webAfriqa Library

UNESCO — General History of Africa
Volume I. Methodology and African Prehistory

Joseph Ki-Zerbo, ed. 1981, 820 pp.

5. — F. de Medeiros
The peoples of the Sudan: population movements

The problem and the sources

At the present stage of African historiography, study of the movements that culminated in the establishment of the peoples of the Sudanic zone of West Africa is an indispensable but extremely complex task.
The context in which the question arises is clouded by debates that give prominence to presuppositions concerning the cultural supremacy of ceram groups from the north and east. This is a problem of major concern which must be constantly borne in mind in the course of our examination in so far as it has a bearing on the methods and the main lines of emphasis of African history; it calls for strenuous critical thinking and a commensurate effort of empathy.
In most books and monographs on African history, population movements occupy a prominent place; they are usually introduced before any other topic is developed, with the widespread notion of “migrations”. The vast area occupied by the Sudan was conducive to movement, contacts and exchanges; in the absence of solid geographic and chronological points of reference, there is a strong temptation to invoke outside influences. Similarly, use is often made of oral tradition which goes back to the beginnings of the peoples of the Sudan in an attempt to establish a connection between their cultures and the culture of prestigious ancestors. Finally, the very theme of “migrations” lends itself to new interpretations that utilize, among other procedures, comparative investigations, seeking to rediscover in the facts and realities of African history patterns and structures originating in more ancient cultures that are taken as models.
The Hamitic hypothesis, which served to explain the evolution of African cultures in ancient times, has been widely used as a palpable interpretative framework 1. According to this theory, the “Hamites” were an African people distinct from the other blacks of sub-Saharan Africa from the standpoint of race (Caucasian) and linguistic family. The northern branch of the “Hamites” would, therefore, include the inhabitants of the Sahara, the Berbers, the Tubu and the Fulani. The “Hamitic” hypothesis draws a clear distinction between the pastoral “Hamites” and the agricultural blacks, considering them as two separate and well-defined categories.
Because of their “natural” kinship with the peoples who founded the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations of the Middle East, the Hamites are regarded as having been responsible for all the progress and innovations made by and in Africa. That being so, the occupation of pastoral cattle-breeder is credited with cultural superiority. These white nomads would, it is said, have transmitted the elements of “civilization” to the sedentary blacks 2 .
Authors like M. Delafosse, H. R. Palmer and Y. Urvoy in particular, who have provided much of our knowledge about the peoples of the Sudan, deliberately adopted this diffusionist standpoint 3; Urvoy is even convinced that “the whites brought the seed of a superior type of organization” to Africa 4. Contemporary African historiography is becoming sensitive to the ideological presuppositions inherent in such assumptions which are being subjected to methodical criticism 5. But it must be admitted that much arbitrary data of this type is still fashionable in textbooks and other works. For although these theories and their influence are now being challenged in earnest, it is far harder to replace them with fresh contributions based on the results of research (which has itself become more rigorous).
Another set of problems stems from the fact that we do not have the material for an exhaustive treatment of this subject. The period in question — the first/seventh century to the fifth/eleventh century — usually comes under the heading of the “dark ages” 6. And yet despite the recent expansion of African historical studies, the information we have for the early periods is still incomplete.
It is true that the Arab conquest of North Africa ushered in a period of contacts calculated to yield more reliable information than the previous centuries. But the limitations of the written sources originating from the Arab geographers are now becoming more and more apparent 7. Conceived from the standpoint of their own cultural environment, they are fragmentary, and reflect considerable gaps as regards the specific question of the peoples of the Sudan. Their authors were mostly easterners such as al-Ya'kūbī, who never went beyond the Nile delta. Some of them had to take account of the interests and expansionist designs of the masters who had sent them to collect information, as with Ibn Hawkal (who worked for the Fātimids). Al-Bakrī is undoubtedly the author whose contribution has proved to be the most important; but he did not know the countries he described from Spain, and the facts in his account come mainly from the works of earlier authors (largely thanks to the official archives of the Caliphate of Cordova) and from the stories of travellers he questioned 8. In all likelihood, none of these writers visited the Sudan before Ibn Battūta (eighth/fourteenth century).
But the subject can be approached from a new angle. The collections of Arab sources of J. M. Cuoq and of N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins are invaluable works of reference alongside the individual studies, especially when research in the field is making progress 9. A positive attitude towards oral tradition is found throughout Africa. The Wagadu legends, accounts by chroniclers and traditionists from Mali and “Mandingo” land, and Songhay, Zarma, Hausa, Fulani (Peul) and Mosi (Mossi) traditions, together with the archaeological work being carried out from Mauritania to Chad, make it possible to view the subject in a more critical light and to widen the field of information.
The area in question is enormous. The Land of the Blacks — Bilād al-Sūdān — now denoted by the name Sudan comprises not only the Senegal, Niger and Chad basins but also ports of the savanna and forestlands further south. Here documentary material is even scantier, and research is in its infancy. Work is in progress at Kong (Ivory Coast), Begho (Ghana) and Poura (Burkina Faso); but apart from Taruga and Ife in Nigeria these sites cannot compare with what has been achieved at Tishīt, Tegdaoust or Kumbi Saleh or in Dogon country. This wealth of investigations in the Sahel in fact provides valuable material for a reassessment of the Sudan's relationship with its Saharan fringes, which can hardly be ignored. This in turn makes it possible to see under what conditions the peoples of the Sudan occupied their environment, and how they fitted into it and acquired their cultural resources.

The northern border

We have long been accustomed to looking at the sub-Saharan area through what may be called “the spectacles of Islam”, that is, seeing its history exclusively through the eyes of the Muslim society settled in North Africa, which is our main source of written literature. The Muslim period and the new situation it introduced in the Maghrib unquestionably represents a major stage in our knowledge of the sub-Saharan area. The study of the peoples of the Sudan starts here, for Muslim Arab culture and society brought with it impressions that affected its relationship with the Sudan. This is useful historical material and Arabic sources are viewed with favour, coupled with the prestige of the written word so prized by the “People of the Book”. But if we step back a little from this very widespread attitude we find that knowledge of the Sudan and its peoples is largely influenced and determined by the concerns of the Eastern and Maghribi Muslim world.
The tendency to look at the “Land of the Blacks” from a North African viewpoint goes back a very long way. It originated in antiquity, when the “known world” around the Mediterranean basin was the geographical centre of the world. This structure did not change fundamentally during the Islamic period. Moreover this predominance of the north to the neglect of sub-Saharan Africa, at least until the ninth/fifteenth century, is reflected in many contemporary works which were certainly not written by supporters of diffusionism. The result is an imbalance between a plethora of writing about ancient and medieval trans-Saharan traffic on the one hand and very incomplete knowledge of the black peoples during the same period on the other. But this fact is itself a sufficient reason to look at the northern approaches to the Sudan, which connect through the Sahara with Berber country.
The Berbers played an important role in West Africa from the point of view of population movements. Since prehistoric times they were constantly active in the Sahara, as far as its southern edges. Their ancestors from the Fezzan, the Garamantes, are said to have been active intermediaries between Provincia Africa and the Land of the Blacks during the Roman period 10.
The Berbers, who had never really formed part of the zone controlled by successive hegemonies in North Africa, from the Carthaginians to Byzantium, found their mobility in the direction of the desert enhanced by the increase in the number of camels. Whether it had previously resulted in the establishment of sedentary kingdoms and principalities far to the north or in the formation of major nomadic confederations adjacent to the desert and in the Sahara itself, the Berbers' independent attitude brought about prolonged opposition to the new Arab power; this expressed itself in various resistance movements, but especially in the favourable welcome given to the Khāridjite heresy 11.
Indeed, it was the principalities and centres controlled by the Khāridjites which had the initiative in trade with the Sudan from the late second/eighth century. Djabal Nāfusa, Wargla, Tāhert and Sidjilmāsa were in one way or the other engaged in such activities 12.
To the west the Berbers formed a great confederation, which al-Fazārī (second/eighth century) called the state of Anbiya; it probably consisted of the Massūfa, the Lamtūna and the Djuddāla 13. Al-Ya'kūbī classified them among the Sanhadja, who played an important role throughout the western Sahara. This huge grouping must have been in contact to the south with the area controlled by Ghana. Another group of Berbers, the Hawwāra, originally from Tripolitania, marched with the Land of the Blacks. To avoid being conquered they went west, and while crossing the Maghrib took part in the various uprisings against the Arabs. In the second/eighth century they embraced Khāridjism. After Abū Yazīd's last Khāridjite revolt 14, in which they took part, they dispersed westwards and eastwards, while some of them fled south. During this period their presence was reported in the Fezzan.
The Hawwāra were also in the Hoggar. The link between the ethnonym Hawwāra and the toponym Hoggar is an indication of this. Ibn Khaldūn, the historian of the Berbers, states that a fragment of the latter crossed the sands and settled next to the veil-wearing Lamta, who lived near the town of Kaw-Kaw (Gao) in the Land of the Blacks 15.
The Sanhadja played an active role in the trans-Saharan traffic which took the western route: moreover, this explains the coming into being, in what had already been an occupied post in ancient times (and was henceforth to be known as Awdāghust), of a trading centre that soon came to be dominated by the Lamtūna and was inhabited in the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries by Berbers belonging to the region, blacks and traders from the north. A road linked Awdāghust to Sidjilmāsa the great caravan port of the Tafilālet in southern Morocco.
To the east the Ibādite Berbers played a similar role in the traffic leading to the outlets of Ifrīkiya and Tripolitania. They took part in the trade in black slaves brought from the land of the Zaghawa, in Kanem. The Berber capital, Zawīla, was the hub of this trade, acting as a warehouse for slaves waiting to be sent north.
Writing about this trade, al-Ya'kūbī was not greatly upset by the fact that Ibādite Muslims were trading in black pagans; he merely showed slight surprise on learning that “the kings of the blacks thus sell blacks for no reason, and without the motive of war”. 16 The slave trade thus seems to have been not a sporadic occupation for those engaged in this traffic but a steady economic activity dependent on the needs of the Maghribi and Mediterranean market, i.e. on the laws of supply and demand. Thus these Ibādite Berbers (who were religious dissidents because they adopted Khāridjite doctrines) were in economic terms well integrated into the Muslim world. Their special position in relation to the Sudan made them the driving force of a large Arab-Berber grouping which extended as far as the southern Sahara.
Among the Saharan Berber groups, the Tuareg — the name by which they would later become known to us occupied a special position. Their area was relatively near the Land of the Blacks. They formed a number of confederations and occupied a territory extending from the Ghadamees area in the northern Sahara to the Niger and beyond, their main settlements being in the massifs of Hoggar, Aïr and the Adrār des Ifoghas. They managed despite adherence to the Muslim religion to preserve fundamental aspects of their culture, such as their language, tamashegh, their script, tifinagh, and their social structure, with warrior, religious teacher, tributary, slave and craftsman classes. In their accounts of their origins they claim an ancestry which also indicates an undoubted cultural identity. According to their oral traditions the Tuareg are descended from Tin Hinan, a woman from the Tafilālet. This queen, the ancestress of the Kel Rela nobles, is said to have arrived in the Hoggar on a white she-camel accompanied by her servant Takamat, ancestress of the Dag Rali. Excavations carried out in 1929 and 1933 in a funeral monument at Abalessa, west of the Hoggar, seem to confirm these traditions. They brought to light a large quantity of objects dating from the fourth century of the Christian era, which also suggests the existence of an old route between southern Morocco and the Hoggar at a time when camels were in use 17.
In anthropological terms the Tuareg in fact represent a halfway house between the Sahara and the Sudan. They fall into two groups: those who live in the Tassili-n-Ajjer and the Hoggar in the north and the southern branch, the Awellimid and the Kel Wi of Aïr who have intermarried with the black Hausa peoples. In the circumstances the black peoples must have exerted some cultural influence on the Tuareg. H. T. Norris notes that the Tuareg practise a type of divination called tachchelt (“the viper”), in which the reptile is questioned according to certain forms of words 18. The snake also appears in many other circumstances, its meaning being ambiguous: it has a protective function, but it appears in dreams as a harbinger of ill fortune. On the strength of comparison with a similar legend reported by al-Bakrī and attributed to the Zāfkāwa people of the Sudan, the author suggests cultural contacts between the Tuareg and Ghana 19.
There are black peoples in the Sahara in the eastern and central desert and particularly in the west. The latter, the Harātīn, usually form part of the population of the oases of southern Morocco and Mauritania. The question of their origin is still debatable: they have been called black Berbers 20. New approaches to the ancient peopling of the Sahara throw a different light on the issue. This problem can therefore only be dealt with as part of an overall study of the role of the Saharan environment in the development of the peoples of West Africa. There are plausible indications that they are living specimens of black peoples whose southward movement goes back a very long way.

Integrative tendencies among African peoples in the melting pot of the Sudan

If we look at the question of the peoples of the Sudan from the standpoint of the fringe components, i.e. on the basis only of the impressions and interests of Mediterranean societies from the Maghrib eastwards, we are in danger of distorting the picture of the specifically West African environment and its peoples. The results of such an analysis are bound to be incomplete. It is true that our information is still fragmentary despite the progress made, and that many questions remain unanswered. We shall try first to demarcate the area within which African societies organized and structured themselves during the period concerned. Here we must use the results of work based on the latest research techniques, such as palaeoecology, palynology and archaeology. By combining their contributions with more easily available data from oral tradition and the Arabic sources, we may possibly arrive at some sound hypotheses. The work done in Mauritania on Saharan prehistory and later periods will serve as an example. In this respect the Adrār, Tāgant and Awkār areas stand out. The research projects carried out there by H. J. Hugot and P. Munson 21 can be regarded as a sample of what is needed in order to make headway with the question of population movements in other sectors of sub-Saharan Africa. They are directly concerned with the western sector of the “Land of the Blacks”, and hold out promising prospects for the understanding of groups as representative as the Fulani and the Soninke 22.

The study of relevant population movements in this area takes us back to the neolithic period in the Sahara, and particularly to the major geoclimatic event of the desiccation and desertification of this area. The process, which entered its active phase in about the fourth millennium before the Christian era, brought about considerable social and historical changes which affected the whole of the continent. It is now established that the population map of the neolithic Sahara was perceptibly different from the situation following the climatic change, and there are plausible indications of a sedentary majority black population. The first millennium of the Christian era may have been characterized by the continued existence of black peasant communities as well as entrenched cores among Libyco-Berber and then Berber nomads. Pressure from these latter set off a gradual southward movement, i.e. towards the habitat which the black peoples have largely retained. We must now consider whether these hypotheses allow us to understand the very moot questions of the origins of Fulani and Soninke in the Sahel.
The Fulani inhabit a very large area of the West African savanna, and their presence in several regions between Senegal and Cameroon lends importance to the question of their provenance and the various stages of their journeyings 23. Their way of life makes them sometimes seem marginal in relation to other groups, which tends to make the latter think that the Fulani are essentially unstable and always “migrating”. This largely explains why diffusionist speculation has found in the Fulani fertile ground on which to deploy a variety of “Hamitic” theories. The cradle of the Fulani has been sought in all sorts of areas, both inside and outside Africa: their ancestors were perhaps the Tziganes, perhaps the Pelasgians or, according to Delafosse, Judaeo-Syrians. Some people have thought they came from India, because of the supposed affinity of Fulfulde and Sereer with the Dravidian languages; others found anthropological and sociological similarities between the Fulani of the Adamawa and the ancient Iranians; some hold that they are descended from the Berber Arabs; while others again hold that they are Nubian, Ethiopian or at any rate East African in origin, and link them with the Nuba of Kordofān 24.
Most of these theories are supported with various linguistic and anthropological arguments. None of them is really convincing. They all share the “Hamitic” presupposition that the formation of the great states of the Sudan is primarily due to outside factors contributed by pastoral peoples such as the Fulani. These ideas are not supported by current studies, all of which tend to agree that the Fulani phenomenon belongs within the West African context and forms an integral part of its human geography, its historical development and its culture. There is no possibility of solving the problem of their origin and movements except in this context. From the linguistic point of view, improved knowledge of their vernaculars reveals that Fulfulde has an undoubtedly African substratum showing similarities to Wolof and Serer, though pre-Berber components have been grafted on to this core. As regards their provenance, the evidence points to southern Mauritania, where the Fulani were to be found at the beginning of the Christian era. Striking resemblances and influences of Fulfulde have been found in the toponyms of the Brakna and Tagant areas of Mauritania. This set of hypotheses suggests that the Fulani are descended from the cattle rearers for which there is evidence in Mauritania datable to the third and second millennia before the Christian era. In the period that concerns us they moved at the same time as the black peoples towards the Senegal Valley, and played a part in the formation of some states, such as Takrur. The Fulani presence in West Africa is especially evident in Fūta-Tooro in the fifth/eleventh century, although they are not explicitly mentioned in the Arabic sources before al-Makrīzī and the Kano Chronicle (eighth/fourteenth to ninth/fifteenth century).
Something should be said at this point about the ethnonyms Fulani (Peul) 25 and Tukulor (Toucouleur): the Fulani (Peul) call themselves Pullo (in the singular) and Fulɓe (in the plural). All those who speak their language — Pular or Fulfulde — are called Hal-pularen. The latter is also the term used by the inhabitants of Fūta-Tooro whom European sources refer to as the Tukulor (Toucouleur). Ethnographers and other scholars of the colonial period who came in contact with the Fulɓe in Senegal began calling the herdsmen the Fulɓe (Fulani, Peul) proper while for the sedentary people speaking the same language they suggested the name Tukulor (Toucouleur), regarding them as a different ethnic group. Although the two groups have different customs, the differences are due to socioeconomic factors and have nothing to do with ethnic, linguistic or cultural considerations. It is an irony of fate that in the region which was the point of departure of the migrations of the Fulɓe towards the east, that is, the Senegal Valley (Fūta-Tooro), the Fulɓe should be called by a name that is alien to them 26.

[Erratum. In Senegal/Mauritania, Fulɓe and Tukulor are linguistically similar, but they are ethnically and culturally different. Exemple: Fulɓe have only four patronyms (Jallo, Bā, Bari, Soo), whereas Tukulor use a dozen such markers. See A. Hampâté Bâ & Germaine Dieterlen Kumen, Yaya Wane Les Toucouleur du Fouta Tooro : Stratification sociale et structure familialeT.S. Bah]

If speculations and hypotheses about the origin and prehistoric migrations of the Fulani are set aside, it is almost unanimously recognized today that in historical times the Fulani came from the Senegalese Fūta and that the Senegalese group, the neighbour of their close relatives, the Sereer and the Wolof, should be regarded as the nucleus from which other groups whose language was Pular or Fulfulde spread out and emigrated towards the east and the south.
Between the fifth/eleventh century and the ninth/fifteenth century the Fulani moved towards Masina, passing through Diombogo and Kārta. It should be noted that the Fulani settled by a process of gradual contacts. Thus small groups and families from Ferlo and Fūta-Tooro settled in Fūta-Jalon. There was thus a slow integration as the result of interchange with the peoples who were already there when the Fulani arrived 27. The Fulani's movements were nothing whatever like invasions; and hence they are not consonant with the usual scenario of the “Hamitic theories” about the transformation of the archaic structures of the black peoples by “white Hamites”. The question of the origin and movements of the Fulani is crucial to the history of the peoples of West Africa, for it affects all groups in the Western and Central Sudan. But other aspects of the Fulani's relations with these groups, especially the Wolof, the Sereer, the Soninke and the “Mandingo”, and also with the ancient kingdom of Ghana, need to be further investigated.
The foundation of Ghana, like the origin of the Fulani, has been interpreted in diffusionist terms, based on what was said by the authors of the ta'rīkhs; Delafosse attributes to Ghana Syro-Palestinian founders who came to the Soninke of Awkār from Cyrenaica, stopping on the way in Aïr and the Sudanic zone of Niger. These foreigners were supposedly the ancestors of the Fulani as well, and were said to have set up the powerful state of Ghana in the third century of the Christian era. Towards the end of the second/eighth century Soninke blacks with Kaya Maghan Cissé as their first king (tunka) supposedly drove the whites back towards Tāgant, Gorgol and the Fūta 28.
Paradoxically, the legends of the kingdom of Wagadu seem to lend colour to this. The versions reported by C. Monteil give Dina, the founder of Kumbi, capital of Wagadu, a Jewish origin (Job) in the case of the first version and an Iranian one (Salmān the Persian, companion of the Prophet) in the case of the second 29. But the agreement suggested is more apparent than real, since an analysis of the Wagadu stories shows that they claim no basis in history. The point of these stories lies elsewhere, particularly in the religious and social spheres. In that sense they do not tie in with the circumstantial details contained in the theory of a Syro-Palestinian origin for the founders of Ghana.
It is now seems established that the neolithic population of the Sahara was quite dominated by blacks, traces of whom can be found as far as the Adrār. Following the change to a drier climate, the white population (the Libyco-Berbers) moved southwards, but came up against organized black peasants like those of Dhār Tishīt ancestors of the Soninke of Ghana. The defensive sites of Dhār Tishīt show that the blacks were indeed organized to resist the pressure of the Libyco-Berber nomads. Given these factors it seems likely that the foundations of an organized state like the Ghana of the Arabic sources date back to the first millennium before the Christian era and it is not impossible that the Chebka phase between -1 000 and -900 is a credible hypothesis, as suggested by A. Bathily on an interpretation of Munson's work 30.
Hypotheses about the very old establishment of Ghana by a black population, and its initial habitat in the neolithic Sahara in an area further north than later phases of Ghana, are not purely arbitrary, especially since the persistence of “residual” elements right from the Arab period to our own time greatly adds to their plausibility. This at any rate is the conclusion to be drawn from the role attributed by the Arab geographers to the Gangara-Wangara and the Bafur, and especially from the existence to this day of Harātin blacks scattered across the Sahara.
Even a study of Arab texts and the oral traditions shows that the blacks in historical times inhabited an area much further north than they do today. They controlled the Tāgant, Awkār, Hoodh (Hawd), Tīris and Adrār areas. Analysis of these texts and traditions makes it possible to situate the Soninke in Tāgant and Hoodh and the ancestors of the Serer and Fulani in other parts of present-day Mauritania. The last two groups had earlier lived together in southern Mauritania and afterwards in Fūta-Tooro 31. Whereas the Fulani remained in the Senegal Valley, the Serer moved further south towards the territory they now occupy in Sine and Salum. Undue emphasis has often been placed on divisions between the Berber nomads and the sedentary black peoples and fierce, unrelenting and merciless struggles between them. While there is no denying the fact that these two groups clashed with each other, it should not be forgotten that the necessities of economic and political life led them to live and co-operate very closely together. That is why it is no longer valid to interpret the relations between the whites and blacks of the Sahel solely in terms of racial and religious confrontation 32.
It is not enough to attribute the dispersion of the Soninke solely to the pressure exerted by the Berbers and especially the Almoravids; there were many factors, the foremost being the climatic factor. Their original habitat Wagadu of Soninke legend — was situated in a region of unstable climate but well placed from the commercial standpoint. The Wagadu legend tells us that the people of Wagadu fled south after a drought that was to last seven years. This climatic disaster, which is reminiscent of the drought of the 1970s, seems to have been the primary reason for the dispersion of the Soninke. Their migrations took them over large parts of the Western Sudan, from Gambia as far as Songhay, but one very large group remained behind in their initial habitat in Awkār and Hoodh, where they established their first state, ancient Ghana. It is not yet possible to establish even a rough chronology of these events, but there is absolutely no doubt that the migrations of the Soninke extended over several centuries.

The emergence of the Sudanese hegemonies

During the first millennium of the Christian era, a succession of organized societies appeared in the central and eastern Sudan and developed into veritable states. Some like Kanem or Ghana became very powerful. Others in the process of formation like those of the Hausa, the Songhay and the Takrūr were less extensive. When the Muslims arrived in the Sudan during the first centuries of Islam, they found themselves in the presence of these groups and had to come to terms with them. While there are still gaps in our knowledge as to the stages in the formation of these states, we can trace them in broad outline by focusing on the groups that formed Ghana and Kanem.
Amongst the oldest homogeneous groups of the Sudan, the Kanuri people occupy a special place. Their origin dates back to the period after the desiccation of the Sahara. The black farming peoples withdrew around the residual depression of Lake Chad, distributing themselves on both sides of an area with a harsh climate, the triangle delineated by the line Borku-Azben-Chad. Whilst the so-called Chadic language peoples such as the Hausa settled to the west of this area, the Teda-Daza language groups, in particular the Kanuri, the Kanembu and Zaghawa, occupied the east. Local traditions attribute the foundation of the Kanem state to an Arab hero, Sayf Ibn Dhi Yazan, who took control of a group of nomads, the Magumi, settled to the north-east of Lake Chad 33.
In the Western Sudan the empire of Ghana was built up on a very broad ethnic base: the great Mande-speaking family extended from the southern forest land to the Sahel adjoining the Sahara. The kingdom of Ghana was located in the northern part, peopled by Soninke who were in contact with the white nomads of the Sahara. Oral traditions collected at Timbuktu some thousand years after the founding of Ghana relate that the first ruling dynasty of that country was white.
The frequency with which the oral traditions orginating in Sudanese societies themselves attribute their origin to white ancestors might seem surprising. That raises the question of the origin of state structures in the Sudan. However, the late date of these accounts and the situation of the black societies that produced them provide some answer to the question: those accounts simply project into the past facts that were contemporary with those societies. The oral traditions concerning white ancestors appear, in fact, in a context where the northern Berber groups play a dominant role.
The attitude of Arab authors towards this specific question provides some valuable information here: generally speaking there is a widespread tendency in the Muslim world to link the ruling classes of a group or dynasty to the Prophet or his entourage and thereby give legal sanction to their power 34. However, Arab authors before the middle of the sixth/twelfth century make no mention of the white origin of the dynasties that ruled the Sudanese states, whether they speak of Ghana, Takrūr or Songhay. Al-Bakrī, who provides most information on the fifth/eleventh century, dispels all doubt on this question: Ghana was ruled by a black pagan king 35. It was not until al-ldrīsī (sixth/twelfth century) that the theme of white origins was developed 36; this theme accordingly falls into the context of the growing expansion of Islam in the Sudan. Al-Idrīsī, moreover, was the first to chronicle the events following the Almoravid conquest which was spearheaded by the Sanhddja Berbers of the western Sahara. Critical scrutiny both of the accounts transmitted by oral tradition and the texts of Arab writers before al-Bakrī clarify the reasons why the theme of white origins took on such importance; at the same time, the effort made to suppress it reveals the importance of the opposite thesis.
The states of the Sudan were specific creations of the black peoples. They were in contact with the Berbers of the southern edge of the Sahara, and maintained complex relations with these neighbours of white origin. Certainly the black farmers initially withdrew under the pressure of the nomadic herdsmen and settled in the less rigorous areas of the Sahel, but they later organized themselves so as to be in a better position to resist such pressure. The Sudanese found within themselves the political and social resources necessary to face up to the threats coming from the desert. But a permanent state of antagonism existed, for the powerful empire of Ghana was, from 380/990 on, in a position to dominate Awdāghust economically, thanks to the activities of the Zanāta who had come from North Africa, and so establish political hegemony. One century later, under pressure from the Almoravids, this same Ghana lost its indisputable primacy among the Sudanese states. Nevertheless, the state of tension that existed between the Berbers and the black peoples did not result in the Berbers taking over the Sudanese states, for the latter had built up a solid organization.

The basis of the prosperity of the Sudanese states

The coming into being and development of the states of the Sudan in the period under review were based on the use of certain instruments and techniques which made it possible for those who possessed them to impose their rule on the small groups of farmers and herdsmen of the Sahel. Two factors seem to have played a decisive role in this regard: the possession of iron and the use of horses and camels.
Some studies (for the moment, still fragmentary) about metals in Black Africa have pointed out the connection between iron and the formation of the large Sudanese states. Apart from the importance iron has for hunting and farming, it is a factor of military strength conferring its possessor with technical superiority over others. As far as the Sudan is concerned, the role of the army was decisive in the formation of states like those of Kanem or Ghana. Increasing interest is being shown in oral tradition having to do with the trade in iron and with blacksmiths who form a category of persons holding power in a variety of ways. This can throw light on the role of iron in ancient times; but the question of the initial acquisition of techniques and their spread is much more complex and has been little studied.
Two hypotheses exist. According to the first, iron from the Middle East reached the Sudan through the Nile Valley via Meroe, an important and flourishing metallurgical centre 37. From there it spread southwards and westwards into the savanna. According to the second hypothesis, the iron came from North Africa, and was brought by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians (fifth century before the Christian era) to the Sudan. The weapons depicted on rock paintings discovered in the Sahara have been referred to in support of that theory. But objects found at Nok, in a region south of the Jos plateau in northern Nigeria, are evidence that iron metallurgy existed in ancient times in Black Africa. In the third century before the Christian era, iron was already widely used. These new facts point to the need to reassess previous theories and suggest several possible routes by which iron entered Africa, without excluding the possibility that some centres of iron-working grew up locally.
As has often been suggested, there is a close connection between iron and use of the horse because both are linked to the formation of the large states of the Sudan. It is known that there were horses in the Sahara during the second half of the second millennium and the first centuries of the last millennium before the Christian era. However, they followed population movements, the Barbary horse also being found in the Maghrib and the Dongola in the southeast. The Barbary (or Mongol) horse was used in West Africa in Hoodh and the Sahel as far as Jerma. But from the outset of the Christian era, the horse was replaced by the camel, an animal more resistant to the rigours of the desert, for trans-Saharan communications. The latter played a considerable role in the establishment of Sudanese dominion from Takrūr as far as Kanem. The camel was bred throughout the Sahel and was used for transporting salt and the rounding-up of slaves, to say nothing of its military importance 38.

Features of an original civilization

In the present state of our knowledge about the peoples of the Sudan, much work is being done on trade between these peoples and their partners to the north — Berbers and Maghribis — to the detriment of the domestic trade within the black communities themselves. This is even more true of the relationships between the great Sahel states and the countries of the savanna and the forest 39. Here the documentary material available is scanty, and current information is not helping to put the balance right.
Nevertheless, we can analyse the position of the black states in the balance of power thus created by contact between the Berber and Maghribi peoples and the blacks of the Sudan through their trans-Saharan relations. The prevailing impression is that this was a massive piece of exploitation of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa by better equipped northern states, which had a greater variety of more highly developed instruments and techniques borrowed from a Mediterranean world swarming with up-to-date inventions of all kinds.
An old and relatively steady phenomenon like slavery, at least for certain areas, would suffice to demonstrate this. Much of the trade network seems to have been set up by the Maghribi and Saharan Berber masters responsible for establishing the main routes. They turn up both at the northern outlets and on the routes, which were studded with staging-posts. There were bitter struggles for the control of the routes, and the powers of the moment tried to ensure satisfactory safety conditions for the orderly conduct of an often very lucrative traffic. The question that then arises is how the states of the Sudan behaved in this situation, bearing in mind the many circumstances that favoured the people of the north and the consequent imbalance in their favour. The activities of the black states can be observed at three levels: the growth of their power, real control of the sector under their authority and their adoption of a policy suited to the interests of their people.
Al-Bakrī's descriptions of the kings of Ghana and Kaw-Kaw (Gao) give a series of details which show how the monarchy in both kingdoms was aggrandized to prompt the veneration of the people. The king of Ghana was distinguished by ritual apparel: only he and the heir apparent could wear sewn clothes, and he also wore a gilded cap and a turban, necklaces and bracelets. The king held audience to dispense justice in the setting of an impressive ceremonial, with strict etiquette described in minute detail by al-Bakrī. The latter mentions a practice of extreme importance because of its religious implications: the king's subjects prostrated themselves at his approach and threw earth on to their heads 40. But this custom (hardly consistent with Islam) was spared to Muslims, who merely clapped their hands. Lastly, the grandiose ceremonies marking the king's funeral are described: the custom of burying servants with the sovereign, the sacrifices and libations offered to him, the sacred woods that sheltered the tombs of the kings and their inviolable character; all this helped to make the monarchy a sacred institution worthy of reverence.
As regards the king of Kaw-Kaw (Gao), al-Bakrī relates that his meal was accompanied by a special ritual: women dancing to the sound of drums, all business in town suspended during the king's meal, and public announcement of the end of the royal meal by shouts and yells 41. Royalty of a sacred kind seems to have been a specific feature of the culture of the great black states of the Sudan, at least during the Islamic period. Attempts have been made to use the features of this type of monarchy as support for a diffusionist interpretation. But in the context of a medieval Sudan confronted with a relatively homogenous Muslim world this institution stands out as something indigenous: thus it is significant that the Arab geographers do not, for instance, describe the situation of an Islamized, integrated ruler like the ruler of Takrūr. Such an institution can also be regarded as an effective instrument in the hands of these societies for governing their states, especially in the case of kingdoms exerting hegemony over a very wide area, like Gao and Ghana.
While the kings of the Sudan had authority and power within their states, which they governed firmly by means of a suitable institution, mastery of external relations was not completely beyond them. Ghana's relations with the Berbers who reigned at Awdāghust from its foundation by the Lamtūna in the third/ninth century can be so interpreted. The rulers of Ghana extended their frontiers in all directions from the late second/eighth century onwards. The existence of a Berber trading centre at the extreme southern edge of the desert could be conducive to trade with the north, and from this point of view the town of Awdaghust had a raison d'être. All the same, the role of these traders had to be within limits compatible with Ghana's sovereignty. It was enough for them to be brokers and intermediaries in a traffic whose real southern terminus must have been Ghana. Escalation of their claims and the strengthening of Larntuna power at Awdaghust could represent a threat to the state of Ghana, which reached the height of its power in the fourth/tenth and fifth/eleventh centuries. This is the explanation of the installation of a Soninke governor to control thenceforth the power of the Lamt6na. Soninke management seems to have fulfilled its purpose very efficiently, for the blacks were to keep control of the situation at Awdaghust until the Almoravids, chafing at their alliance with Ghana, destroyed it in 446/1055 42.
Control of the political situation was inseparable from a real Soninke stranglehold over the entire economic sector in the area under their jurisdiction. One of the necessary conditions for this power was information about the sources of their prosperity. The rulers of Ghana exerted strict and effective control in this important domain, especially as regards the provenance of gold and how it was acquired. It is not impossible that this went back a very long way. A story such as that of the “silent trade” in gold, very widespread even beyond Africa, may have served, inter alia, as a “red herring” 43.
The ruler of Ghana, in his efforts to control the springs of commercial transactions south of the Sahara, pursued an intelligent policy: he levied a tax when goods were brought into or taken out of his territory. Traders had to pay twice on salt: one dinar on bringing it in and two dinars on taking it out. Ghana was thus the hub for the distribution of salt, a vital product in sub-Saharan Africa. According to al-Bakrī, the ruler of Ghana kept for himself all nuggets extracted, to avoid a slump in the price of gold 44. Since he had a good understanding of the economic mechanisms of which Ghana was the hub, he meant to keep the monopoly of a product as vital as gold. Thus the black world organized its trading economy to withstand the power of the salt producers, salt being exchanged for gold.

Mosque of Tegdaout/Awdagust
Plate 5.1 The Mosque of Tegdaoust/Awdāghust, after excavation and conservation
work on the walls. The qibla wall faces south-southwest.

This being so, it is hardly likely that trade and the whole system of economic exchanges it entailed was introduced to Ghana's blacks by the Libyco-Berbers, as has sometimes been suggested. The latter are supposed to have contributed not only the idea but also the techniques of this trade (including the slave trade), and to have brought about the birth of the state of Ghana. The control exercised by the Sudan's rulers over their own commercial sector rules such a hypothesis out of court. The case of the Seefuwa of Kanem is instructive in this connection. Having taken over from the Zaghāwa rulers (Duguwa dynasty) when Kānem was Islamized, they realized that the religious development of the country could threaten their economy, which was based primarily on the slave trade. The point was that it was forbidden to enslave a free Muslim. As D. Lange has demonstrated in his article on the progress of Islam and political changes in Kānem from the fifth/eleventh century to the sixth/twelfth century the Seefuwa continued a type of politico-economic domination reminiscent of the practices of their non-Muslim predecessors during the Zaghāwa period 45.
The kings of the Sudan showed great political skill in their relations with the Muslim world and the culture of all their northern partners with whom they had dealings. They used the abilities of the Muslims who frequented their states to their own advantage. According to al-Bakrī, the king of Ghana chose his interpreters, his treasurer and his ministers from among the Muslims 46. Thus in entrusting some sectors of his administration to educated Muslims he expected some measure of efficiency from it. In return he tried to create favourable conditions for the practice of their religion. Ghana, like Gao, had a town next to the king's town in which the Muslims lived, with twelve mosques all with their imāms, muezzins and lectors. Lawyers and scholars also lived in this town. Lastly, Muslims were not obliged to comply with customs incompatible with their religious convictions.
As regards the ruler of Gao, he was normally supposed to be a Muslim. Moreover the attributes of royal authority handed over to him at his investiture comprised, besides the seal, the sword, and the Qoran “supposedly”, according to al-Bakrī, “the gifts sent by the Emir of believers” 47. But the fact that both sovereigns governed peoples who freely practised traditional religions raises the problem of the Sudan's relations with the Muslim world in this initial period of Islamization 48.
On the whole their persistent attempts to control their environment in a responsible way can be regarded as a characteristic of the states of the Sahelian Sudan (corresponding to the known part of the Land of the Blacks). In this way we can see the emergence of a specific culture, deeply rooted in the world of traditional religion. The latter has often unobtrusively but effectively challenged much of the data which arrived with the pretensions and prestige of an apparently better-equipped society.


The study of population movements entails first and foremost a rigorously critical reappraisal of widespread notions about the “migrations” of the black peoples over very long distances. The movements of the peoples of the Sudan before the fifth/eleventh century bore no resemblance to anarchic movements over enormous areas.
The first settlement dates from the end of the neolithic period when the erstwhile flourishing Sahara had become barren and forbidding after a “slow agony”. The blacks who constituted the predominant population of the Sahara had to withdraw southwards into the Sahel to look for favourable agricultural conditions. They abandoned their lands to groups of specialized nomadic herdsmen who were able to adapt themselves to the new conditions while continuing to attempt to impose their rule on the peoples of the Sahel region, subjecting them to frequent pressure. The latter found there other groups of blacks with whom they aligned themselves in order to face the threats coming from the north. This gave impetus to the gradual development of socio-political units of varying size that extended from Kanem in the east to Takrūr in the west during the period preceding the arrival of Islam in the Sudan.
When the Muslims arrived in the Sudanese Sahara, they found themselves in the presence of a series of states, some of them fully established, others still in the process of formation. The powerful Soninke kingdom of Ghana dominated the extended Mande group in the region between the Senegal and Niger rivers while the nucleus of what would become the Songhay kingdom took shape in the eastern part of the Inland Niger Delta. That kingdom controlled the river traffic as well as the route linking the Niger to North Africa via Adrār des Ifoghas and the Hoggar. On the other side of Lake Chad, the Sao were in the process of consolidating their position and they acquired the instruments of their future policy of conquest. The use of horses and camels would aid them in their systematic expansion northwards where they would take their place among the Kanuri who were beginning to emerge as a group.
The arrival of Islam in the second/eighth century introduced a new factor which, in the century that followed, would stimulate increased economic and cultural exchanges. But it was above all the religious factor that was destined to play an important role in the political and social development of the region from the Maghrib to the Sudan.
The period from the second/eighth century to the fifth/eleventh century was decisive for the peoples of the Sudan. Because of the sound organization and powerfully centralized structure of their monarchies, they were able to realize the importance of trade with Mediterranean and Saharan Africa. However, their constant concern was to retain control over the transactions to prevent the Saharan intermediaries from gaining a stranglehold on trade and the sources of their prosperity. However, perceiving the cultural and economic advantages to be gained from the presence of their northern partners, they adopted a sufficiently tolerant attitude towards their outlook and religious demands and even went so far as to become converted to Islam while remaining rooted in their own religious traditions. In so doing, the Sudanese leaders, and above all those of Ghana, were able to withstand the competition of their neighbours, the Sanhādja, who were part of the Almoravid movement in the fifth/eleventh century. That prevented their complete decline despite the Almoravid onslaught and a temporary eclipse. In that way, the black states succeeded in safeguarding their personality and thus ensured the foundations of a lasting civilization whose subsequent development found expression in Mali, the Songhay empire and in the citystates of the Hausa.

Note of the Rapporteur of the International Scientific Committee

Research on iron metallurgy in Africa in ancient times is now making rapid strides and is no longer in the dark. The period of the great theoretical debates about the spread of this craft has come to an end. Excavations and confirmed datings have now proved that iron was being produced through the process of reduction in a furnace in several parts of the continent at least five centuries before the Christian era. Sites from that period have so far been located not only in Nigeria but also in the Aïr region of the Niger, present-day Mali, and in Cameroon, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Of course, this list is very provisional. Almost every year, new research findings change the overall picture, challenging postulates regarding the general or limited spread of that craft. Iron was also produced in the bend of the Senegal, the bend of the Limpopo and in Ghana from the first centuries of the Christian era. Many African and Malagasy researchers are now at work on this problem from Mauritania to Madagascar. The technological importance to be attached to this ancient African production of iron by the direct process has been shown at various meetings, such as the ones which took place in 1983 at the University of Compiègne, at the Collège de France in Paris (proceedings published) and at the University of Paris I (proceedings in the course of publication) 49. Research is also going on at the same time into the history of metallurgy. The essential work of revising the descriptive vocabulary of these technologies, too much of which was left vague and imprecise in the past, has also been begun.

1. R. Cornevin, 1960, pp. 70-1 tries to account for the two terms “Chamite” and “Hamite”, but he endorses the former; cf. C. G. Seligman, 1930, 1935.
2. C. G. Seligman, 1930, p. 96.
3. M. Delafosse, 1912; H. R. Palmer, 1936; Y. Urvoy, 1936,1949.
4. Y. Urvoy, 1949, pp. 21-2.
5. W. MacGaffey, 1966; E. R. Sanders, 1969.
6. See the titles of the works of E. F. Gautier, 1937 and R. Mauny, 1971.
7. Cf. Unesco, General History of Africa, Vol. 1, ch. 5.
8. Cf. Chapter 14 below.
9. J.M. Cuoq, 1975-1 N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins (eds), 1981.
10. Cf. R. C. C. Law, 1967a, 1967b.
11. See Chapter 3 above, Chapter to below.
12. See Chapter 11 below.
13. Cf. J. M. Cuoq, 1975, p. 42.
14. See Chapter 12 below.
15. Ibn Khaldūn, 1925-56 Vol. 1, pp. 275-6; J. M. Cuoq, 1975, pp. 330- 1.
16. Al-Ya'kūbī, 1962, p. 91- J. M. Cuoq, 1975, pp. 42, 48; see also Chapters 11 and 15 below.
17. M. Reygasse, 1940; 1950, pp. 88-108; M. Gast, 1972-1 see also Unesco, General History of Africa, Vol. 11, ch. 20.
18. H. T. Norris, 1972, pp. 8-9.
19. Al-Bakrī, 1911, p. 173- 1913, p. 330
2o. Cf. G. Camps, 1969, pp. 11-17, 1970, pp. 35-45; H. von Fleischhacker, 1969, pp. 12-53.
21. P. Munson, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1980; H. J. Hugot et al., 1973; H. J. Hugot, 1979.
22. See, on the geographical conditions of this region, C. Toupet, 1977.
23. There is a great deal of literature on the Fulani; cf. C. Seydou, 1977.
24. The various hypotheses have been described by L. Tauxier, 1937 and D. J. Stenning, 1959.
25. The term Fulani is prevalent in English Africanist literature and the term Peul in French. This is largely because the French first encountered these people in a context (Senegal) where they retained their own name for themselves, whereas the English met them in northern Nigeria where those in political power had adopted the Hausa name, Fulani.
26. The Fulɓe are called Fula by the Mandingo, Fulani (sing., Ba-Filanci) by the Hausa, Fellata by the Kanuri and the Arabs of the Sudan, and Fulani by the Arabs.
27. T. Diallo, 1972.
28. M. Delafosse, 1912, Vol. 2, pp. 198ff.
29. C. Mooted, 1953, pp. 370-3, 386, 389.
30. A. Bathily, 1975, especially pp. 29-33.
31. See T. Diallo, 1972.
32. J. Devisse, 1970; S. K. McIntosh and R. McIntosh, 1981.
33. See Chapter 15 below.
34. See Chapter 4 above.
35. J. M. Cuoq, 1975, pp. 99-100
36. J. M. Cuoq, 1975, p. 133.
37. On this question, see Unesco, General History of Africa, Vol. II, chaps. 11 and 21.
38. On the introduction of the different animals, and their importance, see H. J. Hugot, 1979
39. See Chapter 14 below.
40. J.M. Cuoq, 1975, pp. 99-100.
41. J.M. Cuoq, 1975, p. 108.
42. Cf. al-Bakrī in J. M. Cuoq, 1975, pp. 91-2. See Chapter 13 below.
43. On the “silent trade”, see P.F. de Moraes Farias, 1974.
44. J.M. Cuoq, 1975, p.101
45. D. Lange, 1978, p. 5 13; cf. Chapter 15 below.
46. J. M. Cuoq, 1975, p. 99.
47. Ibid., p. 109.
48. On these issues, see Chapters 3 and 4 above, Chapter 28 below.
49. The proceedings of the Compiègne meeting have been published, but neither entirely nor satisfactorily, those of the College de France meeting were published under the title: “Métallurgies africaines”, 1983. Mémoires de la Société des Africanistes, n° 9, published by Nicole Echard; as for those of the University of Paris I meeting, they are still in the course of publication.

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