Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-c47g7 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-20T17:11:21.059Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Of Trees and Earth Shrines: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Settlement Histories in the West African Savanna1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Carola Lentz
Universität Frankfurt am Main, lentz/
Hans-Jürgen Sturm
Universität Frankfurt am Main


For a vegetation geographer and an anthropologist to come together to write on the settlement histories of segmentary societies in the West African savanna is unusual or at least rare. A few words on the origin of this cooperation therefore seem appropriate. For over ten years, in the context of an interdisciplinary research program at the Universität Frankfurt am Main, archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, botanists and geographers have been working together on the history of cultures, languages, and natural environment of the West African savanna, especially the interaction between human activity and the natural environment. That one should actually be speaking in many cases of a culturally mediated “landscape” rather than a “natural environment” is one of the outcomes of the research projects, which have focused mainly on different regions of Burkina Faso (in the sahel and Sudanese zone) and the Lake Chad area of northeast Nigeria.

The present paper has emerged from a botanical and an anthropological-historical project on the history of vegetation and of settlement in south and southwest Burkina Faso. This history has been shaped by the great expansion of the Dagara-speaking population. In the last two hundred years (possibly longer), small groups of Dagara patrilineages, related and allied to one another, have migrated north and northwest, probably from the region around Wa in present-day Ghana, and have founded numerous new settlements—a process of land appropriation that is still going on today, though with changed circumstances regarding land rights (see map 1).

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 2001

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



The English translation of this paper is by Robert Parkin.


Aubréville, André 1938. La forêt coloniale. Les forêts de l'Afrique occidentale francaise, ParisGoogle Scholar
Beidelman, Thomas O. 1970. “Myth, Legend and Oral History: a Kaguru Traditional Text,” Anthropos 65:7497.Google Scholar
Biersack, Aletta 1999. “From the ‘New Ecology’ to the New Ecologies,” American Anthropologist 101:518.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brooks, George E. 1993. Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630. Boulder.Google Scholar
Crumley, Carole L. ed. 1994. Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes, Santa FeGoogle Scholar
Fairhead, James and Leach, Melissa 1996. Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Falola, Toyin 1993. “Alternative History: the World of Yoruba Chroniclers.” Passages (Evanston) 6:26.Google Scholar
Goody, Jack 1957. “Fields of Social Control among the LoDagaba.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 87:75104.Google Scholar
Goody, Jack 1993. “Peuplement: études comparatives, Nord-Ghana et Burkina Faso” in Fiéloux, Michèle, Lombard, Jacques, and Kambou-Ferrand, Jeanne-Marie. eds. Images d'Afrique et sciences sociales. Les pays lobi, birifor et dagara. Paris. 5155.Google Scholar
Harneit-Sievers, Axel 1997. “Igbo Community Histories: Locality and History in South-Eastern Nigeria.” Working Papers on African Societies (Berlin) 24.Google Scholar
Hébert, Jean 1976. Esquisse d'une monographic historique du pays dagara. Par un groupe de Dagara en collaboration avec le père Hébert. Diébougou.Google Scholar
Horton, Robin 1985. “Stateless Societies in the History of West Africa” in Ajayi, J.F.A. and Crowder, Michael, eds. History of West Africa, London, 87128.Google Scholar
Jones, Adam 1990. Zur Quellenproblematik der Geschichte Westafrikas, 1450-1900. Stuttgart.Google Scholar
Kuba, Richard 2000. “Marking Boundaries and Identities: the Precolonial Expansion of Segmentary Societies in Southern Burkina Faso.” Berichte des Sonderforschungsbereichs 268/14, 415–25.Google Scholar
Kuba, Richard, Lentz, Carola, and Werthmann, Katja (eds.) 2001. Les Dagara et leurs voisins. L'histoire du peuplement au sud-ouest du Burkina Faso. Frankfurt: Berichte des Sonderforschungsbereichs 268/15.Google Scholar
Labouret, Henri 1931. Les tribus du rameau lobi. Paris.Google Scholar
Labouret, Henri 1958. Nouvelles notes sur les tribus du rameau lobi, leurs migrations, leurs évolution, leurs parlers et ceux de leurs voisins. Dakar.Google Scholar
Law, Robin 1984. “How Truly Traditional is our Traditional History? The Case of Samuel Johnson and the Recording of Yoruba Oral Tradition.” History in Africa 11:195221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Leach, Melissa and Means, Robin 1996. “Challenging Received Wisdom in Africa” in Leach, Melissa and Mearns, Robin, eds. The Lie of the Land. Oxford, 133.Google Scholar
Lentz, Carola 1994. “A Dagara Rebellion Against Dagomba Rule? Contested Stories of Origin in North-Western Ghana.” Journal of African History 35:457–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lentz, Carola 1998. Die Konstruktion von Ethnizität. Eine politische Geschichte Nord-West Ghanas, ca. 1870-1990. Köln.Google Scholar
Lentz, Carola 1999. “Colonial Ethnography and Political Reform: the Works of A.C. Duncan-Johnstone, R.S. Rattray, J. Eyre-Smith, and J. Guiness on Northern Ghana.” Ghana Studies 2:119–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lentz, Carola 2000a. “Contested Identities: the History of Ethnicity in North-western Ghana” in Lentz, Carola and Nugent, Paul, eds. Ethnicity in Ghana: The Limits of Invention. London, 137–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lentz, Carola 2000b. “Of Hunters, Goats and Earth-Shrines: Settlement Histories and the Politics of Oral Tradition in Northern Ghana.” History in Africa 27:193214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lentz, Carola 2000c. “‘This is Ghanaian territory:’ Land Conflicts in Transnational Localities on the Burkina Faso—Ghana Border.” Berichte des Sonderforschungsbereichs 268/14, 477–95.Google Scholar
Linz, Volker 2000. “La dynamique historique et politique des réseaux religieux au sud-ouest du Burkina Faso.” Berichte des Sonderforschungsbereichs 268/14, 455–65.Google Scholar
Luig, Ute 1984. “Probleme bei der Erforschung oraler Traditionen.” Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialforschung 26:178–94.Google Scholar
Luig, Ute and von Oppen, Achim 1995. “Einleitung. Zur Vergesellschaftung von Natur in Afrika” in Luig, Ute and von Oppen, Achim, eds. Naturaneignung in Afrika als sozialer und symbolischer Prozess. Berlin, 528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Marchal, Jean Y. 1978. “Vestiges d'occupation ancienne au Yatenga (Haute-Volta). Une reconnaissance du pays Kibga.” Cahiers ORSTOM, série Sciences Humaines 15:449–84.Google Scholar
Miller, Joseph C. ed. 1980. The African Past Speaks. Folkestone.Google Scholar
Moniot, Henri 1995. “L'histoire à l'épreuve de l'Afrique.” Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines 138/139:647–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Neumann, Katharina, Kahlheber, Stefanie, and Uebel, Dirk 1988. “Remains of Woody Plants from Saouga, a Medieval West African Village.” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 7/1:5777.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pélissier, Paul 1980. “L'arbre dans les paysages agraires de l'Afrique tropicale.” Cahiers ORSTOM, série Sciences Humaines 17:131–36.Google Scholar
Père, Madeleine. 1993. “Chronique des villages de la province du Poni, en contribution à l'histoire du peuplement au Burkina Faso.” in Fiéloux, Michèle, Lombard, Jacques, and Kambou-Ferrand, Jeanne-Marie, eds. Images d'Afrique et sciences sociales. Les pays lobi, birifor et dagara. Paris, 5673.Google Scholar
Raison, Jean-Pierre 1988. Les parcs en Afrique. Etat de connaissances et perspectives de recherches. Paris.Google Scholar
Rival, Laura, ed. 1998. The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism. Oxford.Google Scholar
Somda, Claude Nurukyor 2000. “Espace et mobilité lignagère dans le sud-ouest du Burkina: l'exemple des Dagara,” Berichte des Sonderforschungsbereichs 268/14, 449–53.Google Scholar
Sturm, Hans-Jürgen 1995. “Das Uberweidungsproblem in der westafrikanischen Savanne. Neue Ansätze und Perspektiven” in Brunk, Karsten and Greinert-Byer, Ursula, eds. Mensch und Natur in Westafrika. Frankfurt, 163–76.Google Scholar
Sturm, Hans-Jürgen 1997. “Kulturbaumparks in der Provinz Boulgou (Burkina Faso)” in Reikat, Andrea, ed. Landnutzung in der westafrikanischen Savanne, Berichte des Sonderforschungsbereichs 268/9, 169–88.Google Scholar
Sturm, Hans-Jürgen 1998. “Development and Dynamics of Agricultural Parks in West Africa” in Kirby, Keith J. and Watkins, Charles, eds. The Ecological History of European Forests, Wallingford, 2532.Google Scholar
Tauxier, Louis 1912. Le Noir du Soudan. Pays Mossi et Gourounsi. Paris.Google Scholar
Vansina, Jan 1985. Oral Tradition as History. Madison.Google Scholar
Vansina, Jan 1990. Paths in the Rain Forest: Towards a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa. Madison.Google Scholar
Vansina, Jan 1995. “Historians, Are Archeologists your Siblings?History in Africa 22: 369409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Vansina, Jan 1998. “It Never Happened: Kinguri's Exodus and its Consequences.” History in Africa 25:387403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Zwernemann, Jürgen 1968. Die Erde in Vorstellungswelt undKultpraktiken der sudanischen Völker. Berlin.Google Scholar