Languages and their dialects are crucial elements in determining identity. The boundaries between languages and dialects should not be drawn too rigidly: each shades into others within a local area, and probably most Africans can speak those of their neighbors as well as their own. Nonetheless, linguistic boundaries are recognized and have meanings for those who live within them. They are essential between the social and cultural groups that have conventionally been called "tribes," a word that is today often considered derogatory. The existence of "tribes" is therefore often denied, and at times the concept claimed to have been "invented" by Europeans. The problem is not whether or not tribes exist—for in fact they do. They have names, and Africans use those names, and they hold great significance for their members, to whom they give a firm identity. The problem concerns exactly how they may be defined and how they came into existence. A tribe is now often referred to by a term such as "ethnic group," "society," or "culture." The first two terms are almost meaningless in this context, and the third refers not to a group of living people but to their conventional patterns of behavior. Perhaps the term that best conveys both their distinctiveness and the absence of rigid boundaries between them is simply "people."
How may a people be defined? The obvious criteria include occupying a common territory; speaking a single language or dialect; having a single social organization; having a sense of identity, cohesion, and history; sharing a common religion; and having a single set of customs and behavioral rules (as in marriage, clothing, diet, taboos, and so on). One problem is that any or all of these criteria can change at any time, so that a map of the peoples who live in Africa can soon grow out of date.
Two commonly used words deserve comment. These are "indigenous" and "traditional." Both are often used with the implication of being unchanging or static, but properly they do not have this connotation.
"Indigenous" is conventionally used not as meaning autochthonous or primordial, but rather in the sense of having priority of settlement; it is also used to distinguish Africans from non-African incomers. The word "native," although properly having that same meaning, is today rarely used.
"Traditional" refers to the customs, beliefs, and practices that the local people of any area consider to have been theirs in the past and not to have changed today from what they were in that past. It is a notion that is held by the people themselves, and not by outside observers. In this sense, a traditional society is one whose members see their lives and the future lives of their children as being essentially the same as those of their forebears, in spite of whatever changes may in fact have been made in the underlying structure of their society. All African societies change continually, but the people themselves may be unaware of this fact or may choose to ignore it as unimportant.
In addition to the classifications that are based upon race and language, various attempts have been made to classify the peoples of Africa by "culture area," a concept based on early American Indian ethnology. The most widely accepted classifications for Africa are those made by Melville Herskovits (1924) and George Peter Murdock (1959). These two classifications are useful because they give a comprehensive view of African societies and cultures and bring a degree of order into an often confusing overall situation. The simpler system is that of Herskovits, who developed the following seven categories: Khoisan, in southwestern Africa, comprising the Bushmen and Khoi only; East African Cattle Complex, stretching northward from southeastern Africa (a category is too much of a ragbag to be of much use, given that it is based on close relationships between humans and their cattle but ignores other important differences); Eastern Sudan, from the Nile westward to Lake Chad (a category based on geographical region rather than on more significant criteria); Congo, comprising the Congo (or Zaire) Basin and surrounding areas, all of whom speak Bantu languages; Guinea Coast, stretching from the Bight of Biafra to Senegal, a densely populated region, the inhabitants of which speak Niger-Congo languages and occupy mainly forested areas; Western Sudan, which is occupied by many peoples who share the occupation of the sub-Saharan savannas; and East African Horn (northern Ethiopia and Somalia), another cluster that is defined geographically.
This classification scheme, which excludes northern Africa, is based essentially on geography and basic economies. Murdock's classification is far more sophisticated and complete, and it includes northern Africa and Madagascar. Although also basically geographical, it rests to a greater extent upon criteria of social organization, language, and history. It consists of forty-five main clusters, each subdivided into constituent groups. It lists a total of some 2,700 peoples, of whom about 2,300 live in sub-Saharan Africa (about 700 main groups and 1,600 subgroups), with about 360 in northern Africa, and 40 in Madagascar and on the smaller islands. Although questions can be raised about the identities of many of the subgroups, the general picture is one of an immense number of distinct peoples, each with its own identity, language, and culture. The complexity is overwhelming.
It may be useful here to present some of the principal features of the main geographical regions of the continent, so as to give an idea of their general social, cultural, and historical places within the complexity of African cultures. Each of these wide regions includes a great variety of traditional economies, forms of government, familial organizations, and religious systems, all of which are discussed in more detail later in this introduction.
Western Africa stretches from Senegal in the west to Cameroon in the east. It includes the two main zones of the Saharan borderland savannas—known generally as the Sahel—and that of the forested belt along the coast. It holds a third of the total population of the continent. Whereas communication is difficult and slow from east to west in the forest zone, it is relatively easy along the savanna belt. Located in the savanna zones are Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, as well as the northern parts of the forest-zone countries of Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
The main crops of the savanna zone are grains: millets, sorghums, maize, and, in the west, rice. Savanna trees, oil plants (mainly sesame), and spices are also grown in most of this zone. The forest belt grows mainly root and tree crops: yams; cocoyams; oil, raffia, and other palms; spices; kola; and cocoa—all crops that are important both for domestic use and for export. Livestock are kept throughout the savanna: cattle of several varieties, horses, sheep, goats, fowl, and pigs are all valuable. Cattle and horses cannot survive in the forests to the south, however, because of the tsetse fly. Minerals—gold, bauxite, diamonds—are important products of the forest zone. Houses are mainly of mud in the savanna zone (including immense and long-lasting adobe structures such as palaces and mosques), but are of less durable materials in the forests, where precipitation is heavy. The region is world famous for its wood carvings, pottery, metal casting, and textile weaving. Trade, both at local markets and through long-distance merchants, has always been and remains of central economic and social importance, from both west and east and also from the forest zone to northern Africa, across the Sahara Desert. In the savanna zone, Islam is perhaps the principal religion; most societies in the forest zone have traditionally had their own local religions and today have added Christianity.
Western Africa contains both large, permanent towns and cities and large, powerful kingdoms, some of which have endured since the Middle Ages. The latter include the forest states of Benin (in Nigeria, not in the modern state that has taken the same name); the cluster of Yoruba states in southwestern Nigeria; Dahomey, in the modern Benin; Asante and the other Akan kingdoms of Ghana and Ivory Coast. In the savanna zone are the Muslim emirates of the Hausa in northern Nigeria and Niger (Sokoto, Zaria, Kano, and others), which were established by conquest by the Fulani in the early nineteenth century; the kingdom of Nupe in central Nigeria; and the Mossi kingdoms of Burkina Faso, among others. There are also several noncentralized societies in both the savanna and the forest zones, which vary politically and organizationally but which recognize either clans or lineages as the basis for governing many kinds of associations: age groups; village associations (as among the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria); and, in the west, the so-called secret societies of the Mende and Temne, in Sierra Leone.
Central Africa may also be divided into two main parts. One is the easterly extension of western Africa, with the Nile as its eastern boundary, that includes the savanna-zone countries of Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, and the southwestern part of Sudan. The other part stretches southward through the present-day countries of Congo, Gabon, Zaire, Angola, and Equatorial Africa, much of which territory is forested and is occupied by peoples with differing economies and cultures. The central region is ethnically mixed, with Baggara and other Arabs in the north, Bantu-speaking farmers throughout most of both the savanna and forest, and the Pygmies in parts of the forest. Kingdoms are found throughout the region: in the north, that of the Bamiléké and those of several others in Cameroon, and, further east, those of the Mangbetu and the Azande. The forest areas include the kingdoms of the Kongo, Kuba, Luba, Lunda, and many others.
Eastern Africa stretches from Ethiopia southward to the Zambezi, and from the Indian Ocean westward to the Great Lakes. It covers the present-day nations of Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. Various forms of savanna economies of mixed farming are found throughout this region, with basic dependence on pastoralism in the southern Sudan (by the Nuer and the Dinka), in the Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania (by the Maasai), and in Somalia (by the Somalis). The Ethiopian, Kenyan, and Great Lakes highlands support large and dense populations, including those of the great kingdom of the Amhara in Ethiopia, the Nile state of Shilluk in the Sudan, and the Interlacustrine Bantu kingdoms of Ganda, Nyoro, Rwanda, Burundi, Toro, and others. Noncentralized peoples include the Nuer and the Dinka of southern Sudan; the Somalis of Somalia; the Kikuyu, Luyia, and Luo of Kenya; the numerous small societies in Tanzania and Zambia; and the Shona and Ndebele of Zimbabwe.
Southern Africa—which includes the present-day nations of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland—is characterized by savannas, occasional coastal forests, and the arid areas of the Kalahari Desert. Bushmen and Khoi live in the Kalahari region; the remainder of the region is occupied by Bantu-speaking peoples, the better known of whom include the kingdoms of Zulu, Swazi, Suto, Xhosa, Lozi, Bemba, and Ndebele. In the southwestern tip live the Cape Coloureds, as well as the Afrikaners. Except for the Bushmen and the Khoi, their traditional economies have been those of mixed farming and livestock keeping. Today this region—in which the large modern cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban are located—is the most highly industrialized in all of Africa.
Northern Africa comprises the narrow coastal strip from Egypt to Morocco, together with the Sahara Desert to its south. This strip was at one time inhabited mainly by Berber peoples but today has been taken over by Arab immigrants from Arabia, who have subjugated the Berbers and driven many of them into the Sahara itself.
Off the eastern coast of Africa lies Madagascar, inhabited by immigrants from what is now Indonesia, who arrived on the island probably in the first half of the first millennium. Despite some admixture from the mainland, Madagascar's economies, societies, and cultures are noticeably different from those of the rest of Africa.