webAfriqa / Library / Anthropology

webAfriqa Custom Search Engine

George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

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

Previous Home Next

Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Prenilotes mind-mapping diagram

Part Five
Synthesis in the Nile Corridor
— 21 —

The basin of the Whice and Blue Nile Rivers south of Khartoum, together with the adjacent slopes of the Ethiopian plateau to the east and probably also the section of the western highlands now known as Wallega, seems to have been occupied at the end of the Paleolithic period by the northernmost extension of the East frican hunters. The evidence for this rests mainly on the discovery of a Bushmanoid skull with associated Paleolithic artifacts at Singa (ca. 13°N) on the Blue Nile and on the occurrence of individuals with marked Bushmanoid features among the present-day Koman peoples of western Ethiopia.
At some later time, probably during the fourth millennium B.C., a wave of egroid peoples entered the region from the west and practically obliterated the indigenous hunters. Since they spoke languages of the Sudanic stock, in some instances specifically of the Nilotic subdivision thereof, we shall adopt the suggestion of Grottanelli (1948) that they be called the Prenilotes. It was almost certainly these Negro invaders who first introduced Sudanic agriculture into this part of Africa and transmitted it to both the Nubians in the north and the Caucasoid Cushites of highland Ethiopia to the east.
Pharaonic Egypt never extended its political control over the Prenilotes, though elements of its culture must have penetrated to them via the Nubians of Napata and Meroe. Christianity, shortly after its spread to Dongola, was accepted in A.D. 580 by the Prenilotes of Alwa, a state with its capital near modern Khartoum. It was Christian Alwa, as we have already noted, which held up the expansion of the Bedouin Arabs into the eastern Sudan until it succumbed to Moslem conquerors in 1504.
An Arab traveler who visited Alwa in A.D. 872 mentions incidentally in his chronicle the names of two tribes, the “Barya” and “Cunama,” as then resident on the borders of the kingdom. Thereafter they disappear from history until rediscovered in the nineteenth century several hundred miles to the ease in the highlands of Eritrea. It is to be presumed that they fled there to escape the shattering impact of the Arab advance. That the Barca and Kunama of Eritrea are in fact emigrants from the Nile Valley is clearly demonstrated by the contrasts they present to the Cushitic and Semitic peoples who completely surround them today. They are still partially Negroid rather than fully Caucasoid in physique, Sudanic rather than Hamitic in language, matrilineal rather than patrilineal in social organization, and pagan rather than Moslem in religion, and their agriculture is basically Sudanic rather than Egyptian or Ethiopian. Since they are culturally more conservative, and somewhat better described, than most of the groups that still survive in the original homeland, they contribute substantially to our knowledge of earlier Prenilotic culture.
The Moslem conquerors of Alwa were the Fung, an Arab people with considerable regro admixture. They founded a strong state at Sennar, dominating the region between the White and Blue Niles, and established subject or tributary states among a number of adjacent Prenilotic tribes. After 1580 the Fung state underwent considerable expansion, waging intermittent warfare with Darfur to the west and extending its political control eastward to the Red Sea. Its political institutions conformed to the Arabic pattern. A sultan headed the state, appointed governors over districts for the collection of taxes and tribute, and was assisted by a council of state composed of a vizier, a chamberlain with the grim duty of killing the ruler's brothers on his accession, and other officials. Fung prospered commercially, since Sennar stood at the crossroads of trade routes leading in all directions. Ivory, gold, horses, sesame, coffee, gum, hides, ebony, and ostrich feathers flowed in from Ethiopia and the south; slaves, iron, and gold dust from the west; dates, cloth, iron implements, mirrors, and beads from the north.
By 1780 a decline had set in, and in 1821 the territory was conquered and annexed by the Turkish government of Egypt. After 1850 came successive incursions from the north by Arab slave traders and fanatic Mahdists, which decimated many of the native tribes. Others, in the east, had been expelled from the highlands and subjected to slave raids by the Galla since the sixteenth century. In 1899, when British administration was established in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the remnants of the Prenilotes, except for the resistant Shilluk tribe and the encapsulated Barea and Kunama, were largely restricted to the hill country between the White Nile and the edge of the Ethiopian plateau.

Physically the Prenilotes are Negroid and in general resemble the Nuba, with whom they were formerly contiguous. An unmistakable Caucasoid admixture, however, appears among the Shilluk and especially the Barca and Kunama. Several groups along the Ethiopian border speak languages of the independent Koman stock, conceivably a heritage from the ancient hunting population, but the great majority belong to various divisions of the Sudanic linguistic stock. The total population of the surviving Prenilotes scarcely exceeds 250,000, distributed among the following ethnic groups.

  1. Anuak (Jambo, Yambo) . They number about 40,000 and belong to the Nilotic branch of the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic stock.
  2. Barea (Baria, Barya). They number about 10,000 and con mure the sole menbers of the Barca branch of the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic linguistic stock.
  3. Bena (Barta, Beni Shangul, Gamila, Scioghile, Shangalla), embracing the Agaro, Dashi, Fazoglo, Jebelawin, Kosho, Rikabiyyah, Sillok, Watawit, and other subtribes. They number about 10,000, many of whom are strongly Arabized, and constitute the distinct Bertan subfamily of the Sudanic linguistic stock.
  4. Gule (Hameg, Hamej), with the Kadallu (Kadalo). They belong to the Koman linguistic stock and probably number fewer than 10,000. The Gule formed the basic population of the former Fung kingdom of Sennar.
  5. Gumuz (Ojumus, Gimt, Gumus, Gumzawi, Guniz, Gunza), with the Dach, Gubba, Naga (Nagaya), and Shinasha (Bworo). They belong to the Koman linguistic stock and probably number not more than 10,000.
  6. Ingassana (Engassana, Ingessana, Mamidza, Metabi, Tabi). They number abour 12,000 and form the distinct Ingassana branch of the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic linguistic stock.
  7. Koma (Coma, Khoma, Komo), with the kindred Buldiit, Gwama, Kigelle, Roro, San, and Uduk (Ganza, Kebeirka, Korara) . They number about 10,000 and belong to the Koman linguistic stock.
  8. Kunama (Bazen, Cunama). They number about 20,000 and constitute the sole members of the Kunaman subfamily of the Sudanic linguistic stock.
  9. Mao (Anam, Anfillo, Mau, Mayo), with the Busasi. They number abour 10,000 and originally spoke a Koman language, though many have now adopted the Western Cushitic speech of the Busasi, a conquering group of Kafa origin.
  10. Masongo (Magengo, Magianghir, Magiano, Masango, Mashongo, Ojang, Tama, Yjang), with the Bula (Buna) and Olam (Nyilam). They number about 6,000 and belong to the Beir branch of the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic linguistic stock.
  11. Meban (Gura, Maban), with the kindred Burun, Jumjum, and Ulu. They belong to the Nilotic branch of the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic linguistic stock and probably number in excess of 10,000.
  12. Shilluk. They number about 11 0,000 and belong to the Nilotic branch of the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic linguistic stock.

The Prenilotes depend for subsistence primarily upon agriculture. In addition to sorghum, the universal staple, they grow such other crops of the Sudanic complex as cotton, cow peas, gourds, millet, okra, sesame, and watermelons. The Egyptian complex has contributed only broad beans, melons, and—in sporadic instances—barley, cabbage, and radishes. The tribes that border Ethiopia have commonly borrowed castor, eleusine, remtil, safflower, and teff from this originating source. Plants from remoter regions attested for two or more societies include gram and sword beans and cucumbers from India, sugarcane and yams from Malaysia, and maize, manioc, peanuts, pepper, pumpkins, and tobacco from America.
Fishing plays a prominent role in the economy of the Prenilotes, and occasionally hunting as well. Animal husbandry everywhere provides an important auxiliary somce of livelihood. Cattle are kept, and milked, in all except a few areas infested with the tsetse fly. Goats, sheep, and dogs are universal; donkeys, cats, and chickens nearly so; and all groups except the Anuak, Shilluk, and the two Eritrean tribes are reported to keep pigs. Though the Shilluk have usually been classed with the pastoral Nilotes, they differ markedly from the latter in their completely sedenrary mode of life, in their abstention from drinking the fresh blood of their animals, and in the relacive unimportance of cattle, whose per capita incidence is scarcely a quarter of chat among the neighboring Nuer. Men alone do the hunting, herding, and milking, but both sexes participate in the labor of cultivation.
Circumcision and clitoridectomy have invaded part of the area under Arab, Beja, or Galla influence, notably among the Barca, Ingassana, Kunama, Mao, and some Berta and Gumuz. Elsewhere, as among the Anuak, the southern Berta, the Koma, and the Meban, the old Sudanic practice of extracting the lower incisor teeth in both sexes still prevails. Cannibalism and headhunting are completely unknown.
Marriage involves the payment of a substantial bride-price in livestock or other valuables among the Anuak, Barca, Kunama, and Shilluk. The Berta, Ingassana, and Meban, however, require at best only a very nominal marriage payment, the consideration consisting mainly in several years of premarital and postmarital bride-service. The Gumuz, Koma, Mao, and some Berta group follow a third procedure, that of exchanging a sister or other female relative for a wife. Marriage is usually forbidden with any first cousin. Only the Barca, Meban, and Shilluk are reported to practice general polygyny, which is preferably sororal among the Shilluk. In most ocher tribes monogamy strongly predominates, plural marriages being uncommon and confined mainly to men of wealth. The normal residential unit is an independent nuclear or polygy nous family, occupying a compound within which each married woman has her own hut.
Patrilocal residence is the norm, but it is commonly preceded by about a year of initial matrilocal residence among the Barca, Ingassana, Kunama, Shilluk, and the Burun and Ulu subgroups of the Meban. Avunculocal residence, however, occurs as a patterned alternative very frequently among the Berta and Ingassana and moderately often among the Anuak and Shilluk. This, coupled with the face that the Uduk subtribe of the Koma follow the matrilineal rule in regard to both inheritance and succession, suggests the possi bility of former matrilineal descent, as among the ubians and the Nuba. One source (Hilke and Plester, 1955), indeed, maintains chat “mother-right” still survives among the Berta and Gumuz. Even more conclusive confirmation comes from the Barca and Kunama, who have been isolated in Eritrea from all recent intrusive influences along the Nile and remain matrilineal in both inheritance and descent to the present day. The Ingassana are now bilateral and are characterized by cousin terminology of the Hawaiian type. All other tribes today exhibit a patrilineal structure of noncorporate patrisibs and exogamous patrilineage, each of the latter tending to be localized in a hamlet. The Shilluk have cousin term of the descriptive type and a segmentary lineage organization; their sibs in contrast to those of most other tribes, are exogamous.
All the Prenilotes are sedentary. The local community consists either of a single compact village or of a cluster of hamlets. The preniling house type is a round hut with cylindrical walls of wattle and daub and a conical roof thatched with grass, but among the Barca and Kunama the roof extends to the ground, giving a beehive effect. Among the Anuak, Shilluk, and apparently at least some of the other tribe, each local community has one dominant lineage that provide the headman and other lineages that have attached themselves to it, often through an original matrilocal or avunculocal marriage, and whose members are regarded as “sisters' son” of the ruling lineage. The headman commonly has a ritual relationship to the soil. Among the Shilluk he is elected by the local council of hamlet heads from among the men of the senior minor lineage within the dominant major lineage. The cluster of hamlets which forms a Shilluk community is also united by a common age-grade organization of Nilotic type with military functions, but formal age groupings are not reported elsewhere in the area.
Formerly, perhaps, political integration did not transcend the local level. Democratic atomism still prevails among the Barca and Kunama, who lack paramount chiefs and are ruled by local assemblies of adult males in which the old men exert strong influence. Whatever the original situation, it certainly underwent change at some early period, and a distinctive type of political organization made its appearance. This probably either evolved or was perpetuated under the Christian kingdom of Alwa, for it did not prevail in the Fung state of Sennar, though it is recorded for a number of peoples who were tributary to the latter. We shall first summarize the scant.y data on the Berta, Gule, and Meban and then present the much richer descriptive material on the Anuak and Shilluk.
The dependent states established under Fung domination among the Gule of Sennar, the Berta of Fazoglo and Kele, and the Meban of Ulu were all characterized by institutionalized regicide. The king was killed when it was felt he had outlived his usefulness. At Fazoglo the decision as to whether the ruler should be slain or spared rested in the hands of a council of high officials, and if their decision was unfavorable the execution was carried out by a near relative of the king, most commonly his father's brother's son, who thereupon succeeded to the throne. At Kele, too, there had to be preliminary consent by a family council, and the killer had to be a relative descended from a common grandparent. At Ulu the decision was reached by a council of the ruling family, which usually chose a half brother of the king, but sometimes a first cousin, to slay the monarch, usually by ambushing him at night, and to succeed to his office. The kings of Lulu were understandably nervous surrounding themselves with a bodyguard of armed slaves and for safety, sleeping each night in a different place.
Among the Anuak one source of the kingship and of regicide is observable in the status of the local headman. Each village or cluster of hamlets normally has a headman, called Father of the Land, who has a special ritual relationship to the soil, and whose office is characterized by the possession of symbolic insignia, e.g., strings of beads, heirloom spears, and village drums. The office enjoys extraordinary respect and deference, but this is maintained only by continual generosity and feast giving. As soon as a headman becomes impoverished or otherwise suffers loss of standing, others begin to conspire for the position. Anyone who is the son of a former headman is eligible to succeed, but sons and half brothers by the same mother never attempt a usurpation, leaving the competition mainly to the headman's paternal cousins and half brothers by the same father. The one who mobilizes the strongest popular support overthrows the incumbent, sometimes killing him but more commonly permitting him to retire to the village of his mother's patrilineage. Because of their insecurity, headmen rarely sleep at night but wander about the village eavesdropping for plots against them.
Somewhere in the southeastern part of the Anuak country, the position of one local headman seems to have acquired exceptional prestige and such wide renown that its occupant was accorded the title of “king.” Competition for this office became especially strong, and regicide so common that the number of eligible candidates became legion. The brothers of the “king” and the sons of former rulers customarily took refuge in the villages of their mothers' patrilineages, there plotting with their maternal relatives to attack the royal village, seize the insignia of office, and thereby acquire the coveted title for themselves. After some time a resolution was reached whereby the king, to escape regicide, voluntarily yielded the symbols of office at the first sign of an approaching army and was allowed to retire unmolested to the settlement of his mother's lineage. Here he continued to hold the royal title and to receive the homage due his high status. Ultimately any son of a former king was permitted to visit the royal court and be ceremonially invested with the emblems. In consequence, every member of the royal line became a “king,” and each new village to supply a ruler with a wife might anticipate the honor of having kings of its own. With this incentive the system spread outward from its point of origin until today it is shared by nearly half the Anuak nation, and its expansion continues unchecked. Wherever it has spread the “kings,” i.e., former kings, tend to become established as a noble class and ultimately to usurp the political authority of the earlier headmen, whose functions become reduced to uch ritual activities as magically inducing rain, soil fertility, and abundance of fish.
The whole system is based on prestige alone. There is no central government, no administration. The king exercises no political authority or judicial functions outside his own village. There is not even any joint military enterpri e or any restraint upon inten·illage warfare. Nor is there actually a capital, for the king ordinarily moves from village to village, each feeling honored to support him for a while. The Anuak seem to have succeeded better than any political cartoonist on a European antiroyalist newspaper in producing an effective caricature of the kingship.
The political organization of the Shilluk, being especially adequately described, provides the capstone, as it were, for our understanding of the area as a whole. The communities of the Shilluk country, numbering about a hundred, are politically integrated into a single tribal state under a prestigeful divine king called reth. He resides in the capital rown of Fashoda, where he maintains a court and is served by a large body of retainers and a harem of wives. Some authorities report that it was formerly common for a Shilluk king to marry his sisters or half sisters. His office is symbolized by a royal stool. The man who sits upon it must be the son of a former king and a direct patrilineal descendant of Nyikang, the culture hero of the people and the traditional founder of the kingdom through conquest. It is, indeed, not the king who rules but the spirit of Nyikang who rules through him, and it is upon the power and beneficent influence of Nyikang that the entire state and society are believed to depend. The ruler must serve the interests of Nyikang, e.g., by maintaining and replenishing the latter's herds of sacred cattle. It is his responsibility to bring the divine power of Nyikang to bear for societal objectives, which he does by making sacrifices for rain and for victory in war. As high priest of the country, the king must maintain himself in a state of ritual purity and perfect health. If he weakens physically or if his people suffer misfortune, this suggests his loss of divine power and the danger that Nyikang may desert his people. Regicide offers a solution, but before considering this we must examine the class structure, electoral system, and administrative organization of Shilluk society. Six distinct social classes can be distinguished:

Returning to the kingship, we may note the electoral procedure. The death of a ruler is followed by an anarchic interregnum while his successor is being selected from among the men of the royal class. The decision is vested in a sort of electoral college, consisting of the chief of one community on the northern frontier, of another on the southern frontier, of nine others traditionally descended from those among whom Nyikang originally divided his conquered territory, of three heads of ineligible royal lineages, and of the especially influential chiefs of the two provinces, northern and southern, into which the country is divided. The electors naturally favor different candidates—the provincial chiefs, in particular, being motivated by extreme rivalry. Compromises are therefore inevitable and are characteristically achieved by one faction agreeing to support another's candidate in return for a promise of reciprocal support at the next election. Hence the succession rarely passes from father to son but shifts from one branch to another of the royal lineage.
Once the electoral college has reached its decision, the king-elect proceeds to raise an army m the southern province. Meanwhile the priests of Nyikang remove his effigy from its shrine in the north and parade it through the northern province, collecting a second army. The two forces meet in mock combat on the provincial border, and that of the king-elect suffers defeat. The priests escort both the divine effigy and the royal captive to the capital, placing first the former, then the latter, on the royal stool. As the king-elect takes his seat he is seized with trembling.
The spirit of Nyikang has passed from the effigy through the stool and taken possession of the body of the new ruler. This is symbolized by a second mock battle in which the king's force emerges triumphant. Neither the provinces nor the districts represented by the electors are administrative units. The chiefs of the hundred communities are responsible directly rather than indirectly to the king. Even they are not appointive. The king, to be sure, must confirm them in office, but they are elected by local procedure. From these facts Evans-Pritchard (1948) infers that the Shilluk king has no administrative authority or judicial power, that his influence rests solely upon his divinity and his ritual functions, and that the political structure is consequently not that of a true state. It is possible, of course, that men like Hofmayr, Howell, and Westermann, who accomplished the basic field research, erred in stressing the absolute power and “theoretical omnipotence” of the Shilluk king, but it is also conceivable that Evans-Pritchard was swayed by his own earlier discovery of a stateless government among the Anuak. Perhaps, too, the original power of the Shilluk monarchy has been obscured by the long period of Turkish, Egyptian, Mahdist, and British domination. The fact that the Shilluk alone, among all the tribes of their culture area, have escaped being shattered by these outside forces would seem to argue for at least some measure of political solidarity.
Complete internal peace certainly did not prevail, for local chiefs often raided one another for cattle. It is nevertheless clear that when such depredations became excessive the king intervened. He possessed, in his large body of retainers, a major instrument of force. With their help and the assistance of warriors levied from the injured neighbors, he descended on the recalcitrant local chief, burned his homestead, and expropriated his cattle. According to the canons of political science, the existence of an agency of force under central control and its use for the application of punitive sanctions are the prime criteria of a true state.
If their monarch could not muster a sufficient force to overawe, and if necessary defeat, a wayward local chief, it must certainly have appeared to the Shilluk that he had lost the divine power of Nyikang and thus deserved to be removed from the scene. This brings us back to the topic of regicide. All the earlier sources report that if a reigning king manifested a loss of power—e.g., by growing ill or senile, by failing to satisfy his wives sexually, or by allowing the state to undergo some major misfortume such as a famine, an epidemic, or defeat in war—it became necessary to kill him in order to preserve the society. The Shilluk themselves say, and unquestionably believe, that in such circumstances the ruler may be ambushed and strangled or walled up in a house and left to die. Though admitting that “Shilluk kings generally met a violent death,” Evans-Pritchard doubts that regicide ever actually occurred through assassination. What happened, he believes, is that a prince would take advantage of rising popular discontent and marshal his supporters in an armed rebellion; if this succeeded, the king lost his life.
If the ruler did not fear assassination, why did he rid his capital of every eligible successor? Why did he surround himself with a loyal body of retainers beholden to no one else? Why did he take such extraordinarv precautions against ambush as to sleep only in the daytime and remain awake all night with his harem around him to raise an alarm? We may also wonder why an ambitious prince and his supporters should have preferred an open military attack upon the king's substantial body of loyal retainers when their ends might be achieved more safely and surely through conspiracy and private assassination.
As happens so frequently, evidence from ethnographic distributions contributes to the solution of this problem. We know definitely that in four neighboring Fung dependencies regicide not only occurred but was planned and approved by a council of relatives, accomplished by surprise, and executed by a collateral patrilineal kinsman who became the next king. Among the Anuak, too, an overthrown headman was killed by a paternal half brother or cousin who succeeded to his position. Of Ulu, the Fung kingdom closest to the Shilluk, finally, we are told that the king took special precautions against being ambushed at night. With the reports of actual field workers supported by the areal pattern and confirmed by the behavior of the kings themselves, the expressed beliefs of the Shilluk can probably be accepted as not without foundation.
If we look back from the Shilluk to ancient Egypt, it is difficult to convince ourselves that the influence of the latter has been confined to the importation of domestic animals and a few cultivated plants. Since diffusion is always selective, the absence of specific resemblances in such aspects of culture as settlement pattern, house type, marriage, and kinship structure is not conclusive. That some social as well as economic institutions may have spread far up the Nile is suggested by certain similarities between the political systems of ancient Egypt and the Shilluk. Among these we may list the very explicit divinity of the king, his ritual isolation, a stool as his symbol of office, the prevalence of brother-sister marriages in the ruling dynasty, and the traditional and symbolic division of the kingdom into a northern and southern half. The number and specificity of these parallels cast doubt on the assumption that they are due to chance alone. If they have actually been acquired by diffusion from ancient Egypt, the intervening Nubians, about whose aboriginal culture we know so little, must have shared at least these, and doubtless other, social institutions with the African colossus of the north.

Selected Bibliography