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22-08-2015, 07:06

Forest Peoples: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast): History of to 1800

The western end of the Upper Guinea forest block, unlike the east, has yet to yield evidence of early civilization. Scholars believe that for a long period, only isolated human groups subsisting by hunting and gathering were found in the western forests. Further development, beginning with permanent settlement, rice cultivation, and ironworking, are attributed to the growth of interregional trade—malaguetta pepper grown in the forests of present-day Liberia found its way to medieval Europe via trans-Saharan networks— and immigration from the savanna and eastern forests. The region remained a periphery of African states and empires, especially the Mande civilization of the upper Niger basin, until Europeans arrived on the coast in the fifteenth century.

Data on the early history of the region are scarce. Excavations at Kamabai rock shelter in northern Sierra Leone yielded iron artifacts dating from the eighth century, the earliest yet known for the region. These artifacts were deposited with a new type of pottery found throughout the savanna. This pottery has been excavated from other sites in Sierra Leone and western Liberia, and its appearance suggests that savanna trading empires were penetrating the western end of the region by this time. Iron tools must have facilitated forest clearance, allowing shorter fallow cycles and higher population densities. Present-day techniques of rain-fed rice agriculture, which require heavy seasonal labor inputs, may therefore have developed as a result of these trading contacts, spreading southward and eastward across the region. Indeed, some groups living at the eastern end of the region, notably the Gagou of the Cote d’Ivoire, combined hunting and gathering with a secondary dependence on low-intensity root-crop agriculture as recently as the late nineteenth century.

Data on sickle-cell gene frequencies lend further support to the view that agriculture is long established in the west of the region (Sierra Leone) but a more recent development in the east (southeast Liberia-Cote d’Ivoire). The sickle-cell gene confers immunity to malaria. High rates of exposure to malaria may select


For the gene, and this is more likely to occur among densely settled farming populations than isolated bands of hunters and gatherers inhabiting closed-canopy forest. Sickle-cell gene frequencies among modern populations of the region are substantially higher in the west than in the east. Furthermore, several modern groups, notably the Mende of Sierra Leone and Guere of Cote d’Ivoire, have legends that their ancestors met a race of dwarfs when they first settled. No other evidence of an aboriginal race of West African pygmies has emerged, but the strongly bimodal distribution of heights among modern forest populations has led some scholars to argue that this reflects the intermarriage of short forest aborigines with taller immigrants from the savanna.

Linguistic evidence lends further support to the view that external agents played a key role in the historical development of the region. Today, representatives of three language families are present. Speakers of Kwa languages (Dei, Belle, Gbassa, Krahn, Grebo, Kru, Bete, Dida, Guere, Agni-Baoule, and the lagoon peoples) preponderate in the east (Cote d’Ivoire-eastern Liberia), while speakers of Mel languages (Temne, Bolem, Bom, Krim, Kissi and Gola) cluster in the west (Sierra Leone-western Liberia). Speakers of Mande languages form a middle cluster. They include representatives of Northern (Kono, Vai), Southern (Mano, Gio), and Southwestern (Mende, Kpelle, Gbandi, Loma, Dan, Gouro, and Gagou) Mande linguistic subdivisions.

Scholars have argued that local Kwa speakers, whose languages are related to those spoken in the Lower Niger basin, represent a vanguard of westward migration along the Guinea coast. This may in fact have involved shifts in language use as well as physical movement of people and may be linked to trade network expansion generated by state formation in Lower Guinea (Igbo Ukwu, Ife, Benin) and later, among the Akan of Asante. The Mande speakers are likewise seen as descendants of immigrants from the savanna and/or local populations drawn into savanna trade networks. Indeed, the Kono and Vai, speaking languages closely related to those spoken in the Upper Niger basin, may represent the ethnolinguistic imprint of an ancient trading system linking that region to the coast. The Southwestern Mande group may be the product of an even older and more geographically diffuse penetration from the area around Mount Nimba.

The Mel languages are specific to the Upper Guinea coast. Ancient stone figurines (nomoli) have been unearthed by local farmers in areas either currently inhabited by Mel-speaking Bolem and Kissi, or from which these peoples may have been displaced by Mande-speaking groups in the recent past. Some scholars have suggested that these figurines may be all that remains of a lost forest civilization, of which the Bolem and Kissi, and perhaps Mel-speakers generally, are modern descendants. However, modern inhabitants of the region have no knowledge of the origin and purpose of these figurines.

It is significant that ethnographic data point to extensive and historically deep-seated processes of cultural convergence within the region. Even groups speaking unrelated languages tend to share the same cultural features. These include institutions that either facilitate social accommodation between groups of diverse origin (e. g., Islam, Mande, and European linguistic creoles, Mande clan names and secret societies), or reflect such accommodation (e. g., bilateral kinship). Historic forest culture seems to have focused less on conserving local identities and traditions than on building communities from whatever human and material resources were at hand.

The arrival of Europeans led savanna states to extend their power and influence toward the coast. Some forest groups (the Kissi in particular) were probably subject to intensified raiding in response to the European demand for slaves. In general, however, frontier conditions persisted in the Upper Guinea forests throughout the Atlantic trade era. European traders tapped into a regional trade and alliance system already built upon complex accommodations between local African rulers and resident agents of external commercial and political interests.

Richard Fanthorpe

See also: Sahara: Trans-Saharan Trade; Slavery: Atlantic Trade: Effects in Africa and the Americas.

Further Reading

Atherton, J. H. “Early Economies of Sierra Leone and Liberia: Archaeological and Historical Reflections.” In Essays on the Economic Anthropology of Sierra Leone and Liberia, edited by Vernon Dorjahn and Barry Issac. Philadelphia: Institute of Liberian Studies, 1979.

D’Azevedo, Warren. “Some Historical Problems in the Delineation of a Central West Atlantic Region.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 96 (1962): 512-538.

Brooks, G. E. Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630. Boulder, Colo.: West-view Press, 1993.

Person, Y. “Les Kissi et leurs statuettes de pierre dans le cadre d’histoire ouest-Africaine.” Bulletin de I’Institut Frangais d’Afrique Noire 23, nos. 1-2 (1961): 1-59.

Richards, P. “Forest Indigenous Peoples: Concept, Critique, and Cases.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 104B (1996): 349-365.

Rodney, W. A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.