12 - The power of symbols and the symbols of power through time: probing the Luba past  pp. 151-165

The power of symbols and the symbols of power through time: probing the Luba past

By Pierre de Maret

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With its many shared linguistic, symbolic, and ideological characteristics, the Bantu-speaking population of central, eastern, and southern Africa offers an exceptional opportunity for comparative studies. How, with a common background, they managed to expand and adapt to the various local conditions they encountered in this gigantic area over a period of probably more than three millennia is fascinating. Although two-thirds of Fortes and Evans-Pritchard's seminal book African Political Systems (1940) was devoted to Bantu political organization, the potential contribution of this part of the world to the recent debate on chiefdoms, intermediate level societies, and the rise of early states has been almost completely overlooked in favor of Oceania, America, and, to a lesser extent, Europe (Earle 1987).

Bantu Africa offers not only side-by-side examples of major kingdoms, such as the Kuba, and autonomous villages with collective leadership, such as the Lele, but also hundreds of societies exhibiting a wide range of intermediate political systems. Considering only the Bantu living in the rainforest, Vansina (1989) notes

One can go from one end of the scale of complexity to the other by setting up a model of transformations that takes all the cases into account. When this is done it becomes clear that kingdoms can grow out of chiefdoms, or out of a single big man's house, or out of government by an association, encompassing many settlements, where leaders move from rank to rank. As soon as the highest rank is limited to a single incumbent, a kingdom emerges. […]