Like stars, societies are born, and this story deals with such a birth. It asks a fundamental and compelling question: How did societies first coalesce from the small foraging communities that had roamed in West Central Africa for many thousands of years?
Jan Vansina continues a career-long effort to reconstruct the history of African societies before European contact in How Societies Are Born. In this complement to his previous study Paths in the Rainforests, Vansina employs a provocative combination of archaeology and historical linguistics to turn his scholarly focus to governance, studying the creation of relatively large societies extending beyond the foraging groups that characterized west central Africa from the beginning of human habitation to around 500 BCE, and the institutions that bridged their constituent local communities and made large-scale cooperation possible.
The increasing reliance on cereal crops, iron tools, large herds of cattle, and overarching institutions such as corporate matrilineages and dispersed matriclans lead up to the developments treated in the second part of the book. From about 900 BCE until European contact, different societies chose different developmental paths. Interestingly, these proceeded well beyond environmental constraints and were characterized by "major differences in the subjects which enthralled people," whether these were cattle, initiations and social position, or "the splendors of sacralized leaders and the possibilities of participating in them."
Even scholars who know better tend assume without thinking that the people the Portuguese found had been the same since time began.
"How Societies Are Born represents a political and agrarian history of a period and region for which absolutely no scholarly histories have been written, and Vansina possesses rare and unmatched skills in marshaling a recalcitrant and multilingual body of historical sources.
"How Societies Are Born is an extremely valuable contribution to western African history and prehistory. I was impressed by the depth and variety of Vansina’s historical and anthropological sources, and found his use of historical linguistics to construct arguments about systems of governance, marriage, and inheritance patterns and other details fascinating.
Jan Vansina, Professor Emeritus of History and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was named the "Distinguished Africanist" of 1986 and awarded the Herskovits Prize for Kingdoms of the Savanna in 1967, garnering the two top honors given by the African Studies Association. Vansina is the author of more than twenty books, including Living with Africa and Paths in the Rainforests.