Part Three/Sudanic Agricultural Civilization/Voltaic Peoples

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 Voltaic Peoples mind-mapping diagram

Part Three
Sudanic Agricultural Civilization
— 12 —
Voltaic Peoples

East of the Nuclear Mande and south of the Niger River, largely in the interior watershed of the Volta River, live a block of Negro peoples who, for the most part, belong to the Voltaic subfamily of the Nigritic linguistic stock. They share with the Nuclear Mande so many features, not only of subsistence economy, but also of other basic aspects of culture, that, despite an almost complete lack of direct evidence, we can safely assume that they borrowed the fundamental elements of Sudanic agricultural civilization from their western neighbors at a very early date. They have had, however, only a small part in the political history of the western Sudan as compared with the peoples to the west, north, and east of them. To be sure, the large Gurma and Mossi tribes in the north of the province have had strong states for at least the past 800 years and have frequently warred with their powerful neighbors on the Niger. They have not, however, either created great empires by conquest or suffered subjection to alien states. On the contrary, they seem to have served as buffers, protecting their weaker southern neighbors from exposure to the political upheavals that have racked the Nuclear Mande, the Songhai, and the Hausa. Even the impact of Islam has been slight and sporadic. For these reasons their culture probably reflects fairly closely what that of the Mande must have been like prior to their embarkation on a career of empire building and to the advent of the Berbers and Arabs from the north.
The Voltaic peoples attain today a total population of approximately 6 million, or appreciably more than the Nuclear Mande. Unlike the latter, however, they do not consist of a few great and relatively homogeneous nations but rather, probably because of their relative isolation, form a large number of culturally distinct tribes. In the classification that follows, even extensive combination has been unable to reduce the number of separate ethnic groups below forty-eight. These are divided into clusters on the basis of linguistic affiliations. Unless otherwise noted, each tribe is to be understood as pagan in religion and as belonging to the appropriate branch of the Voltaic subfamily of the Nigritic stock.

A Ritual Headman of the Tallensi. (Courtesy of Meyer Fortes.)

Senufo Cluster

  1. Guin (Gouin, Gwin, Mbouin), with the kindred Turuka (Kpin, Pain, Pin, Tourouka, Turka). They number about 55,000, and their linguistic affiliation is still uncertain.
  2. Karaboro, with the Tyefo. They number about 35,000, and the linguistic affiliation of the Tyefo is uncertain.
  3. Komono, with the kindred Falafala, Pala, and Sikolo. They number less than 10,000.
  4. Nafana (Nafame, Nafarha), with the Pantera. They number about 15,000.
  5. Senufo (Sene, Siena). They number about 15,000, of whom a very few are lslamized.
  6. Wara (Guala, Ouara), with the atioro (Samino, Sanmu). The linguistic affi liations of these small tribes, with a total population of about 6,000, are still uncertain.

Habe Cluster

  1. Bobo, embracing the Bua (Black Bobo, Bobo-fin, Boua, Bwa), Kian (Kyan, Tian, White Bobo), Nienige (Niniga), Tara (Red Bobo), and Sankura (Zara). They number about 250.000 and have been very slightly influenced by Islam.
  2. Deforo. They number about 10,000.
  3. Dogon (Dagom, H abe, Hambbe, Kado, Makbe, Tombo, Toro) . They number about 225,000.

Lobi Cluster

  1. Dian (Dya), with the Puguli. They number about 11,000.
  2. Dorosie (Dokhosie, Dorhosye), with the Gan and Padorho. They number about 10,000.
  3. Kulango (Kolano, Koulango, Kulambo, Ngoulango, Parkhalla), with the Loron (Lorho, Loro), Nabe (Nembai), and Tese (Tegue). They number about 30,000.
  4. Lobi, with the kindred Tegessie (Loron-Lobi, Touna, Tuna). They number about 110,000.
  5. Tusyan, with the Semu (Same) and Vigye. They number about 25,000.

Grusi Cluster

  1. Builsa (Boura, Bulea, Bulo, Buluk, Bura, Kanjaga) . They number about 55,000.
  2. Dagari (Dagaba, Dagati), with the Zanga. They number about 140,000.
  3. Degha (Dga, Diammou, Dyamu, Mo). They number about 8,000.
  4. Grunshi (Gorise, Gourounsi, Gruinse, Grussi, Gurunsi) , embracing the Awuna (Aculo, Adjolo, Atyulo, Frafra, Kassonfra, Yulu) , Fera (Fra), Isala (Debe, Galebagba, Hisala, Isalen, Pasala, Sissala, Tamboboda), Kasena (Kasom, Kassonboura, Kassuna), and Nagwa. They number about 110,000.
  5. Lilse (Lyela), with the Fulse (Akurumba, Foulse, Kouroumba, Kurumba), and Nioniosse (Nyonyose). These three tribes, with a total population of about 60,000, are quite distinct, probably even linguistically, though often confused.
  6. Nunuma (Tanoumba, Nibulu, Nounouma), with the kindred Menkiera. They number about 35,000 and are frequently classed as Grunshi.
  7. Vagala (Site, Vagele), with the detached Tampolense (Tamprussi). These small remnant tribes number about 2,000.

Mole Cluster

  1. Birifor (Birifon), with the Lober. They number about 85,000.
  2. Dagomba (Dagbamba, Dagboma), with the kindred anumba (lanune). They number about 175,000, and Islam is making some inroads among them.
  3. Gurensi (Gorensi), embracing the Kusasi (Kousansi, Kusae, Kusale, Kusan, Kussi), Namnam (Tabdam, Nabte), Nankanse (Gurensi proper, Nankana), and Tallensi (Talene, Talni). They number about 170,000.
  4. Mamprusi (Mampelle, Mampulugu). They number about 50,000.
  5. Mossi (Mole, Moshi), with the Yarse, a mercantile people of Mande origin. They number about 1,750,000, of whom fewer than 100,000, mainly Yarse, are Moslems.
  6. Naudeba (Loso, Losso, Naoudernba). They number about 50,000.
  7. Wala (Oule, Wile, Wule). They number about 55,000

Gurma Cluster

  1. Basari (Bassari, Bedjelib, Tchan, Tobote), with the Chamba (Akasele, Kaselem, Tschamba). They number about 80,000.
  2. Gurma (Gounnanrche). They number about 180,000.
  3. Konkomba (Bekpokpak, Komba, Konko, Kpankpam, Lekpokpam, Pangpana), with the Bekwom (Bikwombe) and Ngaga. They number about 50,000.
  4. Moba (Bmoba, Moab, Moare, Mwan). They number about 50,000.

Tem Cluster

  1. Kabre (Bekaburum, Cabrai, Kabure, Kaure, Kobore), with the kindred Difale, Dompago, Logba, Manganapo, Namba (Lamba), and Tamberma. They number about 205,000.
  2. Tem (Chaucho, Kotokoli, Temba, Timu, Tsaursho). They number about 15,000.

Bargu Cluster

  1. Bargu (Barba, Bariba, Borgawa, Burgu). They number about 150,000, of whom perhaps 10,000 are Moslems.
  2. Kilinga (Kilir, Kyilina, Sugu, Tsylina, Yom), with the Tamba (Taneka) and Yowa (Pilapila) . They number about 50,000.
  3. Somba (Sombaru, Some), embracing the Berba, Betammaribe (Berammadibe), Betiabe, Bulba (Boulba, Boulea), Dye (Die), Natimba (Natemba, Natyab), Nauruba, Niende (yende), Soruba (Besorube), and Woaba (Ouabou, Waba, Yoabu). They number about 150,000.

Intrusive Peoples

  1. Busa (Boussa, Busawa), with the Boko. They number about 30,000, including a very few Moslems, and belong to the Mande subfamily of the igritic linguistic stock.
  2. Busansi (Bisa, Bisano, Bisapele, Bousanou, Bouzantchi, Busanga, Bussansi). They number about 130,000 and belong to the Mande subfamily of the Nigriric linguistic stock.
  3. Chakossi (Anufo, Chokosi, Dyakosi, Mangu, Tschokossi, Tyoko) . Descended from Akan mercenaries who served the Dagomba and Konkomba rulers several centuries ago, they belong to the Twi branch of the Kwa subfamily of the igritic linguistic stock. They number about 10,000 and are partially Islamized.
  4. Dafi (Dafing, Southern Marka). They are a specialized branch of the Marka subgroup of the Soninke and belong to the Mande subfamily of the Nigritic linguistic stock. They number about 90,000 and are Moslems.
  5. Diula (Dioula, Dyoura, Gyula). They are a widely scattered mercantile group, probably of Soninke origin, and belong to the Mande subfamily of the Nigritic linguistic stock. They are Moslems and number about 160,000, of whom one group has established a state near Kong and mixed there with the Falafala, a subject tribe of the Senufo cluster.
  6. Gan (Ben, Ganne, Ganra, Gben, Gan), with the kindred Mangoro and the dominant Anno. They number about 5,000. The Gan and Mangoro belong to the Mande subfamily of the Nigritic linguistic stock, and the Anno to the Kwa subfamily.
  7. Ligbi (Ligoue, N igbi, Nigwe), with the kindred Huela (Vuela) and Numu (Noumou) . They belong to the Mande subfa mily of the Nigritic linguistic stock and number perhaps 12,000, of whom about half are Moslems.
  8. Samo (San, Somno), with the kindred but isolated Samoro (Samogho). They belong to the Mande subfamil y of the igritic linguistic stock, number about 135,000, and are partially Islamized.
  9. Sia (Wobofign, Sya, Tusia) . They belong to the Mande subfamily of the Nigritic linguistic stock, number about 75,000, are considerably mixed with Bobo, and are Moslems.
  10. Tienga (Kengawa, Kienga, Kyenga, Tyenga), with the Shanga (Tshanga) . They belong to the Mande subfamily of the Nigritic linguistic stock, number about 20,000, and are partially Islamized.

Among the enclaves of intrusive Mande peoples, the Busa, Busansi, and Tienga in the east presumably date from the period of expansion of the great Malinke empire of Mali. The Dafi, Diula, Ligbi, Samo, and Sia, however, seem first to have penetrated the region in a mercantile capacity. With them should also be included the Yarse subgroup among the Mossi, though these people no longer retain their ancestral language.
The Voltaic peoples cultivate practically the entire roster of Sudanic plants, with millet, sorghum, and occasionally fonio as the staples. They have also borrowed extensively from other complexes: melons and onions from Southwest Asia; bananas, cucumbers, eggplant, rice, taro, and yams from Southeast Asia; haricot and lima beans, maize, manioc, papayas, peanuts, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes from the New World. Among these introduced crops, maize assumes first place among the Nafana, rice among the Wara, and yams among the Dagomba, Degha, Diula, Gan, Kilinga, and Kulango; and all three are also widely grown elsewhere. The Bobo, Dogon, and Kabre practice some irritation, but the prevailing agricultural technique is shifting hoe cultivation with crop rotation and fallowing. The Dogon, Gurensi, Kabre, Mamprusi, and Nunuma use animal manure, and often human manure as well, to fertilize their fields.
Hunting, fishing, and gathering, especially of shea nuts, all occur in the area, but rarely do they provide more than a modest supplement to the diet. Animal husbandry assumes considerably more importance. All tribes keep at least a few cattle, mainly of a humpless short-horned breed. Generally, however, they use them exclusively for sacrifices, for marriage payments, and for their hides and manure, almost never for their milk. Some milking, indeed, is reported for the Basari, Bobo, Dagari, Gurensi, Kilinga, Minianka, Moba, Mossi, and Tem, but in every case, except that of the Gurensi, the sources specifically attest that this practice is confined almost entirely to intrusive Fulani herdsmen. Nearly all the Voltaic peoples possess numerous goats, sheep, dogs (commonly eaten), chickens, guinea fowl, and bees, and many keep a few donkeys and horses. Pigs, cats, ducks, and pigeons appear only sporadically and in small numbers.
Trade is highly developed, and regular markets are practically universal. Commerce is conducted largely by groups of Mande origin, notably the Diula in the southwest, the Dafi in the northwest, and the Yarse in the northeast. Cowrie shells serve everywhere as a medium of exchange. The basis of trade among the Diula consists in the exchange of livestock imported from the north for kola nuts and slaves obtained in the south, but they also deal in Senufo cloth, shea butter, and gold mined by the Kulango. Women do most of the market trading, but the men handle other than local commerce. Hunting is done by men, gathering by women, and fishing by both sexes. The men tend the livestock, clear land, and perform the bulk of the agricultural work. The women, however, everywhere render considerable assistance in the fields, and among the Bargu, Dogon, Gurma, and Mossi their contribution rises to equal participation.
The prevailing pattern of settlement is a neighborhood of dispersed family homesteads, but compact villages occur among most Mande and Senufo groups and among scattering other tribes, notably the Dagomba, Dogon, Gurma, Kilinga, Mamprusi, some Somba, and the Isala subtribe of the Grunshi. Round huts with cylindrical walls of mud or sun-dried brick and conical thatched roofs, grouped in circular walled compounds, must once have prevailed throug hout the area and still constitute the predominant type of habitation. From the north, however, has penetrated a distinct house type, presumably favored by its adaptability to defense. This is a rectangular structure with a flat roof of beaten earth, an interior courtyard, and an exterior wall of mud or sun-dried brick commonly surmounted by a crenelated parapet, and it prevails today among the Birifor, Bobo, Busansi, Dagari, Dian, Diula, Dogon, Dorosie, Grunshi, Komono, Minianka, Nunuma, Samo, Sia, Vagala, and Wala. The Degha, Gan, Nafana, and some Ligbi have adopted the rectangular frame houses with thatched gable roofs which characterize the coastal tribes to the south.
Few tribes impose restrictions on premarital sex relations. Marriages are usually arranged by the heads of two extended families, often while the girl is still an infant. The most typical procedure is that followed by the Birifor, Dagari, Grunshi, Gurensi, and Wala, and with slight modifications also by the Basari, Bobo, Builsa, Dagomba, Dian, Komono, Mamprusi, Senufo, Tem, and Wara. Here formal negotiations are conducted by a special go-between, who must always be a patrilineal kinsman of the youth and at the same time a close relative of the girl, preferably the son of one of her female lineage mates, and who thereafter mediates between the two kin groups in all matters arising our of the union. These tribes usually require three kinds of material consideration :

  1. Agricultural bride-service between the betrothal and the wedding and commonly even thereafter
  2. A substantial and standardized bride-price in livestock, cowries, or both
  3. Special placation gifts donated by the groom’s lineage at some time after the bride has come to live with them and whose acceptance by the bride’s kinsmen makes the union a fully legitimate one and consolidates all the reciprocal obligations entailed by it.

Variant modes of marriage prevail in other parts of the area. The Chakossi, Dafi, Diula, Gan, Guin, Moba, Mossi, and Nunuma, for example, require a bride-price but apparently neither bride-service nor placation gifts. The Dogon, Dorosic, Kabre, Konkomba, Kulango, Lobi, Nandeba, and Somba omit the bride-price but demand premarital bride-service. Among the Deforo, Gurma, Lilse, Samo, and Vagala a marriage involves gifts but no other form of material consideration. Although collusive abduction appears rather widely as an alternative to other modes, marriage by exchange is reported only for the Mossi and Senufo, and it is said to be rare even in these tribes.
Polygyny is permitted everywhere and has a high incidence except among the Dogon and Naudeba. The sororal form is attested as either preferential or common in thirteen tribes and as forbidden only among the Dagomba, Diula, Dogon, Konkomba, Mossi, Wala, and the Tallensi subtribe of the Gurensi. The first wife enjoys a superior status, but the co-wive each have separate quarters and the husband distributes his time equally among them in rotation. The levirate and sororate are nearly universal, the former being denied only for the Mamprusi. Among the Dagari, Grunshi, Nunuma, Somba, and Wala, married women commonly have recognized lovers, who make gifts to the husband and do field work for him in return for the wife’s favors. The group that occupies a household is typically a patrilocal extended family, ranging in size from a small unit of married brothers or a father and one married son to a large aggregate embracing the families of various collateral patrilineal relatives. Only in the extreme north, among the Dogon, Lilse, Minianka, and Mossi, are extended forms of the family consistently absent.
The tribes of the Grusi and Mole clusters reveal a distinctive pattern of social organization, characterized by patrilocal residence, patrilineal descent, exogamous totemic patrisibs, segmentary lineages, patrilineal inheritance and succession, local exogamy, kinship terminology of the Hawaiian type, and the prohibition of marriage between first cousins of any kind. A settlement is occupied by a localized major lineage, thus constituting a patrilocal clan-community, within which the component minor lineages are commonly localized in distinct quarters as clan-barrios and the minimal lineages, of course, as patrilocal extended families. The tribes of the Bargu, Gurma, Habe, and Tem clusters appear, on the basis of incomplete evidence, to possess social systems of essentially similar character.
The Dogon, however, have cousin terminology of the Iroquois rather than the Hawaiian pattern, and only the quarters of a village have the structure of patricians. The tribes of the Lobi and Senufo clusters, together with the Birifor of the Mole cluster, exhibit a markedly divergent pattern, one that sheds considerable light on the probable evolution of social organization in the province as a whole. The Dorosie, Kulango, and Lobi are characterized by matrilineal rather than patrilineal descent, by agamous matrisibs and exogamous matrilineages, by matrilineal inheritance, by preferential cross-cousin marriage, and by kinship terminology of the Crow type. Though residence is prevailingly patrilocal today, avunculocal residence appears as a patterned alternative, and with sufficient frequency to suggest that it may once have been the norm. These tribes presumably represent the first step in a transition from an avunculocal form of the matrilineate to the patrilocal and patrilineal structures now dominant in the region as a whole, namely, the shift from avunculocal to patrilocal residence as the norm.
The second step, the development of patrilineal descent on the basis of patrilocalization, is represented by the neighboring Birifor. These people have evolved exogamous patrisibs and patrilineages without losing their earlier matrilineal sib and lineage , and are thus characterized by double descent. They retain both the preference for cross-cousin marriage and the original Crow type of cousin terminology. Inheritance, however, has changed in adaptation to the new conditions. Movable property, notably livestock and money, still descends to a man’s matrilineal heir—his next younger brother or, if he has none, the eldest son of his eldest sister. On the other hand, property which is attached to a particular locality, e.g., a man’s dwelling, land, and pri,·ate shrines, has yielded to the pressure of patrilocal residence and is now transmitted to a patrilineal heir, the eldest son.
The third step, the final disappearance of matrilineal kin groups under the unfavorable influence of patrilocal residence, is exemplified by the Dian, who are strictly patrilineal in descent but retain the older Crow terminology, an unfailing diagnostic of previous matrilineal descent, as well as the preference for cross-cousin marriage and the intermediate rule of mixed inheritance. The Senufo tribes fall somewhere in this series of transitions, for they all follow either a matrilineal or a mixed rule of inheritance and exhibit at least remnants of avunculocal residence, but their exact position cannot be identified in the absence of precise data on either kinship terminology or kin-group structure.
The fourth step involves an adaptive change in kinship terminology and the correlative banning of cross-cousin marriage. Since Crow terms for cross-cousins are functionally inconsistent with patrilineal descent, they tend to disappear and to be replaced by the sibling terminology already in use for parallel cousins, thus y ielding the Hawaiian pattern, which we have already found prevalent in the Grusi and Mole clusters. The incest taboos previously preventing marriage with a sibling or parallel cousin are extended at the same time to the cross-cousins, who now fall into the same social category. All that remains of the former matrilineate is a series of survivals. Thus the patrilineal Dagari and Yagala still cling to certain forms of matrilineal inheritance, and the Builsa, Dagomba, Grunshi, Gurensi, and Mamprusi continue to prohibit marriage with any known relative in the female line despite the complete disappearance of all corporate matrilineal kin groups.
Conceivably the Dogon represent the fifth and final step in this evolutionary sequence—that in which even the lingering survivals of the former matrilineate have been discarded and kinship terms have been altered to the Iroquois pattern, which is better adapted to the patrilineate. The social structure of the Dogon conforms to the so-called Dakota type, which is statistically the most common among patrilineal peoples throughout the world.
Age-sets, functioning mainly to assist fellow members in the performance of bride-service obligations, occur in a few societies, notably the Dogon, Kabre, and Lobi. Circumcision is reported only for the Bobo, Chakossi, Dagomba, Deforo, Diula, Dogon, Gurma, Minianka, Mossi, Samo, Somba, Tienga, and Wala. Clitoridectomy, on the other hand, is widely practiced, being cited as absent only for the Dagomba, Deforo, Gan, Kabre, Mamprusi, and Nafana. Neither cannibalism nor headhunting is found in the area, though the latter may once have prevailed among the Dagari and Mamprusi. Slavery is universal, but otherwise the Voltaic peoples are relatively egalitarian. Differentiation of a hereditary noble class appears only among the Bargu, Dagomba, Gurma, Mamprusi, Mossi, and Wala. Endogamous despised castes of smiths and Ieatherworkers are confined to a few peripheral tribes, notably the Bobo, Dogon, Minianka, Mossi, and Senufo, and thus are clearly not indigenous to the area.
Political organization derives largely from a religious conception-the deification of the earth. Each local community has a ritual headman charged with responsibility for maintaining good relations with the earth and thus assuring the welfare of his people. He is regularly the head of the lineage that traditionally first occupied the land, and on his death he is succeeded by the eldest surviving male of the lineage. He propitiates the earth with sacrifices at planting and harvest time and must ritually validate any conversion of untilled land to agricultural use. The spilling of blood upon the earth is believed to be especially abhorrent to the deity. A killing in war or a murder defiles the earth and must be expiated by extraordinary sacrifices. To prevent such contamination and its possible awful consequences, the headman has the ritual authority to put a stop to feuding or warfare and to mediate in dispute which threaten to provoke them. This complex of beliefs and practices obviously exerts a powerful influence toward peace and social order.
In some tribes a local chief has usurped secular authority within the community, but rarely has he disturbed the ritual powers of his predecessor. Relatively few of the Voltaic peoples have evolved any form of political integration transcending the local level. Petty paramount chiefships over small districts have developed among the Dagari, Deforo, Lilse, Moba, and Senufo, and larger ones among the Basari, Busa, Chakossi, Dati, Kilinga, and Tem. True monarchical states exist only among the Bargu, Dagomba, Gurma, Mamprusi, Mossi, and Wala. The organization of the larger of the two Mossi states may be briefly described as fairly representative of them all.
At the head of this typical African despotism stands the Mogho-Naba, or king, who maintains an elaborate court at a capital town, where he is served by numerous eunuchs, bodyguards, page boys (selected for their good looks), and various specialized officials. His many wives live in special villages, scattered throughout the kingdom, where all the male inhabitants are eunuchs. He administers the country through five provincial governors and numerous appointive district chiefs, commonly eunuch, who collect regular taxes and special imposts from the local headmen. The governors, whose offices are hereditary from father to eldest son, also hold particular posts at court. One is the prime minister and the chief over all eunuchs. The others are, respectively, the commander of the cavalry, the keeper of the royal tombs, the commander of the infantry, and the commandant of the palace and chief over its page boys.
The death of a ruler is followed by an interregnum, marked by anarchy and widespread pillage, until his successur is installed. The latter is selected from among the sons of the deceased king by an electoral college composed of the second, third, and fourth ministers and the commander in chief of the army. Sons of kings, forbidden to live at the capital, maintain small courts in provincial villages. The daughters of kings enjoy an exceptionally high status; they dominate their husbands and commonly lead profligate lives.

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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