African Civilisations, by Tomos Evans

On the 6th of November this year, a symposium was held at UCL revolving around three particular African civilisations: the Mande, Kongo and Yoruba peoples. The symposium was highly multidisciplinary with anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians and others each bringing with them their own distinctive disciplinary paradigms in providing a range of insights into the pasts and presents of these diverse African peoples. In spite of the theoretical and methodological diversity implicit in the various disciplines represented, I noted several key, common themes that gained more and more clarity throughout the symposium.

One of these themes was a discussion of the concept of civilisation itself, and how a study of African ‘civilisations’ (past and present) might critique Eurocentric definitions of it. Concepts of civilisation that arose during the Western Enlightenment tended to be highly essentialist and relied on the idea of societies and civilisations as bounded, and in some cases static, entities. However, Dr. Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz in his plenary lecture on the art of the Kongo peoples drew instead from the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss with the idea that civilisation is more like the fibres of a plant which connect in different places to create concepts such as civilisation or ethnicity. Such concepts of civilisation are globally applicable but are particularly suitable to the Mande, Kongo and Yoruba peoples who all share certain linguistic and cultural traits (connecting ‘plant fibres’) but who also exhibit significant social, political and cultural diversity across time and space.

Professor Kevin MacDonald in his talk on Mande political traditions emphasised his use of the word ‘tradition’ (rather than ‘culture’) in order to avoid implying that Mande political structures have remained static through time. Jan Janssen in his talk on Mande cosmology suggested that such cosmologies have a deep history but are also subject to considerable change and flexibility. He suggested that the famous Epic of Sunjata of the Malinke people could be a potential allegory for the political upheavals that occurred when horses were introduced to the West African Sahel and the leadership of rulers who relied on the practical and ritual benefits inherent in iron metallurgy was challenged. However, he also noted that the epic, transmitted as an oral tradition, was did not merely reproduce one static cosmology but rather was shaped in turn by later reinterpretations and alterations, particularly by the political elite of the region in the 17th and 18th centuries AD who infused the epic with rules relating to the reproduction of military power that differed from those of their ancestors.

In his talk on the Kongo peoples, Professor Wyatt MacGaffey cited debates between ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’ who emphasise either the ideational unity of the Kongo peoples or their considerable diversity respectively. Dr. Akin Ogundiran’s talk on the archaeology of the Yoruba emphasised that the idea of ‘Yoruba’ civilisation was not an invention of the 19th century but rather a likely far older, more gradual and more flexible process. He believes that the roots of the Yoruba civilisation derive from the origins of the city of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ beginning in the 9th century AD which became a great centre of both trade and ritual knowledge. This centre brought the peoples of present day western Nigeria closer together but not in a way that led to their complete homogenisation. Professor Karin Barber’s talk on Yoruba praise poetry (oriki) emphasised the great diversity of interpretation that existed around this cryptic medium of discourse while also demonstrating the far-reaching unity of its structure and logic in bringing history to life by invoking the ancestor gods (orisha). Professor John Picton noted some common influences in the art traditions of the Yoruba but also emphasised that the art was simultaneously very diverse and an open system that derived certain elements from contact with trans-Saharan peoples from further north. He ended with a condemnation of essentialist ethnic categorisation which ‘straitjackets’ complexity into ethnocentric categories and divisions.

This idea of projecting external categories (‘straitjackets’) onto African civilisations was another theme that arose in the symposium. Kevin MacDonald and Wyatt MacGaffey both emphasised the need for a more bottom-up, locally-grounded approach when understanding these societies. Importing external theories and concepts has been common in the history of various social science and humanities disciplines, not least in archaeology which has often imported foreign social categories into African archaeological theory such as the concept of ‘chiefdoms’ which derives from the hierarchical systems of ascribed leadership known in anthropology deriving from Polynesia. MacGaffey pointed out that the anthropology of Central Africa has also made use of imported theory. A particular case was the division between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ spheres imposed on the Kongo peoples by western anthropologists who failed to take into account the fact that the local Kongo people had their own, distinct ways of categorising knowledge that bore little resemblance to those of western anthropologists at the time. Dr. Ramon Sarró in his talk on Kongo prophets emphasised the need to be wary of boxing anthropologies of African religion into bounded religious categories such as anthropologies of ‘Islam’ or ‘Christianity’: some Christian Kongo prophets for instance were in fact very religiously plural believing in separate gods: one for white people and one for black people.

The final key theme that I noticed, which relates strongly to the other two themes, is the impact of ‘hybridisation’ between these civilisations and Western civilisations and how such a process has generated continuities and discontinuities with (and reinterpretations of) past traditions. Dr. Koen Bostoen, part of the Kongo King project that has been investigating the archaeology and linguistics of the northern DRC noted the incredible archaeological finds that were present at the Mbansa Nsundi 16th to 17th century site. A cemetery next to a stone church was excavated which revealed graves rich in European material culture including glass beads, copper crosses and impressive sabres (some of which appear to have been manufactured locally but influenced by European designs). Oral histories and Portuguese documents confirm that these were Kongo people who were adopting aspects of European culture (such as Catholicism and its associated material culture). But the Kongo peoples did not merely passively adopt these ideas but actively reinterpreted them, ensuring a degree of continuity with their pre-Christian traditions while also developing ideas entirely new to both pre-Christian Kongo culture and European Christian culture. Ramon Sarró for instance demonstrated the uniqueness and importance of forms of Christianity that manifested amongst the Kongo peoples from the puritanical principles of Kimbanguism to other prophetic religions that sought to reconnect with the pre-colonial, ancestral past (emphasising for instance the importance of sacred rainforests).

Professor Cécile Fromont detailed how imported European cloth was integrated into Kongo tradition, particularly the wearing of white cloth by Kongo men who had converted to Christianity. Despite acting as the symbol of a newly imported religion, she suggested that the colour white was important to pre-Christian Kongo cosmology, being particularly associated with a spirit world. This was a good example of the merging of ideas from Christian and local Kongo cosmologies into a new, coherent system. Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz also showed examples of the continuity of pre-Christian Kongo traditions in the art of the African diaspora triggered by the development of the Atlantic slave trade. One fascinating example was a crucifix that had been filled with ritual medicine which echoes the traditional practice of inserting metal nails into Kongo minkisi figurines to invoke spiritual forces.

What all of these themes have in common is that they all recognise the time depth and continuities present amongst the Mande, Kongo and Yoruba peoples but do so without assuming them to be static, monolithic and uniform across time and space. Common ideas clearly exist and have persisted through time, but these civilisations have also witnessed great transformation and diversification: they have rich and complex histories that have always been highly dynamic. It was a great privilege and honour for me to witness so many fantastic speakers from various disciplines and various institutions. The symposium played a key role in improving my knowledge of the Mande, Kongo and Yoruba peoples while also opening me up to concepts and principles applicable also to various other African civilisations, past and present. I’d like to offer a big, heartfelt thankyou to all those who helped organise the symposium and to all those who participated in it!

Tomos Evans is a student on the UCL African Studies MA Programme, taking the Heritage pathway. Tomos conducted his undergraduate studies in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge and is particularly interested in the archaeology, anthropology and cultural heritage of sub-Saharan Africa and the ways in which studying the African past can challenge and influence academic and popular notions of culture, civilisation, society and development as well as contribute to our understanding of the role of Africa in world history and prehistory.


One comment

  1. Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju · September 4, 2016



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