Despite its very visible career in anthropology and folklore, structuralism has been little used by historians of precolonial Africa. Only Ronald Atkinson has applied the method of Lévi-Strauss in the Edmund Leach variant, although a number of historians have attempted to elucidate symbolic meanings by other means. Rather surprisingly as well, given the two decades or so that have elapsed since Lévi-Strauss developed its axioms and analysis, no historian of Africa has ventured to discuss the validity of structuralism for coping with the interpretation of myths of origin or other oral traditions, except in passing. The topic has surfaced only here and there in the never-ending debate about traditions as expressions of the present, or of the past, or of both. Given the influence of structuralism elsewhere, though, it is due time that the approach be discussed for its own sake.
The reticence to do so became especially incongruous when a senior structuralist, Luc de Heusch, began to cover ground that historians had recently trod. In his Le roi ivre he discussed at length myths in the kingdoms of southeastern Zaire and adjacent areas. This did prompt publication of two articles about his Luba and Lunda interpretations, but no general assessment of this work in toto. Jeffrey Hoover faulted de Heusch's Lunda material but still praised his “provocative ideas” and the method, “which bore some good fruit,” while Thomas Reefe prefaced his critique of Luba material by calling the book “stimulating” and sidestepped the issue by noting that “no matter what the final assessment of this book will be by historians…” Others were equally bland in their references to this work, while still refuting de Heusch on specifics. Everyone felt, it seems, that a general assessment was beyond or outside their competence. Yet a general critique would have been of use for de Heusch is one of the oldest and most experienced structuralists in anthropology, perhaps the first disciple of Lévi-Strauss. Trained in Paris, he imbibed the approaches of the Griaule school, the protostructuralism of Georges Dumézil, and the early teaching of the master himself. Of all structuralists he remains the most faithful to the method of Lévi-Strauss.