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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 Nubians mind-mapping diagram

Part Five
Synthesis in the Nile Corridor
— 19 —

The Nile Valley south of ancient and modern Egypt, from the second cataract near Wadi Haifa to the junction of the Blue and White Niles at Khartoum, is known as Nubia. Archeology reveals that the southern part of this area was occupied as early as the Mesolithic period by a Negroid people who lacked domesticated animals and plants and subsisted partly by hunting and gathering but mainly by spearing fish and river hippopotamus. We also know that they lived in huts of wattle and daub, made stone implements of the Capsian type, manufactured pottery, and removed the lower incisor teeth. Since the knocking out of incisor teeth is confined today in Africa almost exclusively to speakers of the Sudanic languages and occurs in practically all the tribes of this linguistic stock who have not adopted circumcision as an alternative initiatory rite, we can reasonably assume that the Mesolithic inhabitants were the ancestors of the modern Nubians and, like the latter, spoke languages belonging to the Nubian branch of the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic stock. The Nubian language is spoken today as far north as the first cataract at Aswan, but the original population of southern Egypt between the first and second cataracts appears to have been Caucasoid rather than Negroid and to have been akin to the Predynastic inhabitants of the rest of Egypt.
Shortly after 3900 B.C., as shown by radiocarbon dating, an early phase of Neolithic culture makes its appearance in southern Nubia in the vicinity of Khartoum. The people were still Negroid in physique, and the advent of shell fishhooks and barbed harpoon heads indicates that they still subsisted largely by fishing, albeit with improved techniques. Stone axes and adzes with ground edges suggest advances in boat building. Among the numerous remains of hunted animals, moreover, there appear for the first time a few bones of domesticated species-dogs, sheep, and goats. This demonstrates incipient contact with the Neolithic culture which had been established in northern Egypt for at least 500 years, a conclusion confirmed by other concrete resemblances to the Predynastic cultures of Egypt.
These early Neolithic Nubians had apparently not yet learned to till the soil. To be sure, they manufactured pestles of sandstone, but they seem to have used these for pulverizing red ocher rather than for grinding grain. The acceptance of agriculture cannot, however, have been long delayed. When it arrived, it must have been introduced first from the west, for even today the basic crops of Nubia are those of western Sudanic origin. These are, however, supplemented by a number of plants of the Egyptian complex. In subsistence economy, as in other aspects of culture, Nubia appears to have been the scene of an early synthesis of the two oldest agricultural civilizations of the African continent.
According to the archeological evidence, from about 3100 to 2250 B.C., a period roughly contemporaneous with the first six dynasties of Pharaonic Egypt, there were intermittent contacts with and borrowings from Egypt, including the introduction of copper tools and the quarrying of stone for Egyptian monuments. Nubia had clearly achieved a full-fledged agricultural civilization by this time, and probably considerably earlier.
Shortly after 2250 B.C. a new Caucasoid population, the so-called C group, appears for a time in northern Nubia. Its association with a notable increase in the remains of domesticated cattle, sheep, and goats suggests an influx of pastoral Beja from the east. The newcomers presumably introduced t he use of milk and the manufacture of butter, since the Beja, like the Bedouin Arabs across the Red Sea to the east, have been characterized from time immemorial by their primary dependence upon dairy products for subsistence. The Nubians had already, of course, borrowed animal husbandry from Egypt and had transmitted it to their Negro neighbors. The fact that the Negroes of the Sudan as far west as the Atlantic possess cattle and sheep but do not milk them, as we have seen, strongly suggests that the diffusion of these animals through Nubia occurred during the late fourth or early third millennium n.c., at a time when the Nubians had not yet adopted milking from the Beja.
Between 1970 and 1520 B.C. Dynastic Egypt gradually extended its political sway up the Nile from the second to beyond the fourth cataract, establishing forts and garrisons, and maintained this control with few interruptions until about 1050 B.C. During this period Nubia became thoroughly acculturated, accepting even the Egyptian religion and conception of divine kingship. Economic prosperity seem to have prevailed. Nubia exported to its northern neighbor great quantities of gold as well as ivory, ebony, gums and perfumes, ostrich feather , precious stones, slavee, and the skins of wild animals.
After 1050 B.C. Egypt underwent a serious decline, and Nubia became independent. A strong state was established at Napata on the Egyptian model, e.g., with brother-sister marriages in the royal family. In 750 B.C. the Napatan king, Kashta, invaded Upper Egypt, and in 742 his successor, Piankhi, completed the conquest of Egypt, founding the XXV, or Napatan, dynasty. Though expelled from Egypt in 663 B.C., this dynasty continued to rule Nubia, first from Napata and after 550 from Meroe. Egyptian civilization persisted in Nubia but gradually deteriorated. Around 200 B.C. hieroglyphic writing was replaced by a cursive script, still undeciphered, in the local lang uage. It may well have been from Meroe that iron, the divine kingship, and other elements of Egyptian culture were introduced into Negro Africa. Finally, about A.D. 350, the Meroitic state was overthrown by the Semitic kingdom of Axum.
After an anarchic period marked by Beja incursion , Christianity was introduced into Nubia in A.D. 543, and shortly thereafter two petty states fused to form the strong kingdom of Dongola with its institutions modeled on those of Byzantium. In 580 the tate of Alwa, located farther south, with its capital near modern Khartoum, also accepted Christianity. The Arab conquest of Egypt in 639 isolated Dongola from Mediterranean Christendom, but, by paying tribute, this Christian state was able to escape absorption by Moslem Egypt. It was even strong enough to withstand the Hilalian invasion of Bedouin Arabs which overran most of North Africa after 1045. It was nevertheless subject to attrition, through coversions to Islam and the infiltration of Arabs, until in 1315 the last Christian king was succeeded by a Moslem. In the north the people quickly accepted Islam, and the mixed population between the first and fourth cataracts, constituting the Barabra nation of today, has become strongly Arabized, though still retaining the Nubian language.
Above the fourth cataract the Bedouin invaders swamped the indigenous Nubians, and the present mixed Gaaliin population is Arabized in language as well as in culture. Farther south, the Christian kingdom of Alwa resisted Arab penetration until 1504, when it succumbed to the Moslem Fung state of Sennar. This removed the last barrier to Bedouin expansion in this part of Africa, and the Baggara, or Cattle Arabs, poured south and west into the eastern and central Sudan (see Chapter 54). Groups of Nubians, resisting absorption, sought refuge in the hills of Kordofan and Darfur, where remnants survive to the present day.
The Nubians of today, i.e., the peoples who still speak languages of the Nubian branch of the Eastern subfamily of the Sudank stock, are listed and identified below.

  1. Anag (Nuba). These people live scattered in the hills of nonhern Kordofan around 15°N, 30°E. They are strongly Arabized, and the majority now speak Arabic rather than Nubian.
  2. Barabra (Berberi, Nile Nubians), embracing the Kenuzi (Beni Kanz, Kenozi, Kenous, Kunuzi, Nubi) between the first and second cataracts, the Sukkot and Mahas between the second and third cataracts, and the Danagla between the third and founh cataracts. They constitute the only undisplaced survivors of the pre-Islamic Nubians and probably number at least 200,000.
  3. Birked (Birguid, Kajjara). This group now live in Darfur (ca. 13°N, 26°E), whence they fled after the downfall of the kingdom of Dongola.
  4. Dilling, with the detached Gulfan, the Kadero (Kadaru), and other subtribes. They live in the Nuba Hills of Kordofan, where they have been penetrated to some extent by nomadic Arabs. They number about 20,000 and are still largely pagan.
  5. Midobi (Meidob, Mydob). These displaced people occupy the mountains of Jebel Midob in Darfur and are Moslems.
  6. Nyima (Nyamang), including the detached Afitti (Sidra). These people live west of the Dilling in the Nuba Hills, are pagan, and number about 37,000.

Although Negroid in origin, all the Nubians reveal a strong Caucasoid admixture. The Barabra, indeed, represent a hybrid race in which the Caucasoid component probably predominates. Their ancestral Negro element has been diluted by substantial ancient Egyptian and modern Arab increments, by a lesser Beja one, and by a considerable European and Asiatic infusion from the Bosnian, Hungarian, Circassian, Kurdish, and Turkish troops stationed for centuries on the Nubian outpost of the Ottoman Empire; the Negro element has been reinforced, however, by Negro slaves introduced from the eastern Sudan, especially during the nineteenth century. The modern Barabra are characterized by the following traits: moderately tall stature (5 feet 6 or 7 inches in adult males), slender body, medium-to-dark-bronze skin, head of medium breadth (cephalic index 77), oval face, short but straight nose of moderate width (nasal index 80), scanty facial hair, thick lips, and black hair, which is curly rather than kinky.
Agriculture remains the basis of the economy except among the Birked and Midobi of Darfur, who have come to emphasize pastoral activities. Sudanic crops predominate, as previously noted, with sorghum and miiJet as the staples, along with watermelons, gourds, okra, sesame, and cotton. They are augmented by crops from the Egyptian complex, especially barley and the date palm but also peas, lentils, figs, carob, and some wheat and grapes. This is to be expected, of course, from the historical record of Pharaonic penetration, but it is noteworthy that these crops have scarcely spread beyond the Barabra. Even these people rarely use the plow, although they employ the Egyptian shadoof and ox-driven water wheel in irrigating their fields. A few plant of American origin, notably maize, peanuts, pepper , and squash have found a minor place in the economy of the Dilling and Nyima. None of these increments, however, can disguise the basic Sudanic pattern of Nubian agriculture.
The Egyptian impact upon animal husbandryhas been vastlly greater. Ml groups keep cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, and dogs; use milk, and make butter. Horses and chickens are likewise common, and the Barabra and Midobi keep camels. The pig, prominent in Christian and pre-Christian times survives today only among the Nyima and some Dilling. The Nubians depend to only a limited extent upon hunting, fishing. and gathering, bur the caravan trade has been important throughout recorded history. In general, the men hunt, fish, herd the larger animals, and do the milking, whereas the women gather, tend pigs and chickens. and share equally in agricultural labor. Among the Barabra, however, only men work in the fields, and among the Midobi and Barabra women participate in the herding and milking of livestock.
Marriage involves a bride-price generally in livestock but occasionally in money. Residence is patrilocal, although at least the Barabra, Dilling. and Nyima require an initial period of matrilocal residence with bride-service. Polygyny is permitted, but only in the nonsororal form. Each nuclear or polygynous family occupies an independent household. Marriage is permitted or even favored with a cross-cousin, except among the Nyima, but only the Barabra allow unions with a parallel cousin. A preference for local endogamy appears to be universal.
Descent is everywhere patrilineal today, with cousin terminology of the descriptive pattern. The Barabra have adopted the agamous segmentary lineage organization of the Arabs, but the other tribes possess exogamous patrisibs, and these are further aggregated into exogamous patriphratries among the Dilling and Nyima. True clans are reported only for the Dilling, where each sib tends to be localized in a hamlet. Despite the indubitably patrilineal character of the social organization today, a number of indications suggest that matrilineal descent may formerly have prevailed. In addition to the common requirement of initial matrilocal residence, avunculocal residence crops up occasionally among the Dilling. Inheritance is strictly matrilineal—by a sister's son—among the Midobi, and the same rule applies to movable property among some of the Dilling. Finally, succession to political positions is definitely matrilineal among the Anag and Midobi, and to priestly offices among the Nyima, and this rule is also definitely attested for the Nubians of Christian and pre-Christian Dongola, whom most authorities consider to have been matrilineal even in descent.
The seminomadic Midobi live in dome-shaped shelters of branches covered with grass, but most Nubian tribes occupy permanent hamlets or small villages of round huts with cylindrical walls and conical thatched roofs. The walls are of dry masonry among some Barabra, of stones set in mud among the Anag, of wood and wattle among the Nyima, and of mud among the Dilling. In the last two tribes the huts are grouped in rings with connecting walls to form family compounds. The prevailing house type among the Barabra, howewer, is a rectangular dwelling of North African derivation with mud or brick walls, a flat roof, and an interior courtyard. In the Kenuzi subtribe the roof is often arched or vaulted rather than flat, a common characteristic of ancient Egyptian house in rhe same general region.
Circumcision is universal, and the Barabra subject girls to clitoridectomy, excision of the labia minora, and infibulation. All tribes kept slaves until recently, but social stratification is not otherwise complex. The Nyima acknowledge no authority beyond that of a priest who renders ritual services to the several hamlets of a “hill community.” Many Dilling subtribe, however, recognize “kings” over a number of such communities; they are elective within a royal sib, possess special insignia (e.g., a skullcap and a sacred drum among the Kadero), and exercise minor ritual functions. The Birked and Midobi also have royal families and petty kings, two such in the latter tribe. These survivals, however, give few clue to the complex political structures which must have prevailed in Napatan, Meroitic, and Christian times, but for these periods we unfortunately possess only exceedingly fragmentary direct historical evidence.

Selected Bibliography