We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

How Societies Are Born

Governance in West Central Africa before 1600

Jan Vansina

Publication Year: 2012

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."

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF (47.8 KB)
pp. 1-6


pdf iconDownload PDF (27.9 KB)
pp. vii-viii


pdf iconDownload PDF (37.7 KB)
pp. ix-x


pdf iconDownload PDF (38.4 KB)
pp. xi-xii

Conventions on Spelling and Citing Dates

pdf iconDownload PDF (49.2 KB)
pp. xiii-xvi

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (1.5 MB)
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

read more

Part One

In the beginning there were only foragers in West Central Africa. They lived in small nomadic communities whose members communicated and intermarried with individuals from the outside but they did not develop any social aggregate larger than the community itself. Some time after 500 BCE, a few communities began to adopt a series of technological innovations which allowed them...

read more

1. Preludes

pdf iconDownload PDF (398.1 KB)
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...

read more

2. Early Village Societies, 700-1000

pdf iconDownload PDF (238.4 KB)
pp. 85-100

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...

read more

Part Two

pdf iconDownload PDF (86.1 KB)
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...

read more

3. Of Water, Cattle, and Kings

pdf iconDownload PDF (473.1 KB)
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...

read more

4. Of Courts and Titleholders

pdf iconDownload PDF (442.4 KB)
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...

read more

5. Of Masks and Governance

pdf iconDownload PDF (478.3 KB)
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...

read more

6. A Coming Together

pdf iconDownload PDF (92.7 KB)
pp. 261-272

We have completed our journey across the historical landscape ofWest 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...

Appendix: The Njila Group of Languages

pdf iconDownload PDF (80.8 KB)
pp. 273-284


pdf iconDownload PDF (166.1 KB)
pp. 285-310


pdf iconDownload PDF (137.9 KB)
pp. 311-326

E-ISBN-13: 9780813934181
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813922799

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2012