Africa: Nilotic (Anthropology)

The term ‘Nilotic’ is used in various senses. First, it describes the geographical region of the upper Nile basin as in The Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan, the title of the Seligmans’ (1932) comprehensive ethnography of the region. Second, it refers to a set of cultural traits shared by some, but not all, of the peoples of the upper Nile, with others in an area extending south beyond the Nile basin into Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Finally, Nilotic describes a language family in a classification of languages. Nilotic studies are significant not only in themselves but because they have also produced anthropological works which have had a great influence on the discipline generally.

Historical linguistic research into the Nilotic languages, together with a consideration of the contemporary geographical distribution of languages, suggest that the original proto-Nilotic language community in their homeland to the southwest of the southern Ethiopian highlands probably started to break up into three groups about 4,000 years ago. These groups of proto-Nilotic then began to change independently into the ancestral languages of what are today recognized as the western, eastern, and southern Nilotic groups of languages (Ehret 1971; Greenberg 1955; Kohler 1955).

Those who were to become the speakers of Western Nilotic (e.g. Dinka, Nuer, Luo) seem likely to have moved first and in a westerly direction to occupy the grasslands around the confluence of the Bahr el Ghazal and the Nile. The proto-Southern Nilotes, having been for a long time in contact with neighbouring Cushitic-speaking peoples in their homeland north of Lake Turkana, had acquired from them not only Cushitic vocabularies but also social practices such as circumcision, clitoridectomy, a prohibition on eating fish, and cyclical age set naming systems, all of which are not known among the Western Nilotes. By the first century of the present era the Southern Nilotic speakers (e.g. Nandi, Pokot, Marakwet) had moved south, some into what is today Tanzania, and there they encountered agricultural Bantu-speaking peoples moving north, from whom they adopted root crops and banana cultivation to add to their cultivation of grains, sorghum and millet, and their pastoralism.


Most of the Eastern Nilotic speech communities (e.g. Bari, Lotuko, Turkana) are now found in what is likely to have been their original homeland between Lake Turkana and the Nile, but some of them, the predecessors of the present-day Maasai peoples of Kenya and Tanzania, had followed the Southern Nilotic speakers south. There, during the course of several hundred years up to the end of the first millennium, they absorbed some of the Southern Nilotes and at the same time adopted many of their practices, some of which, such as circumcision, could be traced back to origins among Cushitic peoples. In this way those Eastern Nilotes who followed the Southern Nilotes, adding to whatever Cushitic traits they may already have acquired before migrating south, acquired further Cushitic practices from the Southern Nilotes as intermediaries.

These terms western, eastern and southern Nilotic correspond roughly with the old ethnological division of the people into Nilotes, Northern and Central Nilo-Hamites, and Southern Nilo-Hamites, terms which will be commonly encountered in literature published before the mid-1960s. This terminology derived from a now-discredited speculative theory of racial mixing to account for the distribution of Nilotic social and cultural features. A great deal of scholarship was devoted to adducing evidence that pale-skinned, slim and ‘quick witted’ mobile pastoral Caucasians of noble disposition, the supposed Hamites, entered northeast Africa and subordinated the sturdy but slow-witted, dark-skinned sedentary agricultural Negroes; and from which process emerged the Nilotes, and those with rather more Hamitic ‘blood’, the Nilo-Hamites (Seligman and Seligman 1932). The fascination of such a theory for European imperialists in Africa is obvious.

Age and social order

Various forms of institutionalized age organization, age grades, age sets (linear naming and cyclical naming) and generation classes, are especially elaborated in East Africa and particularly among Nilotes (Baxter and Almagor 1978). However, the function and meaning of these often complex cultural constructions have largely eluded social anthropologists. A number of observations can nevertheless be made. First, these institutions primarily concern men rather than women. Among women there may be a parallel organization but it is always a weak reflection of that of the men, and the women themselves are frequently vague and unclear about their own system of age sets.

Second, age sets, or generation classes, have no material interests in cattle or other property rights either in terms of ownership or control. Rights in cattle belong to individuals organized in households and lineages. Even the stock acquired through raiding by ‘warrior’ age sets is distributed to individuals and absorbed into household herds. On the other hand, sets and grades do seem to exercise some sort of sumptuary control among men over the use of titles, insignia, and privileges as regards sexual conduct, meat and drink, especially particular cuts of sacrificial animals, bearing arms, as well as matters of status such as becoming married and establishing a household.

Since Nilotes were generally reported to lack a centralized and hierarchical system of ruling offices, there has always been a strong temptation to see the functions of government being carried out by the ranking involved in age set systems. Among Eastern Nilotes of the southern Sudan, for example, there appears to be evidence of the direct involvement of age classes in indigenous government even into the 1980s. There the replacement of the ruling elders (monomiji, ‘fathers of the village’) is not a continuing process as individuals become too old and are replaced by their successors, but is achieved at intervals by what the people themselves compare to a ‘revolution’, when a junior generation of age sets suddenly takes over responsibility for the village. This transfer of authority is effected by a spectacular ceremony about every twenty years and involves a mock battle for the village between the incumbent generation and the generation about to assume authority. Such inter-generational rivalry also found expression in the wider field of conflict in the Sudan, where it seems that in the 1980s support for the rebels and the Khartoum government reflected generational rivalries (Simonse 1992).

Land, lineages and prophets

Among Western Nilotes, such as Nuer, Evans-Pritchard could attribute no political function to the age sets. Instead he argued, in what was to become one of the outstanding texts of modern social anthropology, that the basis of Nuer social order lies in their patrilineal kinship system (Evans-Pritchard 1940). His account was to be generalized into what became known as ‘seg-mentary lineage theory’, or ‘descent theory’, which in the 1950s and 1960s was one of the cornerstones of the discipline of social anthropology. According to Evans-Pritchard, conflict among Nuer is not terminally destructive but mitigated by the lineage system. The segmentary lineage system regulates the number of supporters a man can muster against another individual according to the relative position of the two parties in the lineage system. Since the relationship is symmetrical, no one can bring to bear a preponderant force and there is, in effect, a stand-off. The dispute is then mediated peacefully by a ritual specialist (‘the leopard skin priest’) who acts as broker between the two lineages. Where there can be no such mediation, as for instance between Nuer and their neighbours the Dinka, a state ofperpetual raiding and counter-raiding prevails.

This theory as it is supposed to apply to the Nuer began to be questioned in the 1970s and 1980s, first by a critical assessment of the evidence presented by Evans-Pritchard in his own publications (Holy 1979), and then by the appearance of new historical evidence (Johnson 1994). A careful re-examination of the case-studies of conflict between lineages cited by Evans-Pritchard seemed to indicate that the local lineages allied with others in the prosecution of hostilities not according to ‘the principles of the segmentary lineage system’ but according to pragmatic interests and ad hoc alliances. These instances of conflict and cooperation were frequently concerned with, as one might expect of pastoralists, access to grazing and here the ecology of the upper Nile basin is crucial.

Historical research into the societies of the upper Nile basin has drawn attention to the consequences of local adaptations to long-term and short-term climatic changes, adaptations which have influenced, and continue to influence, the dispersal of pastoralists throughout the region. Land which has been abandoned because of years of exceptionally high water levels may later be reoccupied and not necessarily by the same people. Changes in drainage patterns can wipe out old grazing lands and produce new ones elsewhere. In addition there are annual movements of people and animals from the limited dry sites above the flood plain during the wet season to the grasslands of the dry season which are revealed as the flood subsides. This is a fluctuating situation in which access to grazing and settlement sites has therefore to be continually negotiated and contested.


In Evans-Pritchard’s view, those spiritual leaders known as prophets, who come to prominence from time to time, are the consequence of historical crises between relatively stable conditions of normality. Nuer prophets are represented by him as the effect, and sometimes also the cause, of violent relations between Nuer and other populations, such as the Dinka, or the agents of distant powers such as Arab slavers, the Ottoman Empire, and later the forces of the British Empire. However, historical research has now corrected this vision and removed the prophets from their liminal position and placed them in the centre of Nuer religious and political history.

According to Johnson (1994), Nuer prophets are a continuation by other means of the activities of spiritual leaders whose concern was to define and establish around themselves a ‘moral community’. Precisely because they actually experience a life of raiding and counter-raiding, of defending grazing lands from intruders as the erratic movements of the seasonal flooding of the Nile system forces the pastoralists to adapt and change their patterns of herding, so they prize peace and stability. Within the moral community disputes are settled peacefully by mediation. It is this that the prophets attempt to realize and then extend to the widest possible inclusiveness so that all Nuer are under the authority of sovereign, but rival, prophets. When the secessionist Anynya forces entered Nuerland in the 1960s, rivalry between prophets became aligned with conflicts between the Anynya and the government.

Divinity and experience

Nilotic religions are characterized by a subtle theism, and both Evans-Pritchard (1957) and then Godfrey Lienhardt (1961) found it necessary to discuss at length at the beginning of their books on Nuer and Dinka religion the meanings of the words for God, kwoth and nhialic respectively. God, or ‘Divinity’ in Lienhardt’s more sensitive terminology, does not dwell in some other world, and spiritual beings are only of interest to Nilotes as ultra-human agents operating in this world. Many observers have remarked on the religiosity of Nilotes, presumably because they live in and experience a world from which the gods have not departed. There is no ancestor worship but instead shrines, said to have been originally the homesteads of mythical ancestral figures, serve as centres of spiritual power. The best known of these among Western Nilotes are the shrine/homestead of Nyikang (first king of Shilluk) at Fashoda and, east of the Bahr el Jebel, those of the Dinka ancestral figure, Deng, and the first spear master, Aiwel. The principal religious action is animal sacrifice and there are also reports of the ritual killing, or interrment while alive, of religious figures who have the characteristics of what are sometimes referred to as ‘divine kings’, as for instance among Shilluk and Dinka.

Lienhardt’s study of Dinka religion has endured as one of the most influential and exemplary works in anthropology, and it can now be seen as a precursor of contemporary theory and practice in social anthropology. Lienhardt rejected the crude functionalism which was predominant in anthropological studies of religion in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but successfully avoided reverting to an intellectualist position which supposes that religious ideas are pre-scientific explanatory concepts. It is not a simple matter to divide the Dinka believer from what is believed in. Instead Lienhardt approached Dinka religious utterances as interpretations by Dinka of certain of their experiences. For Lienhardt, Dinka religion was not a theology but a phenomenology. This approach led Lienhardt to question presumptions about mind, self, memory, and experience, in reaching an understanding of Dinka interpretations and imaging of their experiences.

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