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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 July 2013

Haverford College
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Jan Vansina's Paths in the Rainforests (1990) provides an instructive example of progress in overcoming the continuing burden of nineteenth-century evolutionary theory in studies of precolonial Africa in both historiography and anthropology. This article focuses on a critical section of the book, which outlines social evolution and ‘the invention of matrilinearity’ in the area around the lower Congo, showing both the strengths and the weaknesses of Vansina's approach.

Revisiting Kinship
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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This article is, in effect, an extended ‘footnote’ to p. 201 of my ‘Changing representations in Central African history’, The Journal of African History, 46:2 (2005), 189–207.


1 Vansina, J., Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa (Madison, WI, 1990)Google Scholar. For Vansina's preparatory thinking relative to this section, see his ‘Antécédents des royaumes bateke (tio) et Kongo’, Muntu, 9 (1994), 7–49; also his ‘Lignage, idéologie et histoire en Afrique équatoriale’, Enquêtes et documents d'histoire africaine, 4 (1980), 133–55.

2 Morgan, L. H., Ancient Society: or, Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization (Chicago, 1908 [orig. pub. 1877]), 365Google Scholar; Murdock, G. P., Africa: Its Peoples and their Culture History (New York, 1959)Google Scholar, 289.

3 Murdock, Africa, 29.

4 Goody, J., ‘Cousin terms’, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 26:2 (1970), 125–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Vansina, Paths, 76.

6 When in the course of an address to the Royal Historical Society in London I mentioned kinship, members of the audience audibly groaned.

7 Fortes, M. and Evans-Pritchard, E. E., African Political Systems (London, 1940)Google Scholar; Kuklick, H., The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885–1945 (Cambridge, 1991)Google Scholar, 269.

8 On the limitations of the political imagination in the anthropology of this period, see Spencer, J., ‘Post-colonialism and the political imagination’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 3:1 (1997), 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Vansina, ‘Lignage, idéologie’, passim.

10 Vansina, Paths, 11–16.

11 Ibid. 5. Vansina is referring to a notorious, derogatory comment by H. Trevor-Roper, indirectly to Hegel, and to prolonged discussions in the 1960s and 1970s about supposed Bantu and other migrations.


12 Ibid. 75.


13 This tradition goes back to Maine's ‘Legal Fictions’, see Maine, H. S., Ancient Law: Its Connection with the Early History of Society and its Relations to Modern Ideas (London, 1917 [orig. pub. 1861])Google Scholar, 16.

14 Vansina, Paths, 147.

15 Ibid. 148.


16 Ibid. 149.


17 Ibid. 152.


18 Karl Laman invited and collected 10,000 manuscript pages written by Protestant converts in 1915, dealing with every aspect of traditional Kongo; see MacGaffey, W., Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular (Bloomington, IN, 2000)Google Scholar, ch. 3.

19 Vansina, Paths, 152.

20 Vansina, ‘Antécédents’, 30.

21 Vansina says that marriage contracts did not include sister exchange, but it occurred in Kongo under the name kimpiisa, from viisana, ‘to come to an understanding’.

22 Janzen, J. M., Lemba, 1650–1930: A Drum of Affliction in Africa and the New World (New York, 1982), 46Google Scholar, 57, 78, and 138.

23 Radcliffe-Brown, A. R., ‘The study of kinship systems’, in his Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses (New York, 1965 [orig. pub. 1952]), 4989Google Scholar.

24 The children of two brothers are also ‘in one place’, because their fathers are ‘one person’.

25 Poewe, K. O., ‘Matriliny in the throes of change: kinship, descent and marriage in Luapula, Zambia’, Africa, 48:3 (1978), 205–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Elizabeth Colson in a letter to me, 13 Dec. 1995; and Goody, ‘Cousin terms’, 137. On terminological flexibility among the Kongo-related Nzabi, see Dupré, G., Un ordre et sa destruction (Paris, 1982), 158–61Google Scholar.

26 When I went to Kongo in 1964 I had no intention of studying kinship and descent, which I assumed had already been taken care of by missionary ethnographers, but after living in a village for a few months as a ‘fictitious’ member of the Nsundi clan I realized that they were quite wrong.

27 I tried to explain this to Hal Scheffler and L. de Sousberghe, both considered at the time to be kinship specialists; both thought it was ‘impossible’.

28 Comaroff, J. L., ‘Dialectical systems, history and anthropology: units of study and questions of theory’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 8:2 (1982), 143–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For varied and specific examples of opportunistic terminology, see MacGaffey, W., Custom and Government in the Lower Congo (Berkeley CA, 1970)Google Scholar, ch. 5 and 164.

29 Goody, ‘Cousin terms’.

30 In English usage, the mere possibility of multiple terms gives rise to jokes such as the song, ‘I am my own Grandpa’, or that a certain celebrity who married his former wife's adopted daughter ‘is his own father-in-law’.

31 Harris, M., The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (New York, 1968)Google Scholar, 586.

32 This has been my experience not only in Kongo but in the course of intermittently living in northern Ghana over a period of 15 years.

33 This was A. L. Kroeber's view, later disputed by Radcliffe-Brown, who believed that words denote realities; but what if the ‘realities’ are negotiable?

34 Comaroff, ‘Dialectical systems’, 152.

35 Vansina asserts that because ngwakhazi occurs only in northern Kongo it probably originated there, but in fact the term is in general use in the south also. See Paths, 276.

36 The term comes from kazala, ‘to marry’, now obsolete, from the Portuguese casar. In Mayombe, a wedding is kikaza. Bentley notes ngudi ankaji, ‘mother's brother’, as different from nkaza or nkaji, ‘wife or husband’, as does Doutreloux: ‘Nkazi n'est pas Kazi’. See Bentley, W. H., Dictionary and Grammar of the Kongo Language, as Spoken at San Salvador, the Ancient Capital of the Old Kongo Empire, West Africa (London, 1887)Google Scholar; and Doutreloux, A., L'Ombre des fétiches: société et culture yombe (Paris, 1967)Google Scholar, 95n.

37 Ngudi may also mean ‘origin’, or ‘interior’, as of a house.

38 The dictionary of 1652 gives ‘niece’ as the meaning of mwana nkasi. Vansina, ‘Antécédents’, 30n45.

39 Vansina, Paths, 154; Vansina, ‘Lignage, idéologie’, 138.

40 Kopytoff, I., ‘Matrilineality, residence, and residential zones’, American Ethnologist, 4:3 (1997), 539–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 See also Vansina, J., How Societies are Born: Governance in West Central Africa before 1600 (Charlottesville, VA, 2004), 88–9Google Scholar.

42 Vansina knows that kanda ‘formerly meant group’; it still does. See Vansina, ‘Antécédents’, 32. This is an example of the way in which a likely gloss may block curiosity as to other glosses. Kanda may denote ‘clan’, but its basic meaning is ‘category, kind’, as in min'kisi miena makanda matatu, ‘there are three kinds of minkisi’. Similarly, mbanda is regularly translated in dictionaries as ‘co-wife’, but is in fact used reciprocally between any two persons, male or female, who have married into ‘the same place’, however that place may be defined.

43 Maine, Ancient Law, 74–8. Vansina deplores the tendency of British anthropology to give primacy to kinship rather than territory, see his ‘Lignage, idéologie’, 145.

44 Vansina, Paths, 155.

45 Ibid. 146–52.


46 Ibid. 158; Vansina, ‘Antécédents’, 34.


47 Hilton, A., The Kingdom of Kongo (Oxford, 1985)Google Scholar; Thornton, J. K., ‘The origins and early history of the Kingdom of Kongo, c. 1350–1550’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 34:1 (2001), 96CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Hilton, A., ‘Family and kinship among the Kongo south of the Zaïre River from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries’, The Journal of African History, 24:2 (1983), 196205CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Thornton, ‘Origins’, 89–120.

50 Ibid. 96–9.


51 Swartenbroeckx, R. P., ‘L'esclavage chez les Yansi’, Bulletin de la Société Royale Belge d'Anthropologie et de Préhistoire, 77 (1966), 151–3Google Scholar; MacGaffey, W., ‘Lineage structure, marriage and the family amongst the Central Bantu’, The Journal of African History, 24:2 (1983), 173–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and MacGaffey ‘Changing representations’, 199.

52 Vansina, J., ‘Knowledge and perceptions of the African past’, in Jewsiewicki, B. and Newbury, D. S. (eds.), African Historiographies: What History for which Africa? (Beverly Hills, CA, 1986), 2841Google Scholar.

53 Clark, G., ‘The invasion in British archaeology’, Antiquity, 40 (1966), 172–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 MacGaffey, ‘Changing representations’, 203–6; Vansina, How Societies, 76.

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