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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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Part Eleven
North and West African Pastoralism
— 53 —

The Hilalian immigration of Bedouin Arabs in the eleventh century resulted in the displacement of many Berber groups, some of whom sought refuge in the oases of the Sahara and adopted there a nomadic and predatory mode of life modeled on that of the invaders. The principal body of these refugees, stemming for the most part from Tripolitania, gave rise to the modern Tuareg nation. Though long since completely islamized, the Tuareg still bear witness to their Christian past in the retention of the cross as their favorite decorative motif. They fall into the following seven major divisions.

  1. Ahaggaren (Ihaggaren, Kel Ahaggar). They inhabit the Hoggar region in the northwestern portion of the Tuareg country and number about 5,000.
  2. Antessar (Kel Antessar), with the Tengeredief. They occupy the hinterland of Timbukru in the extreme southwestern section of the Tuareg country and number about 40,000.
  3. Asben (Kel Air), embracing the Itesan (Kel Ceres), Owey (Kel Oui), Tadele (Kel Tadele), and other tribes of the Air region in the southeastern part of the Tuareg country. They number about 30,000.
  4. Aulliminden (Awellimiden, Iullemmeden, Oulliminden). They are located in the south central section of the Tuareg country and number about 100,000.
  5. Azjer (Adjeur, Ajjer, Ashar, Kel Azdjer), with the Ihajenen of the oasis of Gat. They occupy the northeastern portion of the Tuareg country and number about 6,000.
  6. Ifora. They inhabit the Iforas region in the western part of the Tuareg country and number about 5,000.
  7. Udalan (Oudalen, Madalen), with the Gossi (Kel Gossi), Igwadaren, Imedreden, Irreganaten, Logomaren, Tingeregdech, and other lesser tribes. They reside south of the Niger River and number about 100,000.

Since we have already become acquainted with the original culture of the Berbers in Chapter 15 and with that of the indigenous Saharan Negroes in Chapter 16, we shall view the Tuareg primarily from the point of view of the processes of culture change which they exemplify. They retain the language and many of the most distinctive customs of their Berber ancestors. In other respects, however, they have completely abandoned their ancestral way of life and have adopted that of the invading Arabs. In still other respects their culture is neither Berber nor Arab, nor a blend of both, but represents a genuine creative synthesis. The resulting combination, moreover, is a relatively stable one, revealing only relatively slight regional variation.
The economic life conforms closely to the pattern introduced into North Africa by the Bedouin Arabs. The Tuareg are camel nomads. They despise agriculture and leave it exclusively in the hands of the subjugated indigenous Negroes. Except for herding, they have abandoned productive enterprise and live off the tribute extorted from their subjects and the “protection” exacted from caravans. They are organized in migratory bands rather than settled villages, and they live in tents. The latter, however, differ markedly from those of the Arabs. They are covered with tanned sheep or goat hides rather than with cloth, and these are dyed red rather than black.
Political organization represents a fusion of Berber and Arab elements. In general, each band and subtribe has an assembly or council, as among the Berbers, and also a chief, comparable to the sheikhs of the Arabs. Chiefs are sometimes elected by the council in Berber fashion, but are sometimes hereditary. The Aulliminden follow the Arab rule of patrilineal succession, but this is exceptional. Most Tuareg tribes with hereditary chiefship adhere to the matrilineal principle of succession, thus deviating sharply from both Berber and Arab practice.
The system of property and inheritance is likewise unique. The form in which it appears among the Azjer may be briefly summarized, both because it is the most adequately described and because it seems to be typical for at least the northern Tuareg. The Azjer divide property into two categories—“personal” and “illegitimate.” Personal property includes everything which an individual acquires through his own economic effort, e.g., money, livestock, and purchased weapons and slaves. Whether owned by men or women, it is always inherited by their children, who receive equal shares regardless of sex. So-called “illegitimate” property includes whatever has been acquired by force, e.g., rights to land and water sources, customary fees exacted from caravans and travelers, “protection” paid by other groups to avoid being raided, personal and property privileges with respect to vassals and serfs, and the authority to command and exact obedience from political subordinates. Such rights are held collectively by lineages rather than by individuals, are administered by the head of the lineage, and are transmitted on his death, without partition, to his eldest sister's eldest son, who succeeds him.
In sharp contrast to other Berber peoples, most of whom are strongly democratic and egalitarian, the Tuareg have adopted the caste system of the Arabs in its fulJest range. In addition to Marabouts, or religious nobles, five separate castes are clearly differentiated:

  1. the Imochar, or ruling Tuareg, who lead a strictly parasitic life of warfare and political domination
  2. the Imrad, or vassal Tuareg, who engage in herding, bear arms in support of the Imochar groups to which they are attached, and render regular tribute to the latter
  3. the Bella or Haratin, Negro serfs who cultivate the land and are attached and pay tribute to particular groups of Imochar or Imrad
  4. the Iklan, privately owned Negro slaves who are obtained from the Sudan through purchase or capture and who are employed in domestic service and other menial labor
  5. the Inaden, outcaste groups of Negro artisans, especially smiths and leatherworkers. A woman is permitted to marry a man only of her own or a higher caste, whereas a man may marry a woman only of his own or a lower caste. Since social status is transmitted through women, this rule of caste hypergamy has protected the dominant Imochar, and with insignificant exception also the vassal Imrad, from any infusion of Negro blood. The sources suggest, indeed, that it was instituted for this purpose.

Like both Arabs and Berbers, the Tuareg require a bride-price and permit marriage between first cousins, but their Berber affiliations are revealed in their insistence on strict monogamy and in the high status which they accord to women. The men spend most of their time in herding, in raiding, and in protecting client caravans, whereas the women are relieved of all economic and most household responsibilities by egro serfs and slaves. With their time thus freed, the women devote themselves to the fine arts. Music and poetry are exclusively feminine accomplishments. Whereas only a few men are literate—approximately one-third in the Azjer tribe—all women can read and write in the peculiar Tuareg script, which is derived from a Libyan alphabet of the fourth century B.C. Moreover, at least among the northern Tuareg tribes, the bulk of all livestock and other movable property is owned by the women. Finally, it is perhaps symbolic that among the Tuareg—alone among all Moslem peoples—it is the men rather than the women who wear veils.
Residence is sometimes matrilocal for an initial period, as among the Ahaggaren and Jfora, but it is typically patrilocal for the lifetime of the husband's father. When the latter dies, however—and also if he divorces his wife—his sons normally remove to the band of their mother and maternal uncle, in whose “illegitimate” property they can expect to share.
In descent, as in residence, the Tuareg peoples differ markedly both from the Arabs and from other Berber tribes. That they are matrilineal is asserted by nearly all the ethnographers. What the latter seem usually to have in mind, however, is social-class rather than kin-group affiliation. In a hypergamous marriage, involving a man and woman of different castes, it is clear that children regularly take the status of their mother. But what happens when the parents belong to the same caste? In such a case, kin-group affiliation could theoretically be either matrilineal, patrilineal, or bilateral. Unfortunately, the ethnographic sources, though excellent in many respects, do not meet the demanding standards of modern kinship investigation and do not supply the wealth of detail required for complete understanding. That descent is unilinear seems certain, as does the existence of a segmentary lineage system in all castes except possibly the Iklan, or slaves. The mode of affiliation, however, seems to differ from tribe to tribe. The sources strongly suggest that lineages are patrilineal among the Aulliminden and Ifora but matrilineal among the Asben, the Udalan, and probably also the Ahaggaren, Antessar, and Azjer.
The matrilineal institutions of the Tuareg raise an interesting problem of historical reconstruction, to which there are at least three possible solutions. One possibility is that the Tuareg have preserved the matrilineate from a very early period of Berber culture, perhaps also reflected among the extinct Guanche of the Canary Islands. This is rendered improbable, however, by the fact that none of the numerous other Berber tribes of the African mainland provides any corroborative evidence and by the additional fact that the present relative isolation of the Tuareg is historically recent, dating only from the Hilalian Arab invasion. A second possibility is that the indigenous Bella were characterized by avunculocal residence and matrilineal descent and that they transmitted these rules to the conquering Tuareg. This, too, seems improbable. The Bella, as noted in Chapter 16, were presumably akin to the Hausa on the southern border of the Tuareg country, and these Hausa peoples are strictly patrilineal.
The third and most probable hypothesis is that the ancestral Tuareg, while still resident in Tripolitanja, were patrilineal, like all other mainland Berbers, and that the matrilineate was developed as an adjustment to special local conditions after their displacement into the Sahara. Adopting the very un-Berber caste stratification of the Arabs, they may well have instituted matrilineal affiliation for intercaste marriages in order to preserve their purity of race. This accords with the view of most Tuareg ethnographers and may well have been facilitated by the unusually high status of women. Lineage affiliation could have remained patrilineal for a time, as indeed is still the case among the Aulliminden and Ifora. The two contradictory rules, however, must inevitably have come into conflict whenever an intercaste marriage occurred. To have accepted the patrilineal rule in such instances would have resulted in the unwelcome transmission of “illegitimate” property rights in land, vassals, and serfs to people of mixed blood. Matrilineal descent would thus have gained ascendancy in cases of conflict. Then, wherever intercaste unions became common, it could readily have come to replace patrilineal descent even in regard to kin-group affiliation. If this reconstruction, which seems to the author much the most probable, is actually correct, we have in the Tuareg the first authenticated case in the world of a people that has moved directly from patrilineal to matrilineal descent without passing through a transitional period of bilateral descent.