Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa

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University of Wisconsin Press, Nov 15, 1990 - History - 428 pages
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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

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This book has now become something of a classic, and I bought it for background in teaching Africa in a world history class. It attempts to trace the history of the Bantu expansion in, roughly ... Read full review

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The area covered in this study cuts through Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Central Africa Republic and the two Congos. According to Vansina Paths in the Rainforests is an Introduction to the institutional history of the equatorial Africa and a "first glimpse into a lost world" (xiii). This study according to Vansina tells the story of equatorial African tradition and the goal of the study is to show that the people had a history and it is also a guide to show how to reconstruct "probable" past (249). Tradition Vansina explains in his study does not represent a static past, but, a "continuity" of cultural history. This "continuity" is opposed to the Ethnocentric scholarly view that saw the rainforest inhabitants as having no history, as being prehistoric civilizations; and the Marxian view that "a long as as mankind has not reached the stage that it can destroy or managed the forest...., that forest ...acts as a brake on social evolution (303). The book is therefore about the people living in a rainforest ecosystem in West Central Africa and is not a study of the environment. According to Vansina, the people of this areas have been lumped together by ethnographers into one cultural whole; but, the reality is that rainforest inhabitants deferred from place to place. Therefore, far from being simplistic societies; these forest dwellers were are people with a political, social, and economic history (5). Just after condemning ethnographers for treating the forest inhabitants as a mono-culture; Vansina raises important questions about his study. which in summary is, can the people of this equatorial forest be treated as a "single Unit" he answers in the affirmative. He argues, compared to cultures and societies outside the rainforest; the rainforest dwellers with all their differences, shared a number of common features such as food systems, decentralization, social and politician institutions. They forest dwellers spoke 150 distinct western Bantu related languages.
The study relied heavily on ethnography data and linguistic data.For example in the case of using linguistic Vansina uses "comparative linguistics" which is divided into "the tree model" and "wave model"; the first is used in the reconstruction of languages and the second is a tool used by language specialists to look at changes in language within a given areas. this allows a linguist to follow the "ripples" of a language from its core to its outer layers. According to Vansina one of the ways linguists study languages is by creating a list of core of "culturally neutral vocabulary" of between 100 to 200 words among a language group in this case western Bantu. These chosen words are normally not easily replaced by loanwords; therefore, if a word is similar in form and usage then it is considered as a "positive score". And, if there is a higher percentage of related words among groups this shows their "genetic closeness" (11). To Vansina the reconstruction of the history of the rainforest people was like a jigsaw puzzle; he first to collected all relevant documents pertaining to the peoples of the forest just before colonialism. This period for him is the "baseline" and together with the linguistic data which he calls "word and things"; he projected "backward in time." This is like being given a roof and told to try and figure out the structure and the foundation of a building, this is a daunting task.
Although the reconstruction of the history of the peoples of the rainforest is projected backwards in time. Nevertheless, the book according to Vansina follows the conventional historical chronology starting from the past to the present. Therefore, Vansina starts the history of the forest people from around 5000 years ago in the grasslands what is today Cameroon. According to him, hunters and gatherers ushered in a new way of life by adopting agriculture and trapping; this

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About the author (1990)

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.


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