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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 Southwestern Bantu mind-mapping diagram

Part Ten
Spread of Pastoralism to the Bantu
— 48 —
Southwestern Bantu

In the southern half of Angola and the northern half of South-West Africa reside a number of tribes whose languages form a distinct sub-division within the Bantu group as a whole and who likewise constitute a fairly homogeneous cultural province. These Southwestern Bantu, as they are commonly called, adjoin the Central Bantu in the north and northeast, the Hottentot and Bushmen in the south and southeast. They are aolso connected, by a narrow corridor along the Okawango River, with the Middle Zambezi Bantu, from whom they unquestionably acquired cattle and the milking complex. They have no geographical contact whatsoever with the Southeastern Bantu, who will receive our attention in the following three cahpters, and they differ markedly from the latter in both language and culture. The common assumption that they constitute merely a branch of the Southeastern Bantu lacks even a shred of factual support.
The aboriginal inhabitants of the province belonged to three distinct groups ofhunting and gathering peoples. A very few Pygmy remnants survive in the north. Large numbers of Bushmen live in enclaves within Bantu territory as well as along its southeastern margin, the Hottentot to the south are, as we have seen (Chapter 9), merely pastoral Bushmen. The third group of indigenous hunters, Negroid in race but Khoisan in language, includes the Koroca on the coast and the Bergdama in the extreme south. The Nyaneka, alone among all Negro peoples, are personally familiar with remnants of all three groups of hunters and sharply differentiate them. The tribes of the province, though extremely numerous, fall into the following eight distinguishable groups.

  1. Ambo (Ovambo), embracing the Eunda, Evale, Kuanyama (Ovakuanyama, Ukuanyama, Vakuanyama), Okafima (Kafima), Ombalanru (Ombarandu), Ombandja (Bandya, Cuamato), Ondonga (Aandonga, Ovandonga), Ongandjera (Ovagandjera), Onguangua, Ukualuthi (Ovanguuruze), and Ukuambi (Ovamguambi). They number about 175,000.
  2. Herero (Damara, Ovaherero), with the Mbanderu and Shimba (Himba). Reduced from 100,000 to 25,000 in the Herero War of 1904-1906 against the Germans, they have appreciably recovered since then.
  3. Kwangare (Kwengare, Makwangare, Ovakuangari). This completely undescribed tribe is perhaps actually a branch of the Ambo.
  4. Mbundu (Banano, Bimbundu, Mambari, Mbali, Munano, Nano, Ovimbali, Ovimbundu, Umbundu, Vakuanano, Vanano), embracing the Bailundu (Mbailundu), Cenga (Chilenge), Cingolo (Quingolo), Cipeyo (Quipeyo), Citata (Quitaca), Civula (Quibula), Ciyaka (Quiaca), Eketete (Quiquete), Elende (Lende), Kakonda (Caconda, Cilombo, Quilombo), Kalukembe (Caluquembe), Kasongi (Cassongue), Mbongo (Bongo), Namba, Ndulu (Andulo, Ondura), Ngalanga (Galanga), Ngalangi (Galangue), Sambu (Sambo), Sange, Viye (Bie, Bihe), and Wambu (Huambo). They were reported in 1940 to number about 1,300,000.
  5. Ndombe (Andomha, Bandombe, Dombe, Mundombe), with the Hanya (Hanha. Muhanha), Kilenge (Kilenge, Quilenge), and Nganda (Ganda).
  6. Ngonyelu (Ngonzelo), with the Nhemba (Nyamba, Nyemba).
  7. Ngumbi (Bangumbi, Humbe, Khumbi, Muhumbe, Nkumbe, Ovakumbi, Vahumbi, Vankumbe), with the Hinga (Ehinga, Ovahinga), Kipungu (Cipungu, Pungu, Quipungu, Vatyipungu), and Mulondo (Balondo). These peoples were depopulated by severe famines in 1912 and 1915, when the Ngumbi proper were reduced from 80,000 to 10,000.
  8. Nyaneka (Banianeka, Munhaneca, Ovanraneka, Vanhaneca). They were reduced by the famines of 1912 and 1915 from over 120,000 to about 40,000.

The economy of the Southwestern Bantu rests almost equally upon agriculture and animal husbandry. Agriculture assumes first place in the north, among the Mbundu, Ndombe, and Ngonyelu. The two activities display an even balance among the central tribes, i.e., the Ambo, Ngumbi, and Nyaneka. In the south, however, the Herero have abandoned agriculture and pursue a life of independent pastoral nomadism—the only Bantu tribe in Africa to do so. Moreover, they transmitted this mode of life to their southern neighbors, the Hottentot. Hunting, fishing, and gathering augment the food supply of the Southwestern Bantu to only a modest extent, and the Mbundu alone engage extensively in trade.
The agricultural tribes practice hoe cultivation with brand-tillage. The original staples were sorghum and millet, which still hold first place among the Ambo and Ngumbi and are extensively grown everywhere else. In general, however, the American complex has superseded the Sudanic. Maize ranks as the staple among the Mbundu and Nyaneka, manioc among the Ndombe, and both are widely cultivated elsewhere. Among lesser crops, American beans, cucurbits, peanuts, and sweet potatoes assume the greatest importance, rivaled only by the Indian legumes.
All tribes possess cattle, sheep, goats, and dogs, and most of them also keep chickens, bees, and pigs, a recent introduction from Europe. Cattle enjoy exceptional importance, not only for the milk and butter they yield but also for marriage payments, as a source of wealth and prestige, and for religious reasons. The three northern tribes, indeed, rarely milk their animals, although dairy products constitute a dietary staple everywhere else. A widespread trait, distinctive of the province, is the keeping of “sacred cows.” Among the Nyaneka, for example, every respected adult male has at least two of these, one given him by his father, the other by his mother's brother. They are dedicated, respectively, to a deceased paternal and maternal relative, whose spirits allegedly reside in them and communicate through them to the living. The Nyaneka consequently observe their behavior with great care for possible revelations. They feed them exceptionally well, dedicating the milk and sacrificing the first calf of each to the ancestral spirit. It is taboo, incidentally, to consume their milk with meat—a reflection of the dietary regulations which we have already encountered among the Nilotes (Chapter 43) and which also occur among the Interlacustrine Bantu, e.g., the Nyoro.
A Nyaneka man's chief wife tends his sacred cows, performs the cult activities associated with them, and for this reason must remain absolutely faithful. This suggests that the taboo segregating women from cattle did not spread to the Southwestern Bantu. Other evidence supports this inference. Among the Ambo, though men do most of the milking, their wives often assist. The Herero, moreover, assign milking primarily to females. In other respects the division of labor by sex reveals complete uniformity. The men hunt, herd, and clear new land. Both sexes fish, although women catch only small fry. Women gather and do most, but not all, of the field labor.
Except for the Herero, who wander in nomadic bands, all tribes live in compact and semipermanent hamlets or villages. Sizable towns occ ur only among the Mbundu, usually associated with a royal residence. Formerly each settlement was defended by an encircling wooden palisade, in the case of the Herero a thorn fence. Dwellings are grouped in family compounds around a central open space—a cattle corral among the Herero and Nyaneka, elsewhere usually a plaza or courtyard with a building used as a council house and the headman's residence. Here the headman or his wife maintains a sacred fire, the invariable symbolic center of the community. Most Southwestern Bantu live in round huts with conical thatched roofs and cylindrical walls of poles or of wattle and daub. The Herero, however, occupy hemispherical dwellings resembling those of the Hottentot. These are constructed of flexible saplings inserted in the ground in a circle, bound together at the top, often with support from a central post, covered with twigs or bark, or sometimes with hides, and frequently surfaced with clay or dung.
Government at the local level rests in the hands of a hereditary headman with priestly functions, assisted by a council of elders. The Herero, among whom the community is a patrician composed of a number of family bands, lack any more elaborate form of political organization. The other tribes, however, all have genuine states. Though relatively small in size, these exhibit the usual characteristics of African despotisms. Each has a divine king, who rules from a capital town with the aid of a council of ministers and collects tribute through appointive territorial officials. Among the Ngumbi he has a special stool as his throne. Among the Ambo, a Queen-Mother enjoys great prestige and maintains an independent court, and the chief wife, or Queen-Consort, tends the sacred fire, which is kindled at the ruler's installation and extinguished at his death. All groups keep slaves, and all except the Herero have hereditary aristocracies.
In contrast to the Middle Zambesi Bantu, who require no bride-price, all tribes of the Southwestern province make substantial marriage payments, nearly always in cattle. Most of them reveal a preference for local exogamy. They differ, however, in regard to cross-cousin marriage. The Ambo, with certain local exceptions, forbid unions with any first cousin. The Herero and Mbundu prefer marriage with a cross-cousin, the former panicularly favoring a father's sister's daughter and the latter a mother's brother's daughter. The Nyaneka permit unions of either type, but only if a cow is sacrificed in a kin-severing rite. General polygyny prevails universally, but the Herero alone allow a man to marry two sisters. The first wife enjoys seniority of status, but each has her own hut and the husband visits each in regular rotation. Extended forms of the family appear only among the Herero and Nyaneka.
Patrilocal residence prevails in almost direct proportion to the importance of cattle, with avunculocal rather than matrilocal residence as the alternative. The pastoral Herero permit a man to reside with his maternal uncle rather than with his father, but as a rule only poor men exercise this privilege. Avunculocal residence occurs with greater frequency among the Ambo and becomes the rule in chiefly lineages. Further north, a married man regularly lives with or near his father until the latter's death, when a Nyaneka usually, and a Mbundu occasionally, shifts to avunculocal residence. Since all the tribes of the province observe matrilineal descent, the Southwestern Bantu reveal an unmistakable affinity to the adjacent Central Bantu in the fundamental structure of their social systems. This fact, coupled with comparable resemblances in language, in political organization, and in mode of marriage, argues strongly for their original derivation from the north.
It was from the east, however, that they received cattle, and therewith the stimulus toward the intensification of bride-price payments and the emergence of patrilocality. By aggregating patrilineally related males in a single locale, patrilocal residence favors the development of patrilineal descent. In two geographically remote sections of the province, i.e., among the Herero in the south and the Mbundu in the north, patrilocality has actually given rise to patrilineal lineages and sibs. Since this has occurred without disturbing the older matrilineal kin groups, these two tribes are characterized by double descent.
Gibson (1956), in discussing the Herero, argues that “double descent must have occurred in both lines simultaneously, possibly over a long period of time, for the disjunctive and conjunctive forces associated with them are complementary.” That the distributional evidence, both for the Southwestern province and for Bantu Africa as a whole, proves his conclusion to be incorrect is less important than the serious fallacy in his reasoning. The modern social anthropologist who takes account both of the processes of culture change and of the evidence of history should certainly recognize that social systems rarely lose their internal consistency as they readjust to changing conditions. On the contrary, they ordinarily exhibit a dynamic or shifting equilibrium in which their parts maintain their integration though altering their interrelationships. Although historical inferences may often be made from minor or temporary internal inconsistencies, it is never legitimate to infer historical depth from the fact of integration, as Gibson has done in this instance and Gluckman, though less explicitly, in the Lozi case considered in the previous chapter.

Selected Bibliography