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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 Beja mind-mapping diagram

Part Nine
East African Pastoralism
— 40 —

With the exception of a few remnants of ancient hunters and gatherers, and of occasional fishing populations, the peoples considered up to this point have exhibited economies based primarily upon agriculture. We have encountered no pasto ral nomads. Many of the tillers sun·eyed, to be sure, have made considerable use of domesticated animals and their products, and the Berbers (Chapter 15) have provided an outstanding example of a balanced economy resting upon agriculture and animal husbandry in approximately equal proportions. From now on we shall meet a variety of peoples who depend much more strongly on herding and who in many instances have virtually abandoned cultivation to lead an independent. pastoral existence (see Map 15).
The earliest pastoral nomads in Africa were the Beja, or Bega, a nation located immediately southeast of the ancient Egyptians and east of the Nubians. They first appear in Egyptian history around 2700 B.C., at which time they seem already to have been living a life of independent pastoralism. This they had doubtless acquired from their northeastern neighbors, the Semites of the Sinai Peninsula and adjacent Arabia. Like the Egyptians and the Arabs, they spoke languages of the Hamitic stock, but these belonged to a distinct subfamily thereof, the Cushitic. Their modern descendants, who continue to occupy the same general area, still preserve for the most part their ancient speech and mode of life. Both the Pharaonic and the Ptolemaic Egyptians exploited the Beja country for gold and occasionally suffered incursions from its nomadic inhabitants. Between A.D. 268 and 451 the Beja even exercised political domination over part of Upper Egypt and also exerted considerable influence in Nubia. Although they accepted Christianity shortly after 600, they were converted to Islam between 1150 and 1300 and remain Moslems today. During their Christian period they came strongly under the influence of the Semitic state of Axum, reflected in the adoption by some of the southern Beja of the language and class structure of their Tigrinya neighbors.

Map 15. East African Pastoralists
Map 15. East African Pastoralists

The Beja belong to the Caucasoid race and are characterized physically by the following traits: copper-red to deep-brown skin, moderate stature (about 5 feet 5 or 6 inches in adult males), head of medium breadth (cephalic index 75 to 79), narrow nose, thin lips, and clearly Caucasoid features. They possess wavy rather than kinky hair, which is usually black, although red and even blond shades occasionally appear. They speak languages of the Northern branch of the Cushitic subfamily. The tribal classification below, however, includes one Central Cushitic tribe, the Bogo, and one Semitic people, the Tigre, who have adopted the pastoral habits of their Beja neighbors.

  1. Ababda, with the Qireijab coastal fishermen. They number about 20,000, are heavily mixed with Arabs, and have largely abandoned their original Cushitic language.
  2. Amarar. This group has a population of approximately 45,000.
  3. Amer (Beni Amer). These people, numbering about 60,000, have in part adopted the Semitic language of the adjacent Tigre, or are bilingual.
  4. Bisharin (Besarin, Bisariab), embracing the Atbai, Atbara, and other lesser tribes. They number about 60,000.
  5. Bogo (Belen, Bileni). They number about 25,000, of whom nearly half are Christians. They speak a Central Cushitic language.
  6. Hadendowa (Hendawa), with the Halenga. They have a population of about 70,000.
  7. Tigre (Tigrai), embracing the Habab, Maria (Marea), Mensa (Mansa), and other subtribes. They number about 200,000 and speak a Semitic language akin to the Amharic and Tigrinya of Ethiopia.

From their entrance into history the Beja have followed an almost exclusively pastoral economy. Even today they do a minimum of hunting and gathering, observe a taboo on fish, except in a few isolated groups on the coast of the Red Sea, and limit their agriculture to a little durra cultivation in an occasional favored spot.

A Hadendowa Beja with His Camel.
(Courtesy of United Nations.)

They subsist almost entirely on the milk, butter, and meat provided by their large flocks of sheep and goats and their considerable herds of cattle (in the south) and camels (in the north). They have, to be sure, had camels only since the first century. Here and there the Beja also keep horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, and chickens. The Bisharin are reported to drink the fresh blood of their animals. Men alone engage in herding and milking, whereas women till the rare plots of cultivated land. The reader is advised henceforth to note particularly the sex to which milking is assigned, since this has considerable diagnostic significance in the historical analysis of African pastoralism.
The Beja wander in small bands with their flocks and herds, sometimes throughout the year, sometimes only during period of transhumance. They camp in rectangular tents with a framework of poles and a cover of grass or palm-leaf mats, each occupied by a single nuclear family. The Bogo, Tigre, and some Amer more commonly live in hemispherical shelters roofed with grass or mats, or even in substantial thatched huts. A council of family heads typically handles the affairs of the band. In addition, each subtribe or occasionally a whole tribe has a chief, whose authority is limited and who is chosen by seniority or election from a privileged lineage. Formal age-grades are lacking, but boys are subjected to circumcision and girls to clitoridectomy.
The northern tribes reveal a relatively egalitarian social system; they keep no slaves and recognize no distinct noble class. The mer, Bogo, and Tigre, however, possess hereditary slaves, originally recruited by capture in war or by purchase from abroad, and the rest of the population is divided into a small class of nobles and a large class of serfs, between which intermarriage does not occur. Each serf owes his master numerous onerous obligations, e.g., among the Tigre an annual present of grain and beer, a weekly contribution of milk, a portion of the meat of all slaughtered animals, and a cow as a funeral offering for each death in his lord's family. He receives a few gifts and services in return, but these by no means constitute complete reciprocity. When a serf woman marries, she becomes subject to her husband's master. Serfs cannot be sold, nor can they obtain freedom in any manner. If mistreated, they can only appeal to a council of the master's lineage to be transferred to another master.
All tribes follow the Moslem practice of preferential marriage with a father's brother's daughter, and all require a substantial bride-price in livestock. Polygyny is permitted, but only in the nonsororal form, and it is rarely practiced except by rich and influential men. Both the levirate and the sororate are customary. Extended forms of the family do not occur, but all tribes possess a social organization of segmentary type, with patrilineal but agamous sibs, subsibs, and lineages. Cousin terminology conforms to the Eskimo pattern among the Hadendowa, to the descriptive pattern among the Tigre.
Residence everywhere follows the patrilocal rule, but the true Beja require a preliminary period of from one to three years of matrilocal residence, commonly with bride-service. Medieval Arabic sources report matrilineal inheritance and succession, and traces of both have survived into modern times. These facts. coupled with intimations of the avunculate, suggest the possibility of former matrilineal descent obliterated through subseq uent Ethiopian and Arabic influences. In view, however, of the Jack of any evidence of matrilineal descent, or of elements commonly associated therewith, among other peoples of Cushitic speech, it seems preferable to ascribe these Beja customs to prolonged contact with, and borrowing from, the Nubian peoples to the west.

Selected Bibliography