Part Five/Synthesis in the Nile Corridor/Nuba

George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Nuba mind-mapping diagram

Part Five
Synthesis in the Nile Corridor
— 20 —

South of Nubia and west of the White Nile lies the region called Kordofan, the homeland of a distinctive Negro people known as the Nuba. The similarity in names should not mislead us into confusing them with the Nubians: even though the Nubian Dilling and Nyima tribes now live near them in the Nuba Hills and are commonly regarded as Nuba. The inhabitants of the Nuba Hills have no archeological record and only a very brief history. Protected by their mountain environment, they have remained relatively untouched by the mouvements of people and cultures in the Nile Valley and between the latter and the central Sudan. They thus constitute a sort of cultural eddy or backwash and probably retain many cultural characteristics of the Nile Negroes before the latter felt the impact of Pharaonic civilization. The Baggara, or Cattle Arabs, who inundated the eastern Sudan after the downfall of the Christian kingdom of Alwa in A.D. 1504, displaced and partially absorbed the Nuba who lived in the plain country, forming tribes of mixed racial composition, like the Bederia and Messiria. They penetrated the Nuba Hills, however, to only a limited extent, so that nearly a quarter million Nuba still maintain a foothold in these mountain fastnesses. Racially the Nuba are indisputably Negroid, with but inconsequential admixture, and are distinguished by very dark skin color, heads of medium breadth (cephalic index 76), kinky hair, and tall stature, averaging about 5 feet 8 inches for adult males. The men go completely naked; the women wear a tuft of leaves in front and behind. Unlike the Sudanic-speaking Nubians, the Nuba speak languages of a completely independent stock, the Kordofanian. This is divided into five subfamilies:

  • Karla in the northwest
  • Koalib in the center
  • Tagali in the northeast
  • Talodi in the south
  • Tumtum in the southwest

To these we have added the Temainian group in the west central part of the Nuba Hills, originally classed by Greenberg (1950) as an independent linguistic stock. Since information received from Greenberg while this book was in press indicates that this group actually affiliates with the Eastern subfamily of the Sudanic stock, its members should probably be treated as Nubians rather than as Nuba. Inasmuch as the Nuba tribes, though very numerous, do not differ widely from one another in culture, the classification below follows the linguistic divisions.

  1. Karla, with the kindred Gulud and the distantly related Tima.
  2. Koalib (Kawalib), embracing the Abol, Delami, Gabri, Heiban, Kalkadda, Karrei, Kinderma (Kandemla), Koalib proper, Laro (AIIeira), Lebu, Lukha, Moro, Mummu, Ndorno, Ngadhado, Nukr (Nyukur), Nyaro, Otoro, Shwai, Tendik, and Tira.
  3. Tagali (Tageli, Tekele), embracing the Kajaja, Moreb (Morib), Rashad, Tagali proper, Tagoi, Tumeli, Tumuk (Tumak), Turjak, and Wadelka.
  4. Talodi (Tasoni, Tara), embracing the Acheron, Buram, Dakoka, central and southcm Eliri, Lofofa, Lumun (Luman), Mesakin, Tacho, Talodi proper, and Torona.
  5. Tumtum, embracing the Demik, northern Eliri, Fama, Kadodo, Kadugli, Kamdang, Kanga, Karondi, Keiga, Korongo (Krongo), Miri, Murta, Tabanya, Teis, Tullishi (Tuleshi). Tumtum proper, and Turug.
  6. Temein (Temain), with the kindred Keiga-Girru and Teis-um-Danab.

The Nuba economy rests primarily upon agriculture, with terraced fields, hoe cultivation, and some irrigation, crop rotation, fallowing, and use of animal manure as fertilizer. The Sudanic complex predominates, with millet and sorghum as the staples, supplemented by sesame, okra, watermelons, gourds, and cotton. From the Egyptian complex the Nuba have received only onions, and they have borrowed none of the Greco-Roman crops. From India, however, they have adopted cucumbers and from America peanuts, peppers, and especially maize, which now rivals the Sudanic cereals in importance. They possess numerous cattle, originally of a dwarf yariety now being replaced by the Arab long-horned breed. They milk cows, as well as goats, and make butter. They also keep sheep, chickens, and a few donkeys, horses, and guinea fowl. Especially interesting, however, is the prominence of pigs. This animal, as we have seen, held a very important place in early Egypt but came to be considered unclean and fell into disrepute sometime after the Middle Kingdom. Subsequently the Arabs, with their even more extreme taboo against pork, practically obliterated the pig throughout North Africa and later in Nubia as well. The Nuba, who are still mainly pagan, thus stand almost alone in their continuation of Neolithic pig culture into the modern era. Other economic activities, like hunting, gathering, and trade, are inconsequential, and the sources do not even mention fishing. In the division of labor by sex the Nuba assign land clearance and the herding and milking of cattle and goats to men, gathering and the tending of pigs and chickens to women. Both sexes participate almost equally in agricultural labor, although the men do more work on the distant fields, women on those closer to the home.
Marriage regularly involves a bride-price in livestock, usually substantial in amount but relatively small in the southern tribes of the Talodi group and among the neighboring Korongo and Nyaro. In most cases it is supplemented by premarital bride-service in the form of several days of agricultural labor each year for the prospective father-in-law, and in many tribes it is partially offset by a dowry of much smaller amount. The Nuba forbid marriage with any first cousin but everywhere exhibit a strong preference for local endogamy outside the limits set by incest taboos and kin-group exogamy. Monogamy is the rule. To be sure, polygyny, exclusively in the non-sororal form, is always permitted, but in actual fact it occurs rather rarely except in the tribes of the Koah group, where it is extremely frequent. The levirate is common or preferential except among the Koalib proper, but only the tribe of the Taloid and Tumtum groups allow sororate union. The normal residenrial unit consists of an independent nuclear family. In cases of polygyny, each co-wife occupies a hut of her own, or even a separate compound, as among the Korongo, Otoro, and Talodi. The Koalib proper have patrilocal extended families, each occupying a homestead under the leadership of the eldest male member. Elsewhere, although related families often reside close together, they do not actually coalesce as larger household units. Residence is normally matrilocal until after the birth of the first child and patrilocal thereafter. The northern tribes of the Koalib and Tumtum groups, however, follow the patrilocal rule from the outset, whereas in the Talodi group and the southern tribes of the Tumtum group avunculocal residence occurs at least as frequently as patrilocality and perhap more often. Kinship terminology of the Iroquois type appears among the Mesakin of the Talodi group, but all other tribes have either Hawaiian or descriptive terms for cousins. Unilinear sibs are universal. They are exogamous except where large, when exogamy is often confined to their component subsibs or lineages. They are commonly associated with special food taboos, ritual numbers and directions, magical functions, and a joint responsibility for blood vengeance. Magical functions usually differ from sib to sib, each being dependent upon others for their proper performance. This creates a symbiotic relationship among sibs which contributes substantially to social integration. Clans are absent except in the Koalib group, where sibs tend to be localized in hamlets or wards.
Though all the Nuba have unilinear kin groups, the rule of descent varies. The Talodi group and the southern tribes of the Tumtum group follow exclusively the matrilineal rule, the northern and central cribes of the Koalib group are as exclusively patrilineal, and the southern tribes of the Koalib group and the northern tribes of the Tumtum group are characterized by double descent. Whichevcr unilinear principle predominates, its rule of exogamy is extended to the group of the parent with whom Ego is nor affiliated, as well as to that of the other parent and himself. Analysis of the distributional evidence enables us to reconstruct the development of social organization in this area with a high degree of assurance and yields valuable insights which are unattainable by those anthropologist who confine themselves arbitrarily to purely synchronic methods of structural and functional interpretation.
Geographical contiguity pnwides us with our first clue. We note that the Nuba tribe with patrilineal descent are precisely those who have been most exposed to Arab contact and who are located in closest proximity to the strongly patrilineal Dilling tribe of Nubians. Linguistic relationship offer a second line of analytical attack. Peoples whose languages are generically related have normally participated in a single cultural community at some time in the past, whereas those with unrelated languages are likely to have had different culture histories, even though they may happen to occupy contiguous territories at a given time. On the basis of language we have already been able to separate the Sudanic-speaking Dilling and Nyima from the Kordofanian-speaking Nuba proper, with whom they are commonly confused, and to relate them historically rather to the Nubians. The next step consists in grouping the Nuba tribes by the subfamilies of the Kordofanian stock to which their languages belong. When this is done we discover that data on social organization are lacking for the small Karla and Tagali subfamilies but available for at least three tribes each of the Koalib, Talodi, and Tumtum divisions. This enables us to note that matrilineal sibs occur in every tribe of the Talodi and Tumtum subfamilies and in at least one important tribe (the Nyaro) of the Koalib division, significantly the one farthest removed geographically from the patrilineal Dilling. This strongly suggests that all the Nuba were originally matrilineal and that a shift to patrilineal descent has occurred at a relatively recent time in the presence of Nubian neighbors who have provided a model for cultural borrowing.
Comparative studies provide a third and supporting type of evidence. They have demonstrated that double descent, attested for the Nyaro tribe of the Koalib group and the Tullishi tribe of the Tumtum group, reflects, wherever else it occurs in the world, the temporal priority of matrilineal over patrilineal descent in the particular group. The emergence of patrilineal descent in a previously matrilineal society is a commonplace, whereas matrilineal descent can ordinarily appear in a formerly patrilineal society only after an intervening period of bilateral descent. When assessed with this developmental hypothesis in mind, the distributional evidence lends striking confirmation.
Among the southernmost and least disturbed Nuba tribes, who are all characterized by bride-service, a very small bride-price, rare polygyny, initial matrilocal residence, and a high incidence (50 to 70 per cent) of avunculocal residence, the Mesakin tribe of the Talodi group, who are the most protected of all by their interior location, have Iroquois cousin terminology. It is thus reasonable to reconstruct the original social structure of the Nuba as belonging to the Avuncu-Iroquois type of Murdock (1949, p. 244). Its most characteristic feature would have been matrilineal descent, initially matrilocal but permanently avunculocal residence, bride-service rather than bride-price, monogamy, and Iroquois cousin terminology.
The next phase of development is exemplified by the Talodi proper and by the Korongo tribe of the Tumtum group, both near neighbors of the Mesakin. It may well have been initiated by the introduction of cattle, which, since they were owned and tended by men, strengthened the influence and economic position of the male sex. Cattle provided a wherewithal for paying a bride-price and thus resulted in a decreasing emphasis on bride-service. Their possession favored patrilineal inheritance and patrilocal residence and made polygyny much more readily achievable. Thus the Talodi and Korongo are characterized by a modest bride-price, limited polygyny, mixed rule of inheritance, and a moderate incidence of patrilocal residence, although they still adhere strictly to matrilineal descent. The Iroquois pattern of designating cousins, losing its original support in kin-group localization, yielded to the practice, either of extending sibling terms to cousins, as among the Lofofa, or of applying descriptive terminology.
The Tullishi tribe of the Tumtum group, northwest of the foregoing and in contact with the patrilineal Nyima tribe of Nubians, illustrate the next step. Here the bride-price has already become substantial, and patrilocal residence has completely replaced the avunculocal practice. Ioreover, the new pattern of localization has given rise to definite patrilineages, although they are still agamous and subordinate to the older matrisibs. This development is carried forward by the Nyaro, the southernmost tribe of the Koalib group who live to the east of the matrilineal core. Here the incipient and agamous patrilineages have evolved into full-fledged exogamous patrisibs, which have taken over the association with food taboos and the responsibility for various rituals, leaving blood vengeance and certain funerary obligations in the hands of the still flourishing matrisibs.
The culmination of the entire process is reflected in the other tribes of the Koalib group, notably the Heiban, Koalib proper, Moro, Ororo, and Tira. Here the bride-price has become really substantial. Residence has become exclusively patrilocal; only the Tira. significantly the southernmost of the five, have retained the initial matrilocal period. Polygyny has become general; in many of the tribes more than 50 per cent of all married men possess plural wives. Finally, patrilineal descent has become absolute; the original matrilineal kin groups have completely disappeared. The postulated transition in social organization has run its full course.
The Nuba live in mall edemary hamlets, several of which are commonly united to form a hill community. Dwelling are round, with cylindrical mud walls and conical thatched roofs. Untilled land belongs collectively to the hill community, but individuals (with rare exceptions only men) acquire private property in plots which they bring under cultivation, and they can transmit their rights to this land through sale or inheritance. Livestock constitute the principal form of wealth, and status distinctions between rich and poor are of considerable consequence. A mild form of domestic slavery also prevails, but war captives are usually ultimately adopted into the family. Among the Tullishi, the hill community is ruled by a hereditary headman whose person is sacred and taboo. In general, however, the office of chief is weakly developed, and political power is vested in influential rainmakers or in wealthy men, who can exerci e only informal sanction. With few exceptions, all of them recent, political integration does not transcend the level of the hill community save for the temporary influence of individual “big men” and for the unity achieved, especially in the Koalib group, through the symbiotic interdependence of sibs based on their specialization in magic. Intergroup warfare occurs frequently but is usually confined to blood feuds and to raids for slaves and cattle.
Age-grades are common, though not universal. Initiation by circumcision or other genital mutilations does not occur, but the Ototo have adopted from the Sudanic-speaking peoples the custom of knocking out the incisor teeth of both sexes at puberty. The same tribe has by far the most complex age-grade system in the area. Boys and young men between the ages of eleven and twenty-six are organized into five grades, and at an important ceremony every third year each age-set is promoted to the next higher grade. A set acts as a unit in cooperative labor, and members of the two junior grades have special clubhouses. Unmarried girls are organized into three grades and live in a special dormitory which they use as a club.

Selected Bibliography


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
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