Friday, January 27, 2012

Was the Niger-Congo Speakers Early people of the Desert?

The Niger-Congo Speakers probably played an important role in the peopling of the Sahara. Drake et al make it clear there was considerable human activity in the Sahara before it became a desert[1]. The authors provide evidence that the original settlers of this wet Sahara, who used aquatic tool kits, were Nilo-Saharan speakers. The authors also recognized another Saharan culture that played a role in the peopling of the desert. This population hunted animals with the bow-and –arrow; they are associated with the Ounanian culture. The Ounanian culture existed 12kya [2].

This culture is associated with sites in central Egypt, Algeria, Mali, Mauretania and Niger [3]. The Ounanian tradition is probably associated with the Niger-Congo phyla. Wm. E. Welmers identified the Niger Congo home land was in the Sudan not Niger Valley. Welmers explained that the Niger-Congo homeland was in the vicinity of the upper Nile valley [4]. He believes that the Westward migration began 5000 years ago[4]. In support of this theory he discusses the dogs of the Niger-Congo speakers[3]. This is the unique bark less Basenji dogs which live in the Sudan and Uganda today, but were formerly recorded on Egyptian monuments [4]. According to Welmers the Basenji, is related to the Liberian Basenji breed of the Kpelle and Loma people of Liberia. Welmers believes that the Mande took these dogs with them on their migration westward. The Kpelle and Loma speak Mande languages. The Niger Valley was uninhabitable until recently. There were few habitable sites in West Africa during the Holocene wet phase. McIntosh and McIntosh have illustrated that the only human occupation of the Sahara during this period were the Saharan massifs along wadis[5].

The Niger-Congo speakers probably began to exist the Sudan during the Ounanian period. By the 8th millennium BC Saharan-Sudanese pottery was used in the Air [6]. Ceramics of this style have also been found at sites in the Hoggar [6-7]. Dotted wavy-line pottery has also been discovered in the Libyan Sahara [7]. In the Sahelian zone there was a short wet phase during the Holocene (c. 7500-4400 BC), which led to the formation of large lakes and marshes in Mauritania, the Niger massifs and Chad. The Inland Niger Delta was unoccupied. In other parts of the Niger area the wet phase existed in the eight/seventh and fourth/third millennia BC [7].

Welmers has suggested that the first group to separate from the Niger-Congo family was the Mande speakers. Although he believes that this dispersal began only 5000 years ago the expansion of the Saharan-Sudanese style into the areas traditionally associated with the Ounanian tradition suggests that the Mande probably separated from Niger-Congo 10kya. Controversy surrounds the classification of the Mande language family. Greenberg (1963) popularized the idea that the Mande subset was a member of the Niger-Congo Superset of Africa languages, while B. Heine and D. Nurse, African Languages: An Introduction believes that the Niger-Congo (Mande) is especially closely united with Central Sudani and Kabu within Nilo-Saharan. The position of Mande in the Niger-Congo Superset has long been precarious and today it is given a peripheral status to the Niger-Congo Superset .

Murkarovsky [8] believes that the Mande group of languages does not belong in the Niger-Congo Superset, while Welmers has advanced the idea that Mande was the first group to break away from Niger-Congo[4]. The Mande languages are also closely related to Songhay [8-9], Nilo-Saharan and the Chadic group [10]. Zima compared 25 Songhay and Mandekan terms from the cultural vocabulary to highlight the correspondence between these two language groups[9]. Zima made it clear that "the lexical affinities between the Songhay and Mande languages are evident"[9].Mukarovsky has presented hundreds of analogous Mande and Cushitic terms[11].

Due to the similarities between the Mande and Cushitic language families Mukarovsky would place Mande into the Afro-Asiatic Superset of languages[11]. Mukarovsky has presented hundreds of analogous Mande and Cushitic terms[11]. This linguistic evidence makes it clear that the Niger-Congo, Nilo-Saharan and Cushitic speakers originally lived intimate contact. The Mande were spread across the Sahaelian/Saharan zone in areas associated with the Ounanian tradition. They built many civilizations from the Fezzan to Mauretania [12].

 The Northern Mande speakers are divided into the Soninke and Malinke-Bambara groups. Holl believes that the founders of the Dhar Tichit 4kya, were northern Mande speakers[12]. The pottery at Dhar Tichitt is associated with Saharan styles[12]. In conclusion, the Ounanian tradition began around 10kya[2-3]. The population associated with this civilization was probably Niger-Congo speakers. The Niger-Congo speakers originated in the Sudan[4]. Around the time we see the development of the Ounanian culture in North Africa, we see the spread of the Saharan-Sudanese ceramic style into the Sahara[5,12].

 Most researchers agree that the Mande speakers were probably the first group to separate from Niger-Congo phyla. The Mande language early separated from the Niger-Congo Superfamily. The dispersal of the Mande speakers from the Fezzan to Mauretania mirrors the Saharan sites associated with the Ounanian tradition[12].

Given the close relationship between the Mande and Nilo-Saharan languages and early dispersal of the Mande speakers into North Africa where they founded many civilizations including Dhar Tichitt suggest that the Niger-Congo group introduced the hunting tradition and use of bow-and –arrow into Mauretania, Mali, Niger and Southern Algeria and played a prominent role in peopling the desert.

 1. Drake NA, Blench RM, Armitage SJ, Bristow CS, & White KH. (2012). Ancient watercourses and biogeography of the Sahara explain the peopling of the desert. PNAS, 108(2) 458-462.

2. Smith A B. (2005). African Herders: Emergence of Pastoral Traditions.

3. Blench R, and Spring, M. (1999). Archaeology and Language II.

 4. Welmers Wm.(1971). "Niger-Congo Mande". Current Trends in Linguistics, 7:113-140.

5. McIntosh SK, & McIntos RJ.(1986). "Archaeological Research and dates from West Africa". Journal of African History, 27:413-42.

 6. Roset JP.(1983). "Nouvelles donnes sur le probleme de la Neolithisation du Sahara meridional: Air et Tenere au Niger".Cashiers O.R.S.T.O.M., 13(2):119-142.

7. McIntosh S K, & McIntosh R J. (1983). "Forgotten Tells of Mali". Expedition,38.

 8. Murkarovsky H G.(1976/1977). A Study of Western Nigritic. Vienna:Afro-Pub. 2 Vols.

 9. Zima P. (1989). "Les Langues Mande, le Songhay et des Langues Tchadiquees ou en Sommes-nous Apres Greenberg et Lacroix".Mandekan, no.18:97-115.

10. Creissels D. (1981). "De la possibilite de rapprochement entre le Songhay et les languages Niger Congo( en particulier Mande). In Nilo-Saharan, (ed.) by Th. Schadeberg, and M.L. Bander (Dordrecht,Holland:Foris Pub.) Pp.185-191.

 11. Murkarovsky H G.(1987).Mande-Chadic Common Stock. Wien:Beitrage zur Afrikanistik.

 12. Winters C A.(1986)."The Migration Routes of the Proto-Mande".The Mankind Quarterly, 27(1):77-96.