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  • Comment on Jean-Pierre Warnier's "The Grassfields of Cameroon: Center or Periphery?"
  • John K. Thornton (bio)

Jean-Pierre Warnier's article makes important points, even as he raises provocative questions for African historiography. The central thrust of the article is an important challenge to the existing historiography of the Cameroon Grassfields: that the complex societies and kingdoms there rose, not in response to the Atlantic slave trade in the late eighteenth century, but from more indigenous (at least to Africa) processes, whose core was located in the interior, rather than the coast. He marshals some telling, though inconclusive, evidence to support his hypothesis, primarily to show that archaeological and linguistic evidence combine to suggest that the region probably possessed a dense population in quite remote times, and these people were thus not simply fleeing the slave trade, but responding to local conditions, if not in the highlands themselves, at least to a world system that included the Nile Valley and the Lake Chad Basin.

The question of relocating the core regions of the system to which the Grassfields belong is an interesting one, and that there is sufficient evidence to refute, at least, the idea that the slave trade and the Atlantic world were responsible is convincing. Defining the way in which complexity developed is, however, more problematic. Warnier's work rests on a long-standing question in African historiography: the question of what used to be called state formation and in recent terminology is more often called the origin of complexity. In defining this, Warnier draws on world-systems explanations, which in turn rest on patterns of exchange.

World-systems analysis ultimately rests on ideas of dependency and underdevelopment popular in the 1960s and 1970s as a means to explain the economic backwardness of Latin America and South Asia. In its African applications, as by Walter Rodney, it rested on the argument that more-developed economies could drain resources from less-developed ones through contact and exchange (Rodney 1973). While the classic formulations primarily examined colonial or conquest settings (in the Americas) or unequal trade patterns (in Europe), Warnier seeks to explore it as a means of understanding the origins of social complexity in his target region (Frank 1966; Wallerstein 1974, 1980).

The great problem that faces efforts to explore state formation and the origins of complexity is that the process is never documented in writing. [End Page 88] Even in Mesopotamia, where writing coincides with complexity, the documentation is not sufficiently detailed for it to be useful for seeing the origins of complexity. By the time Mesopotamia had developed full-fledged writing and was using it to document events, the society being documented had been complex for centuries. In Africa, where writing is not a factor at all, and where the events lay outside the view of literate witnesses, we are forced to draw on indirect processes, primarily archaeology, but particularly by evoking theoretical formulations.

Once Africanist historiography had defeated the racial-migration hypotheses of the 1930s, such as the infamous "Hamitic hypothesis," the theoretical position of choice was trade stimulus. It was first applied to the empires of the Western Sudan, for example, by Nehemia Levtzion, but it was evoked for East and Southeast Africa, notably in understanding the origins of Zimbabwe (Levtzion 1973). Historians of the 1960s and 1970s routinely used commercial relations and changes in these relations to explain not just origins of complexity, but also a good deal of historical action in general—the trade-and-politics approach (Gray and Birmingham 1970). Little evidence suggested exactly how trade created stimulus for state and class formation, but most scholars noted correlations between powerful empires and trade routes and noted that the taxation of trade was important to revenues of political elites. That these theories were largely spun for the Western Sudan, and that they relied on commercial sources, which tended to pay close attention to exactly these causative factors, were noted, but only in passing.

The trade-and-politics theory was neatly absorbed into world-systems analysis as the new theoretical formulations were created. That trade might be an unequal relation between the African partner and a North African one made sense, and as...


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