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Population Density and State Formation in Africa

  • Richard Vengroff

Anthropologists working in a number of regions in the world have noted the existence of a positive relationship between population density and state formation (R. Stevenson, 1968: 1-7). The only area to which this generalization has not been applied is Africa south of the Sahara. In writing about African societies, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard assert that

size of population should not be confused with density of population. There may be some relations between the degree of political development and the size of population, but it would be incorrect to suppose that governmental institutions are found in those societies with great density (1940: 7).

Furthermore, they base this conclusion not only on evidence from the eight societies included in African Political Systems but also on data from other African societies which “prove that a large population in a political unit and a high degree of political centralization do not necessarily go together with great density” (1940: 8).

In his interesting and insightful book, Population and Political Systems in Tropical Africa, Robert Stevenson implies that the seemingly anomalous assertions by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard have gone unchallenged for decades because of the stature of the two anthropologists rather than the weight of the evidence (1968: 5). Only Eisenstadt clearly states that this is an empirical question which requires further systematic analysis (1959: 204). Stevenson cites a number of instances in which Africanists noted a relation between population density and political organization, but none in which the relationship was systematically examined (1968: 5-6).

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Barrett, D. (1968) Schism and Renewal in Africa. New York: Columbia University Press.
Eisenstadt, S.N. (1959) “Primitive Political Systems: A Preliminary Analysis.” American Anthropologist 61: 200220.
Flannery, K. (1972) “The Cultural Evolution of Civilizations.” Pages 399426 in Johnston, R., Frank, P., and Michener, C. (eds.), Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 3. Palo Alto, California: Annual Reviews Inc.
Fortes, M., and Evans-Pritchard, E.E.. (1940) African Political Systems. London: Oxford University Press.
Morrison, D., Mitchell, R., Paden, J., and Stevenson, H.. (1972) Black Africa: A Comparative Handbook. New York: The Free Press.
Murdock, G. (1967) Ethnographic Atlas. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Naroll, R., and Cohen, R.. (1973) A Handbook of Method in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. (1951) “A Case for the Comparative Method,” pp. 1724 in Etzioni, A. and Dubow, F. (eds.), Comparative Perspectives. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1970.
Stevenson, H. (1971) Black Africa Ethnic File. Downsview, Ontario: Institute for Behavioral Research, York University.
Stevenson, R. (1968) Population and Political Systems in Tropical Africa. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wright, H., and Johnson, G. (1975) “Population, Exchange, and Early State Formation in Southwestern Iran.” American Anthropologist 77: 267–89.
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African Studies Review
  • ISSN: 0002-0206
  • EISSN: 1555-2462
  • URL: /core/journals/african-studies-review
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