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Cameroon Grassfields Civilization

Jean-Pierre Warnier

Publication Year: 2012

This book brings and blends together a dozen scholarly articles published by the author since the 1970s. It sketches two different yet related stories: first, that of one of the most ancient and prestigious African civilizations, the antiquity and sophistication of which are becoming more and more prominent as field research unfolds their many facets. Second, the story of the researcher himself, who has had to alter and shift his approach to that civilization as he got to meet Grassfielders, colleagues, friends and scholars who changed his views about the Grassfields kingdoms and their people. This book bears witness to those many encounters. Historical and anthropological research is not only a question of relevant theories and methodologies. It is also a human endeavour made of networks and friendships.

Published by: African Books Collective

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Preface: Grassfields Research Encounters: One Person’s Anthropologist is Only in the Womb

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pp. i-vi

This book is a timely gesture of restitution by one of the foremost ethnographic historians of the Cameroon Grassfields. It is the crowning moment of a journey rich in encounters and mutual shaping, between a scholar and the people and places he came to know and cherish for forty years. The book is distilled from intellectual curiosities and conversions kindled and fuelled...


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pp. viii

Table of Contents

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pp. ix

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Introduction: 1. Forty years of research in the making

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pp. 1-12

Take a human subject. Put him in contact with other subjects in a given situation. If he plays the interactive game, something will happen. What kind of thing? No one can predict. It is said that one of Napoleon’s generals asked him how to win a battle. As usual, the Emperor gave a curt reply: “Get involved and see what happens.” In principle, an anthropologist...

Part I: The historical background

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pp. 13-48

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2. The history of the peopling of Western Cameroon and the genesis of its landscapes

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pp. 15-24

Not so long ago, in the 1970s, the generally accepted opinion, summarized by Ghomsi (1972: 65), was that the high plateaux or Grassfields of Western Cameroon had been peopled, in succession, by a very ancient stock whose presence was evidenced by archaeological finds, then by a less ancient stock, composed of more or less scattered populations...

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3. A Nineteenth-century Ruhr in Central Africa (with Ian Fowler)

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pp. 25-40

Over two hundred thousand cubic meters of slag and smelting debris, at least two hundred and seventy smelting sites, more than seven hundred recorded kaolin pits for building and lining furnaces, and probably half as many again not visited by us – these are a few figures that establish three villages of the Ndop Plain, in the highlands...

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4. The linguistic situation and the history of the Grassfields

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pp. 41-48

The linguistic situation in the Grassfields of Cameroon poses a problem, indeed a challenge. Basic vocabulary counts and shared lexical innovations point to one language classification and historical interpretation; but innovations in noun classes do not agree and point to another (Voorhoeve 1976). To reconcile these findings in a consistent...

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Part II. The Grassfields regional economy

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pp. 49-88

The internal consistency of the first (historical) part of this book was provided by the second chapter that underscored the contribution of economic history and of linguistics to the history of the Grassfields. The second part is devoted to the regional economy of the highlands. However, the linkages between its four chapters...

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5. Of pigs and people (with Karin Luke)

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pp. 51-56

As it was reconstructed by Warnier (1975 and 1985) and Rowlands (1979), this history shows the existence of a complex system of production and distribution at three different levels at the end of the 19th century. (1) Large polygamous households...

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6. Trade guns as a source in history

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pp. 57-68

Flintlock and percussion muzzleloaders known as ‘dane guns’ are a popular sight among peoples of the Grassfields of Cameroon(2). At death celebrations and annual festivals, crowds of men brandish them, execute grotesque charges, and fire them off in great clouds of smoke. These guns bear witness to the pre-colonial coastal...

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7. Slave trading without slave raiding

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pp. 69-82

Until the slow demise of the inland slave trade in the course of the 19th century, the densely peopled high plateaux of West Cameroon – otherwise the Grassfields – were an important source of slaves. They fed the trade of the Bay of Biafra for three centuries. However, in contrast to what is observable elsewhere, the off-take of slaves was...

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8. The transfer of young people’s working ethos from the Grassfields to the Atlantic Coast

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pp. 83-88

This chapter highlights the fact that the Grassfields chiefdoms of the northwest and western provinces of Cameroon evolved a working ethos that was unique in the wider region in the pre-colonial era, and that this ethos was most strongly embodied by the young men and women of these chiefdoms. The argument is then made...

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Part III: Grassfields sacred kingship

The third part of this book deals with the political organization of Grassfields kingdoms and, in particular, with four aspects of it. Chapter 9 considers any kingdom as a bounded unit. Why is there such a need for closure and control at the gates of Grassfields kingdoms? Following Robin Horton and Igor Kopytoff, one may consider...

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9. Matter for territorialization. An inroad into a contemporary African kingdom

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pp. 91-98

King Ngwa’fo of Mankon rules over a people of some 60 000 to 100 000 subjects. His kingdom is perched in the highlands of Western Cameroon, a space he shares with some 150 other kingdoms of various sizes. He succeeded his father in 1959. Before that, he had read agricultural engineering at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. In addition to his royal headgear – one cannot say...

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10. Containers, surfaces, apertures and contents

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pp. 99-108

In the first chapter, I suggested that the king may be seen as a container of ancestral substances. If this is so, it is worth investigating the theme of surfaces, containers, apertures and contents. On a world scale, the comparative archaeological and ethnographic record concerning the latter as well as ceramics, textiles, the human skin...

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11. Rebellion, defection and the position of male cadets: a neglected category (with an afterword)

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pp. 109-118

In 1973 I was making enquiries in the small kingdom of Songwa, where I was talking with a notable. An old woman was following the conversation. She stood up, grasped her worn down pullover with both hands and pulled it up to reveal her stomach. I saw a deep scar, that of a serious wound to judge from the length and jagged depression...

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12. The Mankon palace

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pp. 119-130

Details of the location of the palace can be seen on Map 1, which shows that the Fon’s marketplace, the dancing field, the palace itself, and the patch of secondary forest, all follow a general north-south line. The whole complex, not including the forest, is about 400m long and extends over a low hill, rising to an altitude of 1260m between the...

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General conclusion: 13. New directions for research

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pp. 131-140

The first twelve chapters of this book have been written and published over a period of thirty years. They exhibit significant shifts in theoretical and methodological paradigms. Those shifts impact upon the internal consistency of the whole volume. The present, concluding, chapter is meant to provide a synthesis and some amount of...


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pp. 141-150

Table of illustrations

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pp. 151

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9789956727698
Print-ISBN-13: 9789956727902

Page Count: 164
Publication Year: 2012