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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 Afar and Somali mind-mapping diagram

Part Nine
East African Pastoralism
— 41 —
Afar and Somali

For thousands of years the Beja seem to have remained the only independent pastoralists in Africa, for this mode of life does not appear elsewhere on the continent until near the end of the first millennium. Then, however, it was adopted by three nations which now occupy the arid desert and savanna country of the Eastern Horn. Two of them, the Afar and Somali (see Map 15), will occupy our attention in the present chapter; the third, the Galla nation, in the following one.
From Paleolithic times until almost the middle of the Christian era the Eastern Horn was inhabited almost exclusively by hunting and gathering peoples of Bushmanoid race with cultures of the Stillbay type, of whom no traces survive today except probably the Midgan and other submerged castes of hunters among the Somali. With the development of complex agricultural civilizations in southern Arabia and highland Ethiopia, however, an extensive trade grew up between the two centers across the narrow strait which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. The ports of what is now French Somaliland and the adjacent sections of Eritrea and British Somaliland thus came to be frequented, settled, and ultimarely developed into mercantile towns by Yemenite Arabs and by Cushites from the Ethiopian hinterland. These groups, however, did not occupy or utilize the arid back country except for caravan trails and for the intermittent exploitation of some of its natural resources.
The Pharaonic Egyptians knew this region as the land of Punt, and their hieroglyphic writings record a number of exploring and trading expeditions to the country. We know from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea that its principal exports in the first century, in addition to ivory, tortoise shell, and a few slaves, were frankincense, myrrh, and other aromatic gums that had long been in strong demand in the eastern Mediterranean. The coastal towns, moreover, were already participating fully in the trade with India. From other historical sources we know that the Himyaritic Arabs of southern Arabia had exercised political and mercantile control over the region for perhaps ten centuries prior to the date of the Periplus.
At some time early in the second half of the first millennium, as we have seen (Chapter 39), the agricultural Bantu, who had recently arrived in East Africa, spread northeastward along the coast of Somalia and occupied the fertile valleys of the Juba and Shebelle Rivers, driving the indigenous hunters into the arid sections of the interior. During the ninth and tenth centuries the Yemenite Arabs extended their commercial activities around the Horn, establishing a series of fortified trading posts in southern Somalia and ultimately as far south as Sofala.
Until about this time the ancestors of the Afar, Galla, and Somali had been confined largely to southeastern Ethiopia in the region separated from the rest of the plateau by the great rift valley. Here they practiced an agricultural economy supplemented by animal husbandry and by commerce, which they conducted with the coastal towns. Now, however, some of them—perhaps influenced by the Beja or the Arabs—elaborated the pastoral aspect of their economy into an independent nomadic mode of life and descended from the highlands into the arid steppe and savanna country.
How this occurred, of course, we do not know. We can, however, make certain inferences from our previous observations concerning the spread of animal husbandry in Africa. Since cattle occur throughout West Africa, whereas milking has diffused only halfway across the Sudan, we have concluded (Chapter 19) that the Nubians did not adopt the milking complex until a considerable time after they had borrowed and transmitted the animals themselves. Since Nubia is likewise the obvious link connecting Egypt with Ethiopia, we have also concluded (Chapter 22) that the Central Ethiopians, too, acquired domestic animals first and the knowledge of how to milk them and make butter only at some later date. independent pastoralism depends, of comse, upon milking and dairy operations, not upon anjmal husbandry alone. The late development of this mode of economic life among the Afar, Galla, and Somali may therefore merely reflect the relative recency of the adoption of the milking complex by the Cushites of southeastern Ethiopia.
The first of these people to embark on a career of independent pastoralism were presumably the Afar, who moved north into the Danakil semidesert and adjacent coastal Eritrea. The second were the Galla, who clearly preceded the Somali into the interior of the Eastern Horn. The parallel expansion of the Somali, the third and culturally most advanced of the three, can scarcely have begun much before the tenth century. Once initiated, however, it proceeded apace. Carrying Islam, which they had accepted in the ninth century at the port of Berbera and Zeila, the Somali expanded eastward to the Horn and southward into Ogaden, displacing or absorbing the last remnants of the ancient hunting population. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they occupied the entire valley of the Shebelle River, reducing the agricultural Bantu inhabitants to the status of serfs. Their further advances to the southwest at the expense of the Galla will be recounted in the next chapter.
The Afar and Somali divisions of the Horn peoples speak related languages of the Eastern branch of the Cushitic subfamily of the Hamitic stock. All except a few Christian Saho adhere to the Sunni sect of Islam. All, moreover, are definitely Caucasoid and have received a substantial infusion of Arab blood. The Afar are characterized by moderately tall stature, wavy hair, narrow noses, thin lips, and a skin color of coffee shade. The Somali are darker than other Eastern Cushitic peoples but otherwise reveal fewer evidences of Negroid admixture; kinky hair, for example, is almost completely absent. Though they have unquestionably incorporated a certain amount of Negro blood through intermarriage with imported slaves and with their Bantu subjects in the valleys of the Shebelle and Juba Rivers, their dark complexion possibly derives mainly from some other source, conceivably in part from Indians who may at some rime have been im·olved in trade with the ports on the Gulf of Aden. The peoples of the Horn may be classified as follows.

  1. Afar (Danakil). They number about 110,000.
  2. Esa (Eesa, Eissa, Isa), with the kindred Gadabursi (Derbussi, Gadabirsky). They number about 125,000, including 10,000 urbanized inhabitants of Djibouti.
  3. Geri (Girri), with the kindred Bartire (Barrera, Bertirri), Bursuk (Barsub, Bersub), and Yabarre. They number about 300,000.
  4. Hawiya (Auij ja, Hawiyel), with the Abgal, Ajuran, Hawadla, and other associated tribes. They number about 500,000.
  5. Ishaak, embracing the Awal (Habr Awal), Gerhajis (Habr Gerhajis), and Toljaala (Habr Toljaala). They number about 420,000.
  6. Mijertein (Medscharten, Midshurrin, Mijjertheyn), with the kindred Desishe, Dolbohanta (Dulbahenre), and Warsangeli (Wassingali, Wursungeli). They number about 450,000.
  7. Ogaden (Ugadin, Wogadin), with the Abaskul, Gelimes, and Marehan. They number about 350,000.
  8. Sab, embracing the Bimal, Digit, Rahanwein, Tunni, and other lesser tribes, of whom several spoke Galla until quite recently. They number about 300,000.
  9. Saho (Sao, Shiho). This group, who are linguistically akin to the Afar, number about 50,000, of whom the 10,000 members of the Trob subtribe are Christians.
  10. West Somali, including rhe Aulihan, Digodia, Dir, Gerra, Harti, Makabul, Talmoje, and other tribes intrusive into the former territory of the Bararetta Galla. They number about 120,000, plus an unspecified number enumerated under other Somali groups.

Agriculture provides the principal means of subsistence of the Geri, who may well represent the original core of the Somali nation; the Sab, who include substantial numbers of assimilated Bantu; and some Hawiya. The staple crop of these groups is the durra variety of sorghum, supplemented by maize, beans, melons, cotton, and in some instances wheat, eleusine, vetch, sesame, sweet potatoes, and bananas. All other tribes subsist primarily br animal husbandry. Cattle are the chief animals of the agricultural tribes, but camels assume first place among the nomads.
Sheep and goats are numerous everywhere. All these animals provide meat, hides, milk, and butter, but only the Sab and West Somali exhibit the Galla practice of drinking fresh blood. Horses, which are few and highly valued, are ridden exclusively by men. Women ride donkeys, who are also, like camels, used for transport. Dogs, cats, and chickens occur only sporadically. The true Somali do not eat fish, game, or fowl and leave hunting and fisru ng to the Midgan and other despised groups, but the Afar observe none of these taboos. Both peoples do an appreciable amount of gathering, especially of honey, wild fruits, and such gums as frank incense and my rrh. They maintain regular markets and conduct considerable coastwise and caravan trade. The Afar mine salt and export it in the form of bars, which formerly served widely as currency throughout onheast Africa. In the division of labor by sex the men herd camels, cattle, and horses, whereas the women tend sheep, goats, and donkeys. Each sex usually milks the animals it tends, but the Afar assign this task mainly to women. Both sexes engage in agriculture among the Hawiya and Sab, women alone among the Geri.
The agricultural groups inhabit permanent settlements, but the pastoral tribes wander in nomadic bands, construct temporary camps encircled by fences of thorns, and occupy shelters consisting of a hemispherical framework of dismountable curved poles supported by a central upright post and covered with mats woven from palm leaves or bast fibers. Sedentary villagers normally live in huts with cylindrical walls and conical thatched roofs, but town dwellers often have rectangular houses with whitewashed walls of sun-dried brick or coral and flat or gabled roofs. Socially, the local community is usually a localized patrilineage or clan, but in the towns and among the Sab this gentile form of organization has given way to a territorial one.
To obtain a wife a man must pay her father a negotiated bride-price in livestock, money, or slaves. The Afar practice preferential cross-cousin marriage, and formerly required a young man to kill an enemy in battle before he became eligible to wed. The Somali forbid unions with any first cousin. Though deviating from normal Islamic marriage preferences, all tribes practice nonsororal polygyny up to the Moslem limit of four wives. Each co-wife has her own dwelling, and the husband spends an equal time with each in turn. Both the levirate and the sororate are preferential. Since residence is regularly patrilocal, a camp normally consists of patrilineally related males and their families, but this group is basically a localized lineage rather than an extended family. Kin groups are nontotemic and of segmentary type. Each nation and tribe traces its descent in the male line from a traditional eponymous common ancestor, as do sibs, subsibs, and lineages. Exogamy prevails with respect at least to the subsib, often to the sib.
The Afar and Somali peoples formerly possessed slaves and engaged intensively in the slave trade. Slave status was hereditary, and marriage with freemen was forbidden, though the offspring of a slave woman by her master were free. Outcaste groups exist among the Somali but not among the Afar. They include hunters, smiths, and leatherworkers, but coast dwellers who eat fish are almost as thoroughly despised. These groups intermarry amongst themselves and to some extent with slaves, in which case children take the status of their father. Outcastes are free to move as they like, and they are paid for their services, which include magic and the manufacture of amulets as well as their special crafts. The indigenous Bantu, especially among the Sab, are attached to tribes of superior status as serfs or clients. Marked wealth distinctions prevail among freemen, and chiefly families exist, but the Somali possess no truly differentiated hereditary aristocracy. The Afar, however, recognize some tribes as Red, or noble; others as White, or common. Inheritance is patrilineal, with sons sharing equally. Among the Esa, Mijertein, and some other tribes, daughters receive half shares in accordance with Koranic law.
Local groups, each with a headman and a council of family heads, are successively integrated into subtribes, tribes, and occasionally larger confederations. At each level authority is vested in a chief, sometimes hereditary and sometimes elective, and a council composed of the heads of the next smaller groups. Except for an occasional sultanate, true states do not exist. Warfare, cattle raiding, and blood feuds are endemic. As a consequence, agricultural groups, especially among the Hawiya, often organize themselves under the leadership of a mullah, or holy man, whose sanctity lends them protection. All groups practice circumcision, clitoridectomy, and infibulation. The Afar and Esa possess age-grades of unspecified type, and the Sab and West Somali retain remnants of the cycling system of the former Galla inhabitants of their territory .

Selected Bibliography