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Paths in the Rainforests

Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa

Jan M. Vansina

Publication Year: 1990

Vansina’s scope is breathtaking: he reconstructs the history of the forest lands that cover all or part of southern Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Congo, Zaire, the Central African Republic, and Cabinda in Angola, discussing the original settlement of the forest by the western Bantu; the periods of expansion and innovation in agriculture; the development of metallurgy; the rise and fall of political forms and of power; the coming of Atlantic trade and colonialism; and the conquest of the rainforests by colonial powers and the destruction of a way of life.

“In 400 elegantly brilliant pages Vansina lays out five millennia of history for nearly 200 distinguishable regions of the forest of equatorial Africa around a new, subtly paradoxical interpretation of ‘tradition.’” —Joseph Miller, University of Virginia

“Vansina gives extended coverage  .  .  . to the broad features of culture and the major lines of historical development across the region between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 1000. It is truly an outstanding effort, readable, subtle, and integrative in its interpretations, and comprehensive in scope.  .  .  .  It is a seminal study  .  .  .  but it is also a substantive history that will long retain its usefulness.”—Christopher Ehret,  American Historical Review

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. v-viii

Maps and Figures

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

Imagine that Caesar arrived in Gaul and landed in Britain in 1880, a mere century ago, and that your known history began then. You were not Roman, your language was not Latin, and most of your cherished customs had no historical justification. Your cultural identity was amputated from its past. Would you not feel...

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pp. xv-xvii

There is no better chrestomathy of clichés than in the acknowledgments pages. Yet such acknowledgments are no less sincere for being banal. The topoi merely reflect the common condition of the writer. We are all dependent on institutions to provide us with the means to do research and with access to the information...

Note on Spelling

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pp. xix-xx

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Chapter One: Voids and Blinders, Words and Things

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pp. 3-33

There exists in Africa a huge area—as large as the arable part of West Africa to the west of the lower Niger, as large as the United States east of the Mississippi, almost as large as western Europe—which remains terra incognita for the historian (map 1.1). Maps of Africa generally depict this as a green mass, since the...

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Chapter Two: The Land and Its Settlement

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pp. 35-69

Nearly 5,000 years ago hunters and gatherers in the forests then covering part of what are now the Cameroonian grasslands began an experiment which went on for almost a millennium: They became more sedentary, acquired ceramics, and began to supplement their hunting and gathering practices with new ventures in agriculture...

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Chapter Three: Tradition: Ancient and Common

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pp. 71-100

The life of the peoples in rainforests has been shaped by the continuity of their common tradition over four millennia, a continuity which resulted from the adoption of fundamental choices that were never questioned again, only elaborated over time as new situations seemed to warrant. This chapter focuses on that...

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Chapter Four: The Trail of the Leopard in the Inner Basin

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pp. 101-127

How did the passage of time after A.D. 1000 transform the common and ancient institutional framework of society as sketched in the previous chapter? It is time to tell that story. The emphasis now lies on the plasticity of the tradition and on sociopolitical change. For even if their dynamics presuppose many an economic...

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Chapter Five: Between Ocean and Rivers

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pp. 129-165

Geography and settlement made the lands between the Zaire, the Sangha, and the ocean much more diverse than the inner basin. From north to south one recognizes major differences between a small western Cameroon area roughly west of the Mungo, the island of Bioko, the lands north of the great Ogooué...

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Chapter Six: The Eastern Uplands

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pp. 167-196

The lands between the inner basin and the great mountain range bordering the Rift Valley (see map 6.1) were among the last to be settled by western Bantu farmers. This perhaps accounts for the presence in the nineteenth century of only a few high population densities in a sea of almost empty lands, in stark contrast...

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Chapter Seven: Challenge from the Atlantic

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pp. 197-237

Portuguese caravels cleaving the waters between Bioko—the island they named Fernando Poo in 1472—and the mouth of the Zaire in 1483 were the first harbingers of a new era, heralding the emergence of a European world-economy in the lands of the Atlantic. From then right up until the conquest of central Africa, a growing...

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Chapter Eight: Death of a Tradition

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pp. 239-248

As told by most history books, the colonial scramble for equatorial Africa began with the arrival of H. M. Stanley at Banana on the Zaire River in 1879 and the signing of a treaty with the Tio king Makoko by S. P. de Brazza in 1880. The Act of Berlin in 1885 laid down the conditions for valid colonial claims. Stable boundaries...

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Chapter Nine: On History and Tradition

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pp. 249-263

It has been argued in this book that a single tradition flourished for millennia in equatorial Africa and a reconstruction of the political institutions of the peoples in the region has been proposed. The time has come to reflect on the findings. Our concluding remarks will be arranged on four main levels. First some thoughts...

Appendix: Comparative Lexical Data

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pp. 267-301


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pp. 303-373

Works Cited

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pp. 375-409


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pp. 411-428

E-ISBN-13: 9780299125738
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299125745

Publication Year: 1990

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Africa, Sub-Saharan -- Politics and government.
  • Bantu languages -- History.
  • Bantu-speaking peoples -- Politics and government.
  • Africa, Central -- Politics and government.
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