Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa
Vansina’s scope is breathtaking: he reconstructs the history of the forest lands that cover all or part of southern Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Congo, Zaire, the Central African Republic, and Cabinda in Angola, discussing the original settlement of the forest by the western Bantu; the periods of expansion and innovation in agriculture; the development of metallurgy; the rise and fall of political forms and of power; the coming of Atlantic trade and colonialism; and the conquest of the rainforests by colonial powers and the destruction of a way of life.
“In 400 elegantly brilliant pages Vansina lays out five millennia of history for nearly 200 distinguishable regions of the forest of equatorial Africa around a new, subtly paradoxical interpretation of ‘tradition.’” —Joseph Miller, University of Virginia
“Vansina gives extended coverage . . . to the broad features of culture and the major lines of historical development across the region between 3000 B.C. and A.D. 1000. It is truly an outstanding effort, readable, subtle, and integrative in its interpretations, and comprehensive in scope. . . . It is a seminal study . . . but it is also a substantive history that will long retain its usefulness.”—Christopher Ehret, American Historical Review
“Until the publication of Paths in the Rainforests, it was difficult to make more than superficial attacks on the widespread myth that Central African peoples live in ‘impenetrable jungles as their ancestors have lived for thousands of years.’ Even those few among the 200-plus small scale societies that we have understood in some depth have seemed isolated in time and space. Jan Vansina’s Paths makes a truly significant contribution to African history by providing a solid framework for the description and integration of a millennium of evolution of the many societies of the vast rainforests."—Curtis A. Keim, African Studies Review
About the Author
Jan Vansina is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor and the Vilas Professor in History and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His many books include his 1994 memoir Living with Africa, Oral Tradition as History, Kingdoms of the Savanna, and The Children of Woot, all published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
a similar influence, especially when written by academics. Administrative reports have been the least influential, except on colleagues in their own milieu. Unfortunately many theses produced during the 1970s and 1980s in the various institutions of higher learning in the area are not accessible. Further relevant distinctions differentiate between sources which record events or a course of proposed action, sources which record existing situations, and sources which aim at "scientific" general
forests were conquering savanna at Matupi after 1000 B.C. 18 The other portions of the common stereotype do not merit further extended discussion. Because of their local diversity, forests do not disorient forest dwellers, especially the villagers who intimately know the domain of their settlement. Nomadic hunter gatherers find their way over long distances by reference to a gridwork of streams crossed and elephant trails. 19 Contrary to the stereotype, then, rainforest habitats are desirable
division of the spoils of the python, eagle, and pangolin followed the same ritual route, but with much less pomp.23 Occurring at least several times a year, the disposition of such spoils gave outward expression to the image of a lineage, thus strengthening the new structure of hierarchy. The new cognitive reality did wonders to define the concrete expression of solidarity between the villages of a district. Apart from the ceremonies dealing with the "noble" animals, the main occasion for
included only a few chiefdoms, and perhaps not even a hundredth of the population of the later kingdom of Kongo. As long as principalities or blocks of allied principalities were of equal strength, the situation remained stable. But over time certain principalities became stronger as a result of successful wars, trade, and small demographic or other advantages. They then absorbed weaker neighbors and eventually came to encompass tens of thousands of inhabitants. But without further institutional
cluster along the major waterways, such as the lower Lomami, the Lualaba, and the Aruwimi. By then three kernels of higher population densities existed in what had become exceptionally favorable natural habitats. One lay on the borderland between the rainforests and the northern savanna, from the middle Uele to the Aruwimi. Another, less-populated one stretched eastward of the Lualaba, north to south from Kindu to Kongolo, and thus also straddled the savanna forest boundary. A third, lesser