The article traces the history of debates on land transfers in northern Ghana and discusses the ways in which African and European views on land tenure influenced and instrumentalized each other. Using the case of Nandom in the Upper West Region, I analyse how an expansionist group of Dagara farmers gained access to and legitimized control over land previously held by a group of Sisala hunters and farmers claiming to be the ‘first-comers’ to the area. Both groups acknowledge that the Sisala eventually transferred land to the Dagara immigrants, symbolically effected by the transmission of an earth-shrine stone. However, the Sisala interpret this historical event in terms of a ‘gift’, invoking the language of kinship and continued dependency, while the Dagara construe it in terms of a ‘purchase’, implicating exchange, equality and autonomy. These different perspectives, as well as colonial officials' ideas that land ownership was ultimately vested in the ancestors of the first-comer lineage and therefore ‘inalienable’, have shaped early disputes about the Nandom earth shrine and Dagara property rights. Competing conceptions of pre-colonial African land tenure continue to provide powerful arguments in current land conflicts, and shrinking land reserves as well as the political implications of landed property, in the context of decentralization policies, have exacerbated the debate on the ‘inalienability’ of land.