Review of Paths in the Rainforest

by Jan Vansina
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Paths in the Rainforest
Book Author
Jan Vansina
Book Publisher
University of Wisconsin Press
Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
David Cohen
Current Anthropology
Select License
November 6th, 2012

Volume 32, Number 3, Iune 1991 / 363

Historicizing a Regional Cultural Tradition


Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. U.S.A. 15 I 91

Paths in the Rainforest. By Jan Vansina. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. 409 pp.

With his imposing, complex, and challenging Paths in the Rainforest, Jan Vansina has produced an aperture through which to contemplate some 4,000 years of Af- rica's past. He has also provided a view across four de- cades of his own research and writing. His objective is not, however, the projection of his own career but the exposition of the historical record of a regional cul- tural tradition extending back across the millennia. It is a heroic project and a life work. According to the author, the book is one cut across a broader field of topics, focus- ing on "institutional history, on the past of societies"

xiv), "the reconstruction of a sociopolitical history"
xv). A follow-up work of similar conceptual and methodological orientation but concerned with the his- torical reconstruction of the regional economy of equa- torial Africa in the precolonial era is promised. Excellent maps prepared by Claudine Vansina illuminate the text at many points.

Vansina's encompassing argument is that "a single [cultural] tradition flourished for millennia in equatorial African-that the societies that 19th-century European explorers such as Stanley found there were local reflec- tions and interpretations of this core cultural tradition. As it seeks to define, locate, and historicize this tradi- tion, the book reveals the import of many and diverse traditions in the scholarship of Vansina himself. And this is as it should be with a work of research and writ- ing that stretches-from the early formation of a Belgian student of the Kuba of the then Belgian Congo to the mature work of a distinguished professor responsible for the training of a generation of African historians and anthropologists at the University of Wisconsin-across extraordinary changes not only in Africa but in the an- thropological and historical study of the continent. Some of these traditions in scholarship are, with Rainforest, like aerial roots-they embrace, envelop, and re- define the stems and branches of the maturing project. Some the author lays open to view in elaborate and gen- erous ways. Others will be discovered by different read- ers as they bring diverse readings to the text.

One of these "aerial roots" is the reappearance of the empowering voice of the 1950s and 1960s: that Africa requires its own history, a revolutionary rescripting of notions of a continent long held in Western writing to be a timeless wilderness in which people are reckoned to have no history apart from the endless repetition of customary behavior. One may well ask whether Van- sina's contrast of his own historical program with an

ahistorical mode of speaking of the continent presents

the whole issue. Both programs, after all, accept a partic-

ular idea of history developing within a specific Western

philosophical tradition, and both appear to neglect the

power of the thick and detailed knowing, thinking, and

speaking of the past that mark and frame intimate and

local knowledge and discourse. To claim to be producing

a history of Africa against a "history" of denying the

possibility of any such history is to ignore the "second

republics" of history work that have always been pro-

ducing, revising, and giving meaning to knowledge of

the past.

To propose to provide a region of Africa with a past or

to retrieve a knowledge of the past alleged to have been

amputated in the colonial period is of course important,

but it is not simply-as Vansina has it-a threshold to

a more powerful understanding of the past; it is also a

threshold to a complex political field in which different

concepts of an appropriate and correct history are articu-

lated at different times by different actors and constitu-

encies, some of them better able than others to frame

their claims to authority in the language of science.

Additionally, one finds in Rainforest a revisitation of concepts of culture and tradition that are well rooted in the early tradition of American anthropology but so far have fared less well in African soils. Fundamental to Vansina's project is a reawakened quest for continuity and regional integration and comprehension. The latter was advanced as a frame of scholarship and pedagogy in his Kingdoms of the Savanna (1966) and reasserted as the premise of the "topographical structure" of numerous historical textbooks and two major historiographical projects, the UNESCO General History of Africa and the Cambridge History of Africa. How far is this program-the definition and historicization of a regional cultural tradition-part of a yearning for a lost order "before the colonial and post-colonial state" and an ar- ticulation, in the language of science, of fear for the pres- ent and future of the region? Where Vansina argues that "we stand . . . at the threshold of a road to be traveled to very distant lands" (p. 263), we may well ask how this telling of history sits among other modes and exam- ples of speaking and writing of the past in equatorial Africa.

If there is little discussion of such questions as agency, interest, meaning, authority, inscription, textuality- which preoccupy a number of anthropologists and histo- rians of Africa as well as other lands-one does find Vansina offering a refreshed discussion of the methodol- ogy of handling written sources, oral testimony, and other forms of evidence, in which the question of whether the reconstruction of Africa's past is possible is posed and then answered. His methodological program is presented as being transferable to other regions of the world.

The essential argument for Vansina's scientific project is framed in an elliptical, problematic, and reifying dis- cussion (pp. 71-73) of different "realities." Here he pre- sents a notional hierarchy of types of observation, com-


mentary, and interpretation, privileging and centering

methods of interpretation typically organized around

the construction of series of categories. At the beginning

of an analysis of core Bantu roots/words/concepts relat-

ing to the relationship of the living to spirits, he asserts

that "worldviews are essential to the creation and main-

tenance of tradition. They are the cognitive substance

that gives meaning and aims to life. To claim a common

cultural tradition for the peoples of the rainforest, one

must demonstrate that the fundamental axioms of the

worldviews of different western Bantu-speaking peoples

are the same and to what degree they are the same" (p.

95). Here he takes an indefinite notion from European

ethnological writing-"worldview"-and essentializes

it as "found" or "to be found" cultural material. A rhe

torical, functional, and hermeneutical loop (and one that

leaves unquestioned the convenient clustering of roots/

words/concepts relating to a Western-centered lexicon

of spiritual and religious elements and motifs), his dis-

cussion of world view mystifies and confounds the proj-

ect of comprehending how people-through the artic-

ulation of interest, through acts of surveillance and

interpretation, through the expression of emotion,

through the handling of conflict, through the manage-

ment of knowledge-construct culture.

While one may find Vansina's categorizing impera- tive, his didactic mode, and the declarative style of these methodological expositions problematic and even gratu- itous at times, his discussions are a rich resource for studying the development and refinement of his han- dling of oral and other materials. There is stimulation and value both in his commentaries on specific writers from the colonial and precolonial periods and in his sen- sitivity to a wide array of contingencies affecting the quality of sources, from the linguistic talent and loca- tion of the observer to gender. Throughout the work there is impressive exposition of a multidisciplinary and integrative science of practice in which materials from historical linguistics are elegantly interwoven with evi- dence from archaeology, art history, ethnobotany, and social anthropology-in many places an extraordinary exemplification of the Africanist canon of the 1960s that disciplinary boundaries were to be crossed in the pursuit of knowledge. The linguistic material assembled in Lon- don over several decades by Malcolm Guthrie is here used more effectively perhaps even than by Guthrie himself for the resconstruction of the past.

Yet "the voice of science" invades the text in perni- cious ways. Vansina's arguments from and about science seem to reflect an older concept of science, confident in its own methods and languages rather than constantly and critically reflecting on its own claims to authority. At minimum, the notion of a "probable past" is likely to be as baffling to physicists as to historians. Part of my difficulty in accepting the scientific underpinnings of the project is the author's evidently unconscious or hap- hazard elision of the useful and often necessary distinc- tion between past and history. And in attempting to po- sition his project as a scientific one, Vansina warps the very virtues of his book-the emotion of its purpose, the extraordinary range of its sources, the imagination of its regional definition, the exceptional reach of its temporal framework, the thickness of its narrative, and the deep experience underlying its development.

References Cited

VANSINA, TAN.1966. Kingdoms of the savanna: A history of the

Central African states until European occupation. Madison:

University of Wisconsin Press.

Science and the Narrative Structure of Theories


Department of Social Anthropology, The Queen's University of Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland. 30 I 91

Narratives of Human Evolution: The Hero Story. By

Misia Landau. New Haven: Yale University Press,

1991. xiii + 195 pp. $22.50

Misia Landau's work attracted considerable attention from palaeoanthropologists in the mid-1980s. Her claim that theories of human origins can be analysed in the terms normally used to display the narrativ, structure of folktales and creation myths clearly hit a raw nerve. Palaeoanthropologists were'worried that they might be accused of doing nothing more than telling stories to make us feel more comfortable about ourselves. The source of the anxiety seems to have been a feeling that if the theories were, in essence, nothing more than the folktales of modern Western culture, then any hope of a science of human origins had to be abandoned.


Landau's Narratives of Human Evolution provides a more detailed account of her thesis for wider consump- tion. In it we are introduced to the techniques used by Vladimir Propp and other students of folktales to dis- cover the similarities of structure that underlie the su- perficially diverse stories found in the traditions of all cultures. Typically, the story involves a "hero" who un- dergoes an adventure or test and is rewarded by a "do- nor." Landau argues that the theories of human origins ~roducedfrom the time of Darwin to the Dresent can be analysed in the same terms. Although the details vary from theory to theory, all involve a primitive hominid (the hero) who ventures into a new environment (e.g., the open plains) and is rewarded by evolution (the donor) with intelligence and civilization. Landau demonstrates the possibility of such an analysis by tracing the se- quence in the theories of T. H. Huxley, Ernst Haeckel, Charles Darwin, and (in more detail) Arthur Keith and Grafton Elliot Smith. Although she includes comments about palaeoanthropologica1 theories in general, her book is thus primarily an analysis of the history of theo- ries of human origins in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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