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George Peter Murdock

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

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


This book does not present a distillation of long and intimate familiarity with the African continent. The author has had field experience only among indigenous peoples in North America and Oceania, and his firsthand knowledge of Africa has been limited to three brief visits-a week in Egypt in 1921, four days in Cape Town in 1945, and a fortnight in Kenya and Tanganyika in 1957. His interest in the area stems primarily from the accident of having undertaken, about eight years ago, to offer a graduate course in African ethnology. Exposure to the descriptive literature raised problems of unusual challenge and engendered a mounting enthusiasm. In contrast to regions which man has occupied for only few thousand years, Africa offers the fascination of a continent inhabited, in all probability, from the very dawn of culture history, a continent in which diverse races have interacted in complex ways for millennia and in which survivals of extremely archaic cultural adjustments still emerge here and there only slightly masked by subsequent developments.
The book does reflect the difficulties encountered by the author in acquiring a comprehensive understanding of the peoples and cultures of Africa. He early discovered the virtual absence of reliable guides to a preliminary orientation. With rare exceptions, general works are incomplete in geographic scope, naive in theoretical perspective, and inaccurate in factual detail; historical reconstructions reflect racial biases, outmoded concepts of the mechanics of diffusion, and undisciplined imagination; classifications of cultures and of languages are often impressionistic and technically defective; and regional summaries and analyses are fewer and less satisfactory than for most comparable ethnographic areas. From these strictures the author must hasten to except three generalizing anthropologists whose work has proved so extraordinarily helpful that he must single them out for a special accolade: Hermann Baumann, who, in Völkerkunde von Afrika, with R. Thurnwald and D. Westermann as coauthors, has made an invaluable scholarly contribution in sifting and organizing the descriptive data on the peoples of Negro Africa; Daryll Forde, whose monumental editorial enterprise, the Ethnographic Survey of Africa, has assembled and summarized masses of material, often from scattered, inaccessible, and unpublished sources, on a large number of African societies; and Joseph H. Greenberg, who has brought order out of chaos in African linguistic classification.
Disillusioned early about the value and dependability of most of the generalizing literature, the author decided to rely almost exclusively on the descriptive literature. Here Africa's disadvantage disappears. No other continent, with the possible exception of North America, can compare with it in either the volume or the quality of ethnographic coverage. Few peoples of consequence remain completely undescribed, and the wealth of information on many is unsurpassed elsewhere in the world. Most English-speaking readers will already be aware of the numerous penetrating analyses of indigenous social systems produced in recent decades by British Africanists—e.g., Evans-Pritchard on the Nuer, Fortes on the Tallensi, Schapera on the Tswana, and Monica Wilson on the Nyakyusa— and of comparable contributions by younger anthropologists from Great Britain, South Africa, and the United States. Commitment to the descriptive literature has brought the incidental reward of discovering many equally competent ethnographers who have written in other languages, among whom at least Grottanelli, Hulstaert, Maquet, and Paulme deserve special mention.
Having chosen to emphasize the ethnographic literature, the author made the further decision to embrace the entire continent in his survey. To exclude Egypt, Ethiopia, and North Africa, as has commonly been done, could only have the effect of obscuring the influences which have impinged on Negro Africa from the north and northeast and of injecting an element of unnecessary guesswork into their interpretation. To exclude Madagascar, moreover, would eliminate a prime source of information concerning the cultural impact on Africa of contacts with India and Malaysia by way of the ancient monsoon trade route across the Indian Ocean.
The assimilation of the complete corpus of ethnography for the entire continent of Africa constitutes a formidable task. Only through some process of selection could its realization be expected within a reasonable period of time. The decision was therefore reached to cover only a limited range of subject matter. This volume consequently makes no pretense of synthesizing available information on such important fields as religion, art, law, socialization, and technology. It deals only with food-producing activities, the division of labor by sex, housing and settlement patterns, kinship and marriage, the forms of social and political organization, and a few miscellanea such as cannibalism and genital mutilations.
A second limitation relates to time. No consideration is given to early man or to the long sequence of Paleolithic cultures revealed by prehistoric archeology. Nor is any attention paid to the modern period of intense social and political change on which most contemporary scholars have concentrated their efforts. The time span encompassed thus begins with the first achievement of a Neolithic agricultural civilization about 7,000 years ago and ends with the conclusion of European colonial penetration around the beginning of the present century. In general, the book aims to present a culture-historical base line to aid in the understanding of more recent events and ongoing trends.
ln addition to attempting to reconstruct the major cultural developments and movements of peoples in Africa over the past 7,000 years, the book seeks to order existing ethnographic knowledge by summarizing the cultural data surveyed for each of the distinctive areas or provinces into which the peoples of the continent are divided. It combines these objectives by first presenting a few chapters of orientation on the topics of geography, race, language, economy, society, government, and history, which include distributional information and a consideration of theoretical problems, and following these by chapters on each of the cultural provinces of the continent, arranged in an order which may appear arbitrary but which is designed to introduce, in approximately their sequential chronological order, the major developments in African culture history since the end of Paleolithic times.
Besides summarizing the pertinent historical and cultural data, each regional chapter includes certain materials primarily of a reference nature. Tribes are classified into groups of essentially identical language and culture, arranged numerically in alphabetical order, with reasonably complete synonymies to facilitate identification through an index of tribal names included at the end of the book. Approximate population figures are given wherever available from ethnographic sources; census reports have not been separately consulted for this purpose. To each chapter is appended a selected bibliography. These include fewer than half the sources actually consulted by the author, listing only the works which he has found genuinely useful for the guidance of readers with similar interests who may wish to verify his interpretations or pursue particular subjects further. To conserve space, references are given in an abbreviated form, though sufficiently detailed to allow them to be readily located in library catalogues, and periodicals and symposia that are frequently cited are indicated by initials to which a key is provided following Chapter 55.
The author acknowledges especial personal indebtedness to the following persons: Harold D. Gunn, for making available his invaluable collection of unpublished manuscript material on the Plateau Nigerians; Alan H. Jacobs, for a personal introduction to the Arusha, Chaga, Iraqw, Kikuyu, Masai, and Meru tribes of Kenya and Tanganyika; Peter J. Wilson, for valued assistance in the analysis of political systems; David W. Ames, Robert G. Armstrong, J. H. M. Beattie, A. Richard Diebold, John L. Fischer, Robert F. Gray, Philip H. Gulliver, Jean La Fontaine, Simon Ottenberg, Harold K. Schneider, Edward H. Winter, and others, for supplying unpublished ethnographic information; and Carmen S. Murdock, for her supportive interest and infallible editorial judgment.

George Peter Murdock