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

Overview

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 in How Societies Are Born. In this complement to his previous study Paths in the Rainforests, Vansina employs a ...

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

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Overview

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 in How Societies Are Born. In this complement to his previous study Paths 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."

University of Virginia Press

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Editorial Reviews

Inc. Book News
Even scholars who know better tend assume without thinking that the people the Portuguese found had been the same since time began.
David SchoenbrunNorthwestern University
" How Societies Are Born represents a political and agrarian history of a period and region for which absolutely no scholarly histories have been written, and Vansina possesses rare and unmatched skills in marshaling a recalcitrant and multilingual body of historical sources.
James DenbowUniversity of TexasAustin
" How Societies Are Born is an extremely valuable contribution to western African history and prehistory. I was impressed by the depth and variety of Vansina’s historical and anthropological sources, and found his use of historical linguistics to construct arguments about systems of governance, marriage, and inheritance patterns and other details fascinating.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813922805
  • Publisher: University of Virginia
  • Publication date: 7/28/2005
  • Pages: 342
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Jan Vansina, Professor Emeritus of History and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was named the "Distinguished Africanist" of 1986 and awarded the Herskovits Prize for Kingdoms of the Savanna in 1967, garnering the two top honors given by the African Studies Association. Vansina is the author of more than twenty books, including Living with Africa and Paths in the Rainforests.

University of Virginia Press

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Table of Contents

1 Preludes 25
Late-stone age foragers 26
Of pots, fields, and flocks 33
Proto-Njila speakers and their society 41
The dissemination of the Njila languages and its consequences 52
Metallurgy 60
Toward the formation of West Central Africa 67
2 Early village societies, 700-1000 69
Divuyu 69
Agriculture 74
Bovine cattle 81
Overarching institutions : corporate matrilineages and dispersed matriclans 88
Becoming food producers 98
3 Of water, cattle, and kings 107
Nqoma 108
Cattle nomads and their societies 117
Agropastoralists 132
Networks 153
History, environment, and collective imagination 156
4 Of courts and titleholders 160
Feti : an Angolan Zimbabwe? 170
Principalities on the planalto 174
An inner African frontier 182
In the around the lower Cuanza Basin 186
Jaga Marauders and their government 196
Ladders of power and the dynamics of centralization 201
5 Of masks and governance 206
Villages, vicinages, and sodalities 210
Collective government 226
Local leaders, chiefs, and palavers 234
From vicinage to dynastic web 244
The Rund kingdom and the Lunda commonwealth 255
Environment and collective imagination 259
6 A coming together 261
Collective imagination, tradition, and the dynamics of history 265
App The Njila group of languages 273
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