluster constintre one of the least adequately described groups of comparable size on the entire continent of Africa. We lack population data and good ethnic map, and even tribal groupings, and linguistic affiliations are by no means always certain. Consequently the following classification doubtless contains serious errors and omissions.

  1. Gula (Goula, Gulla), with the Gele, Kudia (Koudia), Kulfa (Koulfa, Kulfe), Mali, and Mufa (Moufa).
  2. Kara, with the Binga, Homr (Mogum), Mamun, and Yulu (Youlou).
  3. Kreish (Gbaya, Kapala, Krech, Krejy, Kreki), with the Aja, Feroge (Farogga), Mere, Jaka, Moro, and Yomamgba. They are largely Moslem today.
  4. Nduka (Ndouka, Tane), with the Akunga (Akounga), Awaka (Aouaka), Lem (Aretou, Luto, Routou, Ruton), and Udio (Oudio). They are partially Islamized.
  5. Ngama, with the Dakpa (Dagba), Day (Daya), Gulai (Goulay), Madjinngay, and Vale.
  6. Sara, with the Barma, Dindje (Dendje, Djinge), Joko (Ojioko), Kaba (Kabba), Kumra, Mbai (Bai), Ndara, Ndemi, Tele, and Tie.

Madi Cluster

The tribes of the eastern, or Madi, cluster are reasonably well described. Those in the extreme east reveal considerable acculturation to the pastoral Nilotes, and those in the northeast have suffered heavily from Arab slave raids.

  1. Bongo (Dor). The population of this tribe, estimated at 100,000 around 1870, has been reduced to about 5,000 today.
  2. Lendu (Alendu, Balendu, Valendu), with the Mabendi. Thev number abom 155,000 and are often miscalled Bale, Drugu, or Lega (Balega, Malegga, Valegga).
  3. Logo, with the Avukaya, Do (Dongo, Ndo), and Kaliko (Keliko). They number about 75,000.
  4. Lugbara (Laccara, Logbwari, Louagouare, Lubare, Lugbari, Lugori, Lugwaret), with the Avare and Okefu. They number about 250,000.
  5. Madi, with the kindred Luluba. They number about 70,000.
  6. Mittu, with the Baka (Abaka), Beli (Behli), Biti (Bite, Bitu), Gberi (Gehri), Kodo (Moru-Kodo), Lori, yamusa, Sofi, Vadi (Moru-Wadi), and Wira. They number about 35,000.
  7. Moru (Jiza, Moru-Misi), with the Agi Moru-Agi, Ogi, Ojiga, Uggi), Andri (Moru-Endri, Ondri), Kediru (Kederu, Moru-Kediru), and Lakamadi. They number about 20,000.

Mangbetu Cluster

The tribes of the southeastern, or Mangbetu, cluster inhabit former Pygmy territory, into which they began to infiltrate perhaps a thousand years ago. They entered into symbiotic relationships with the autochthones of the Mburi group, who still survive in appreciable numbers nearly everywhere. ubsequently Eastern Nigritic and Bantu peoples began to penetrate the area, from the northwest and southwest respectively. Although both seem to have enjoyed some initial success, the Mangbetu tribe ultimately seized the initiative and during the eighteenth century conquered and subjected most of the other peoples, Central Sudanic as well as Bantu and Eastern Nigritic. Not until 1873 did the Mangbetu finally succumb to the more numerous and more aggressive Azande, the spearhead of the last Eastern Nigritic advance. Along with its Central Sudanic members, the Mangbetu cluster includes three strongly inculturated tribes of Nigritic speech—the Bangba, Mayogo, and Ngbele.

  1. Badjo (Madjo). This tribe is a late offshoot of the Mangbetu.
  2. Bangba (Abangba, Amiangbwa, Bomba, Mangba), with the Bote (Bogoro, Mayanga). This is a medley of peoples, partly Bantu but mainly Eastern Nigritic in speech, who have been shattered by Mangbetu and Azande expansion.
  3. Lese (Balesa, Balesse, Balissi, Walese), with the kindred Mvuba (Bahuku, Bambuba, Bamouba, Mbuba, Wakuko, Wambuba). They number about 20,000.
  4. Wakere, with the kind red Walele and Niapu. They number about 20,000.
  5. Mamvu (Momfou, Monwu, Mumvu), with the kindred Mangutu (Mangbutu, Momboutou). They number about 35,000.
  6. Mangbetu (Mambecto, Wombattou, Monbuttu, Mongbutu), with the Babelu (Babeyru).
  7. Mayogo (Bayugu, Maigo, Mayugu). They are an Eastern Nigritic tribe formerly subject to the Mangbetu.
  8. Mbae (Bamanga, Bambanga, Mambanga, Manga, Mbanga, Umanga, Wamanga). They are a detached tribe living in Bantu territory to the south.
  9. Medje, with the Mabisanga (Abisinga).
  10. Ngbele (Baogbele, Mambere, Mangbele). Originally a Bantu people, they have become largely acculturated to their Mangbetu conquerors.
  11. Popoi (Bagunda, Bapopoie, Mopoi). They number about 10,000.
  12. Rumbi (Barumbi, Lombi, Walumbi, Warumbi). This detached tribe, living in Bantu territory, numbers about 8,500.

All the Central Sudanic peoples subsist primarily by shifting hoe cultivation, supplemented by considerable hunting, fishing, and gathering. For millennia they have participated fully in the Sudanic complex, growing ambary, cow peas, earth peas, gourds, okra, roselle, sesame, watermelons, and in the south the oil palm, in addition to sorghum and millet, the long-standing staples. Diffusion by way of the Yam Belt brought them eleusine from Ethiopia and gram, hyacinth, and sword beans from the Indian complex, as well as sweet potatoes and all the principal Malaysian crops. Taro, yams, and sweet potatoes occur nearly everywhere, but bananas do not extend as far north as the Sara cluster. This plant, however, constitutes the outstanding staple in the Mangbetu cluster and, together with the yam, certainly made possible the penetration of the Pygmy-held tropical-forest region which the tribe of this cluster now occupy . At a later period the Central Sudanic peoples acquired a number of additional crops from the New World: cucurbits, lima beans, maize, manioc, peanuts, peppers, and tobacco.
The inhabitants of this province have long kept cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, and chickens, and the tribes of the Sara cluster also possess small horses. Those of the Mangbetu cluster, however, lost cattle and sheep when they entered the tropical forest and, perhap as a consequence, adopted cannibalism from their Nigritic neighbors. With this exception, all the Central Sudanic tribes milk their animals and make butter. Trade has developed to only an extremely limited extent in this province. In general, the men hunt, fish, tend livestock, and clear land for agriculture, and the women gather and participate equally in the task of cultivation. In the Mangbetu cluster, however, women do most of the field work and some of the fishing. Also, in this group, interestingly enough, in contrast to most Eastern Sudanic peoples, it is the men alone who do the milking. The separation of women and cattle, long looked upon erroneously as a Cushitic trait, may thus actually have originated among the Central Sudanic peoples and have been borrowed from them by the Interlacustrine and other cattle-raising Bantu.
Marriage entails a substantial bride-price in livestock or iron implements, and in the Madi cluster often a period of bride-service as well. Unions between first cousins are forbidden, at least by the Bongo, Logo, and Mangbetu tribes. Polygyny prevails everywhere, and a man establishes his wives in separate dwellings and divides his time equally among them. The household unit usually, and perhaps always, assumes the form of a polygynous rather than an extended family. Residence is invariably patrilocal, although the Madi, Mittu, and Mittu normally require an initial period of matrilocal residence. Descent, inheritance, and succession follow the patrilineal rule. All tribes are organized in exogamous and often totemic patrisibs, each localized as a clan-community. The Gula, Lendu, and all members of the Mangbetu cluster practice circumcision, but the Sara, some Manvu, and most tribes of the Madi cluster dispense with all forms of genital mutilation and extract the lower (in the case of the Sara, the upper) median incisor teeth as an initiatory rite. Formal age-grades are reported only for the Moru and the Kaliko subtribe of the Logo.
The Lese, Mamvu, Mbae, Popoi, and Rumbi occupy compact villages with dwellings aligned on either side of a single street, but elsewhere the settlement pattern consists of dispersed family homesteads or of isolated small hamlets. The prevailing house type is a round hut with a conical thatched roof and cylindrical walls of wood, mats, or wattle and daub. In the south, however, the rectangular dwelling with thatched gable roof characteristic of the adjacent Equatorial Bantu has replaced the older house form among the Badyo, Iakere, Iangbetu, Mbae, Medje, Rumbi, and some Lese, Mayogo, Ngbele, and Popoi; and the Lendu have adopted the beehive structures of the nearby Interlacustrine Bantu.
Political organization rarely transcends the level of an autonomous local community with a headman and a council of elders. The Logo are reported to have paramount chiefs, though their authority is slight, and some of their neighbors acknowledge the religious influence, though not the secular power, of special rainmakers over small groups of settlements. The Mangbetu alone developed conquest states and a hereditary ruling class. Slavery prevails in the Mangbetu and Sara clusters, but the tribes of the Madi cluster neither take nor keep slaves.
Unfamiliar with warfare, except in the form of petty raiding, and defenseless because of their dispersed settlement pattern, the peoples of the Madi and ara clusters have been unable to offer serious resistance to betterorganized groups impinging upon them from all directions. Consequently they have retired before the zande expanding from the west, the Nilotes advancing from the north, and the Baggara, or Cattle Arabs, coming from the east. During the nineteenth century, moreover, they suffered severe depopulation from systematic slave raiding, conducted first as a government monopoly by the Turkish administration of Egypt and then through conce sions ro rapacious rab entrepreneurs. The establishment of colonial rule by the British and French saved a number of tribes from complete extinction.

Selected Bibliography