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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: October 2019

5 - Colonising Society in Western Africa


EQUIPPED WITH AGRICULTURE AND IRON, THE PEOPLES OF WESTERN Africa sought to build up their numbers, humanise the land, fertilise it with their dead, consolidate their societies, and send out more colonists to extend the struggle with nature. These were tasks so compelling that they gave social organisation and culture a character that still underlies African behaviour today. This chapter describes the evolution of colonising societies in the savanna and forest of West and West-Central Africa between the eleventh and mid-seventeenth centuries, before the Atlantic slave trade made its most widespread impact. But some evidence is also taken from later centuries when it illuminates long-standing social patterns.


From Senegal to Angola, most western Africans of the forest and the immediately adjoining savanna spoke Niger-Congo languages. North of them, also in the savanna, were survivors of groups probably driven southwards by the desiccation of the Sahara, speaking either Nilo-Saharan languages (possibly including the Songhay people of the middle Niger) or Afroasiatic tongues (the Hausa of modern northern Nigeria). Desert peoples – Berbers, Moors, Tuareg – also spoke Afroasiatic languages. Further desiccation in the north and laborious forest clearance in the south bred a continuing southward population drift.

This drift was not the only pattern of colonisation. The West African savanna had no single moving frontier like North America or Siberia. Rather, clusters of pioneer agriculturalists were scattered through the region at favoured and defensible locations like the early settlements along the middle Niger or on mounds above the floodplain south of Lake Chad. By the early second millennium ad, such areas of intensive crop production and rich culture had multiplied, often in river valleys or defensible highland outcrops where the hoe and digging-stick were the only practicable tools. During the eleventh century, for example, a people known to their successors as Tellem settled on the edge of the Bandiagara escarpment in modern Mali, cultivating the plateau margins, barely storing their grain and interring their dead in accessible caverns in the cliffs, and making some of the earliest cloth and the oldest wooden objects – hoes, statuettes, musical instruments, neck-rests for the dead – yet found in sub-Saharan Africa.