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GHANA STUDIES / Volume 14 ISSN 1536-5514 / E-ISSN 2333-7168© 2012 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 11 RECONSIDERING IVOR WILKS’S “BIG BANG” THEORY OF AKAN HISTORY MARIANO PAVANELLO Introduction: The Akan “Big Bang” Theory In this article, I wish to discuss Ivor Wilks’s “big bang” theory of Akan history,1 particularly as it concerns the related hypothesis on the recent origin of matrilineal mmusua.2 Wilks assumes that, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Akan of the forest were protagonists of an extraordinary transition from a foraging economy to an agrarian system, and that matriclans originated in the sixteenth century together with the matrilineal ideology itself.3 He presents his theory as follows:4 I advance [. . .] a “big bang” theory of Akan history. It comprises several theses. First, in the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and in the forest country between the Ofin and the Pra, a foraging mode of production gave way to an agricultural one. [. . .] Second, that in the course of this transformation the forest people reorganized themselves in a way such that the bands appropriate to the older mode of production were replaced 1. The term Akan refers to a group of populations sharing a stock of cultural features and a common linguistic phylum settled between the Bandama river in Ivory Coast and the Volta river in Ghana (for the “Akan problem,” see Kiyaga-Mulindwa 1980; Pescheux 2003; Terray 1995; Wilks 1982, 1993c, 2005), even though it is not possible to consider such a group as ethnically homogeneous. 2. Plural of abusua, word used throughout the Akan area commonly translated as “family ” in the sense of the anthropological categories of matrilineal clan or lineage. 3. Wilks (1993b: 70) gives credit to tales, reported by Reindorf ([1895] 2007: 104– 105), and Rattray (1916: 41), that seem to place the origin of the matrilineal system at the beginning of the Akan political development in the Adanse area in the sixteenth century. 4. Wilks set forth his theory in various papers (1977, 1982, 1993a, 1993b, 1993c, 2005). 12 Ghana Studies • volume 14 • 2012 by the matriclans appropriate to the newer. [. . . ] But third, that the transformation also engendered the emergence of political structures of a new kind: the aman5 (Wilks 1993c: 94). [. . .] this represented a major transformation in the system of productive forces such that an economy with a primary dependence upon hunting and gathering gave way to one with a primary dependence upon the cultivation of food crops; that the social relations of production of the forest peoples were accordingly modified by the creation of the great exogamous matriclans [. . .] this socioeconomic revolution began, geographically, in the forest heartland of Amansie and Adanse,6 and chronologically, should probably be regarded as having reached its zenith in what is for the Asante the immediate protohistoric period (firi tetemu), the sixteenth century (Wilks 1993b: 71). The historical awareness about Africa may be summarized by the following passage from Paul Lovejoy: One characteristic [of Africa] was a social structure based on ethnicity and kinship. Although the antiquity of kin-based societies is not known, linguistic , cultural and economic evidence indicates that such structures were very old. [. . .] Thus, the coastal evidence for west-central Africa indicates the probable existence of a matrilineal belt of societies stretching across the continent to the Indian Ocean, just as it does today. Nothing in the 5. Plural of ɔman, a Twi term designating the political community, and particularly the state. 6. Wilks refers to the “highly auriferous area in the forest country between the Komoé and Volta rivers [that] may conveniently be referred to as the ‘Akan goldfields,’ because it is all but completely dominated by the Akan-speaking peoples” (Wilks 1993a: 4). This vast area of forestland, whose centre is the auriferous basin of the Ofin and the Pra rivers in SW Ghana, lies between 5° and 70° N lat., and 1° E and 3° W long., from the coastal line of the gulf of Guinea in the South, to the southern edge of the savannah in the North, roughly between Bonduku in Ivory Coast, and the Volta Lake in Ghana. Pavanello • Reconsidering Ivor Wilks’s...


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