Paths in the Rainforests.

It’s been over four years since I bought Jan Vansina’s Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa; I was excited about it at the time, but then (you know how it is) it sank to the bottom of the stack and I never got around to reading it. Well, now that I’m editing a book on Africa and seeing it in the reference lists, I’ve hauled it out and started it, and it’s absolutely terrific. I haven’t even gotten to the meat of it, the history of Western Bantu expansion, but I’m so struck by the preliminary methodological sections that I’m just going to quote some passages I’ve marked in the margin:

A living cell testifies to its ancestors of long ago. And so, too, language and specifically words carry an imprint from the past in the present, an imprint that can be put in its proper time perspective.

To achieve that goal much of the recovery of the past in equatorial Africa must be based on the evidence of language and especially words. […] The techniques involved in such a study are not novel. Linguists have used them to reconstruct the history of languages themselves. But the methodology is new in the sense that the conclusions drawn from the technical analysis are different. The goal for which the techniques are to be used is different. Here one wants to reconstruct the past of a society and culture, not language itself. The methodological approach, then, is new. If the methodology is valid, all will be fine. The story to be told in later chapters will be credible “fact.” But if the methodology is wrong, the tale is fiction and heavy-fisted fiction at that.

[. . .]

A convention of the ethnographic genre was that peoples constituted territorial groups called “tribes,” which were the given units of observation. Tribes were of almost indeterminate age. Within a tribe everyone held the same beliefs and practices, and observations made in any part of the tribal territory were valid for any other part. Moreover, by definition, every tribe differed from its neighbors. […]

Actually, ethnic identities change over time. They are not givens and they do not necessarily correspond to homogeneous units of social institutions or culture. The study of ethnic identity over time belongs to the history of ideas. In practice many modern ethnonyms were of colonial vintage. The Bondjo ethnic group on the shores of the Ubangi River seems to have existed only in the minds of French administrators. In the 1920s Belgian administrators argued for years about the status of “the Ngando”: Should they be included in the Mongo ethnic group or kept separate? They concluded that Ngando were Mongo. As a result, by the 1950s the Ngando of Equateur province felt themselves to be Mongo. They had adapted their vision of ethnic identity to colonial reality.

[. . .]

Observers often left out of their accounts anything that referred to an obvious colonial practice. This applied even to photographs: no bicycles, no kerosene lamps, no office buildings, no policemen, etc. And, naturally, “traditional” clothing and housing was a must. The authors seem to have believed that they had thus expunged any influence of the colonial conquest. They did not realize that the foundations of every local community had been drastically altered by the colonial conquest or that substantive culture was no longer a “pristine” precolonial culture.

[. . .]

Language competence is also fundamental. How well did the outsider really know the local vernacular or the lingua franca that was being used? Did he or she in fact use the vernacular, a lingua franca, a European language, or did he or she employ an interpreter? Many writers do not tell you. The prefatory statements of those who do are often empty boasts or leave unclear what level of competence they had achieved. Most residents had only a rudimentary knowledge of African languages, except for missionaries who had to preach in the vernacular. And even they were not always fluent. Transients were not very proficient. They used interpreters, as did most anthropologists, at least for the first year or so of their stay. Often the text of the report reveals more about language competence than any statement does. The transcriptions of items, even proper names in the local or regional language, are often dead giveaways. The writer reveals even more when indulging in etymological reasoning or in general statements about the language. In such ways one can often infer some information in this matter. […]

One usually thinks that the academic specialist, especially the anthropologist, is infinitely better qualified and hence more reliable than others. An article about the X by an anthropologist must rank higher than even a short book about the X by the local missionary or administrator. Such reasoning fails to take into consideration that academics too have their biases and fads, their preferred topics, and their taboos. One scholar may be a devotee of kinship systems and will see ambiance only in local music or dance, another is enthralled by cosmologies and does not care for kinship terminology. Anthropologists, moreover, are not the only trained observers. It is easy to forget that others, such as physicians or students of law, or indeed Pecile, the farmer servant of P. de Brazza, were also trained to observe, albeit to observe different things. As a result the rarity of writings by professional anthropologists is not nearly as great a handicap as one would think. Just like any other text their reports must be confronted whenever possible with the whole available record, whether emanating from specialists or not.

Last but not least, gender is given for every named writer. There are very few female authors and hence the corpus shows an obvious lack of data about women, their lives, and their points of view. Not a single text about women’s associations in Cameroon, Gabon, or Congo comes from a woman, and, in consequence, very little is known about them, since men were prevented by their gender from learning about them.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This guy seems to have thought about every conceivable source of error, to have done his best to compensate for them where possible, and otherwise to at least remain aware of the inevitable blind spots. An admirable scholar; I’m sorry he died in February.


  1. It sounds very interesting, but how is “here one wants to reconstruct the past of a society and culture, not language itself” a novel thing?

  2. Exactly. In fact, it was the research program of all the early historical linguists from Schleicher on down, and it is why the Grimm’s linguistic works became best-sellers in Germany.

  3. how is “here one wants to reconstruct the past of a society and culture, not language itself” a novel thing?

    He doesn’t say it’s novel, he says his goal is different from the goal of linguists, which is primarily to reconstruct earlier forms of language, not to reconstruct the past of a society and culture, even if they dabbled in such things. I actually think that’s pretty clear from context.

  4. But surely efforts to understand the culture and society of Indo-Europeans by studying vocabulary (shared vocabulary vs borrowed vocabulary) is similar to what the author was referring to.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I don’t read it that way. I think he says that while the methods of historical linguistics have proven valid and efficient as tools for reconstruction of linguistic history, his goal is to compare social structures — organisation, trade, religion, law — and project back in time Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa.

  6. Hat, he does say the goals are novel: “But the methodology is new in the sense that the conclusions drawn from the technical analysis are different. The goal for which the techniques are to be used is different.” But conclusions of this kind have been part of historical linguistics from Schleicher to Watkins.

  7. Trond Engen says

    The Wolof question sent me off on a tangent on West African political systems. Or rather on caste. I wasn’t aware that caste (let’s define it as a culturally ingrained hierarchy of strictly endogamous occupational groups) had developed cross-culturally in West Africa — or indeed across Sahara and the savanna belt. I’d like to see a comparative treatment of the history of caste in different regions. Vansina’s work must be a good starting point.

  8. If the author’s name rhymes with Shmalbaugh, then a certain regular reader recommended you for that manuscript.

  9. It does, and I thank the regular reader — it’s one of the most interesting, informative books I’ve worked on!

  10. That reader regretted having to pass it up. Glad it went to someone who appreciates it!

  11. Greg Pandatshang says

    Reminds me of the process of ethnic classification in China, as described by Thomas Mullaney in Coming to Terms With The Nation. In the 1950s, the new Chinese Communist government had the superficially progressive goal of including representation from each ethnic group in the People’s Government. This required them to know what the ethnic groups were, so that they could be represented. The obvious solution was to take a census and ask people what their ethnicity was. The problem was that they gave a bewildering array of responses .. over 400, the large majority with very extremely few members. At least one self-described ethnicity had only one member. It’s hard to say to what extent the people describing their ethnicity understood what sort of answer the census-taker had in mind. (I mean, what would you say if somebody asked you to name your ethnicity? I guess, being a white American, most commonly the questioner would be asking for information on where my ancestors came from in Europe). So, they had to send out anthropological teams to decide who ought to fall into which category, leading to oddities such as that all the Pumi speakers in one prefecture were classed as Tibetans while in another prefecture they were a separate Pumi ethnicity. In many cases where they didn’t find large-scale group identities that seemed like what they were looking for, they simply created categories based on language families, which is more or less the case with the “Zhuang people” who are on paper the second largest ethnic group in China.

    Over the last 60 years or so, government efforts have often been successful at creating a sense of belonging to an ethnicity in individuals. The ethnic groups must each have a written form of their language, which requires the creation of a standard language for each. Those, as far as I’ve ever heard, have been much less successful (except where they already existed pre-1950), e.g. very little interest in learning Standard Zhuang. If you’re a Zhuang and you need to speak to another Zhuang who doesn’t speak your home dialect, why not just use Putonghua?

  12. David Marjanović says

    As occasionally mentioned on Panchronica, the speakers of the entire Rgyalrongic language family are classified by the PRC as Tibetans and regard themselves as Tibetans. They are, after all, Tibetan Buddhists and have plenty of Tibetan loans in their languages – which are, other than that, about as different from Tibetan as a Sino-Tibetan language can be.

  13. Sure, but this is China, where all Han speak “Chinese”, and never mind that their languages are mutually unintelligible.

  14. January First-of-May says

    The problem was that they gave a bewildering array of responses .. over 400, the large majority with very extremely few members.

    The Russian censuses of 2002 and 2010 had several hundred (forgot how many exactly, but I think it was more than 400) real self-reported ethnic groups (some of them with multiple officially equivalent aliases), and a further bewildering array of not-quite-real responses (supposedly – or, at least, so the rumor goes – the number of self-declared “hobbits” fell just barely short of the threshold where they would legally have to be declared an ethnic group).
    Some of the real groups (and most of the made-up ones) indeed had very few representatives, in some cases down to one member.

    I fortunately avoided the question in 2002 (I say “fortunately” because I wasn’t exactly sure what my ethnicity was, or if I even had any – my ancestry as I know it is split exactly 50/50, with some uncertainties in both halves but nothing that can definitely point to an ethnicity), and put some thought as to what I would answer if asked in 2010, but didn’t get asked that time either.
    I’m not sure what I would say in 2020, if it comes up – I’d probably think about it a bit more if by 2019 I’m still in the same country.

  15. David Marjanović says

    “Chinese” is at least monophyletic. “Tibetan” in that sense almost certainly is not.

  16. From p. 345, n. 66: “In all Kongo and Teke languages mpu designates both ‘hat’ and ‘authority.'” Just thought I’d put that out there.

  17. Trond Engen says

    An argument from Hat, there.

  18. Not so much an argument as an expressive dance.

  19. A hat dance, in fact.

  20. Greg Pandatshang says

    David, can you clarify about Tibetan not being monophyletic? As far as I know, everything referred to as “Tibetan” descends from Old Tibetan or something very close to it; roughly what the tsênpos spoke. If we treat Rgyalrongic languages as “Tibetan dialects”, then, yes, the classification goes all wonky. But that sounds very unusual to me.

  21. Baima or Khalong Tibetan probably don’t.

  22. David Marjanović says

    If we treat Rgyalrongic languages as “Tibetan dialects”, then, yes, the classification goes all wonky. But that sounds very unusual to me.

    It’s not something linguists do, of course. But it’s what the PRC bureaucracy does, what Tibetan intellectuals do, and what the speakers themselves do. One who falls in the latter two categories, bTsan-lha Ngag-dbang Tshul-khrims, wrote a few papers in the 1980s and 90s trying to show that the Rgyalrongic languages are Tibetan dialects; because he’s an expert on Old Tibetan (of which he published a dictionary), these works are actually a valuable compilation of data on Tibetan loans in Rgyalrongic. (Source: p. 9 of this thesis in French.)

  23. Greg Pandatshang says

    Gotcha. I guess I’ve never heard anyone other than linguists mention Gyalrong at all, so I had no idea others might refer to those languages as Tibetan. I guess I’d be surprised if there aren’t also some obscure local languages that are not properly Sinitic but are referred to as Chinese by some people.


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