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How Societies Are Born

How Societies Are Born: Governance in West Central Africa before 1600

Jan Vansina
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    How Societies Are Born
    Book Description:

    Like stars, societies are born, and this story deals with such a birth. It asks a fundamental and compelling question: How did societies first coalesce from the small foraging communities that had roamed in West Central Africa for many thousands of years?

    Jan Vansina continues a career-long effort to reconstruct the history of African societies before European contact inHow Societies Are Born.In this complement to his previous studyPaths in the Rainforests,Vansina employs a provocative combination of archaeology and historical linguistics to turn his scholarly focus to governance, studying the creation of relatively large societies extending beyond the foraging groups that characterized west central Africa from the beginning of human habitation to around 500 BCE, and the institutions that bridged their constituent local communities and made large-scale cooperation possible.

    The increasing reliance on cereal crops, iron tools, large herds of cattle, and overarching institutions such as corporate matrilineages and dispersed matriclans lead up to the developments treated in the second part of the book. From about 900 BCE until European contact, different societies chose different developmental paths. Interestingly, these proceeded well beyond environmental constraints and were characterized by "major differences in the subjects which enthralled people," whether these were cattle, initiations and social position, or "the splendors of sacralized leaders and the possibilities of participating in them."

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3418-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. 1-22)

    As stars are born, so are societies, and this is a story about such a birth. It tells us how different West Central African societies emerged from the small foraging communities that preceded them and how they then grew to become what they were by 1600. It is a story worth telling for several reasons. First, the period before the sixteenth century has been hitherto neglected by historians, nearly all of whom have been content to take the societies described by the first Portuguese reports on the coast as a given or as a starting point without asking themselves how...

  7. Part One

    • 1 PRELUDES
      (pp. 25-68)

      When the earliest signs of a set of new technologies that would lead to the creation of larger and more complex societies appeared during the second half of the last millennium BCE, small communities of foragers were roaming the savannas, woodlands, and steppes of West Central Africa south of the rain forests just as they had done since times immemorial. The first harbingers of change were the adoption of ceramics, accompanied or followed by that of horticulture and husbandry of small domestic stock. The use and fabrication of metal objects followed half a millennium later. Compared with the pace of...

      (pp. 69-100)

      Suddenly—like a special effect in a movie—two features that would play a decisive role in the future long-term history of all of West Central Africa appear simultaneously around 680 at a single, totally new settlement in the far southeastern section of our area of study. The features are the sedentary village and domesticated bovine cattle. Given the present state of knowledge, the settlement of Divuyu is so significant that one does well to open the subject by describing the finds there in some detail. Moreover, such a description will familiarize the reader with the concrete archaeological evidence that...

  8. Part Two

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 101-106)

      By the tenth century of our era, most inhabitants of West Central Africa had chosen to adopt farming and/or herding and were actively building common overarching institutions between autonomous local communities, among which diffuse matriclans may have been the first. In other words, the inhabitants were now beginning to build societies. Once they had fully mastered their rejection of foraging and nomadism as a way of life, the possibilities for further development inherent in the new technologies and novel social institutions could begin to unfold. And unfold they did after ca. 1000, albeit not as a bud automatically expands into...

      (pp. 107-159)

      The constraints of the physical environments are the most evident and seem to be the most severe in the southernmost of the three great regions that make up West Central Africa. The region can be delimited to the north by the line between those who milked cattle and those who did not, for this practice is a reliable indicator of the wholly different impact of the environments on the sociocultural developments that occurred to the north as compared with that of the south. The farther south of the milking line one goes, the scarcer and less reliable the rains. In...

      (pp. 160-205)

      Even a cursory glance at maps of present population density in West Central Africa discloses a striking contrast between two nearly adjacent large areas of higher population density inland from the coast in western middle Angola, on the one hand, and all the surrounding regions on the other (map 16). In addition, there exists a set of smaller population clusters strung from east to west around latitude 5° to 7° S and another one in the floodplains of the upper Zambezi.

      The two nearly adjacent large population clusters are located on the Benguela planalto, now inhabited by Umbundu speakers, and...

      (pp. 206-260)

      A thick layer of poor gray or white infertile sands, dubbed Kalahari Sands after their geological origin, covers the subsoils that stretch over the entire interior of West Central Africa. These are wholly unsuited for growing crops except where major river valleys have carved deep gullies to give access to more fertile red soils and alluvia.¹ Still these soils supported mostly dry forests in the north where the rainfall was well over 1,000 millimeters per year while farther south park and grasslands dominated the landscape. Game, especially ruminants, abounded in these environments and provided a good living for foragers.²


      (pp. 261-272)

      We have completed our journey across the historical landscape of West Central Africa. We have seen that during a first period before societies with their overarching institutions of governance could arise, individual communities in the area had to better secure and control their food supplies. They adopted the use of ceramics, which allowed them to use more plants as food by cooking them and they then began to produce food themselves rather than simply relying on the less secure bounty provided by foraging. Once this was achieved, communities became sedentary wherever possible. Where that was not possible, they formed nomadic...

    (pp. 273-284)
    (pp. 285-310)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 311-326)