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June 26, 2004

The Nuer Conquest

I have recently been trying to catch up with the literature on ‘cultural evolution’, and I hope to do a general survey of the subject - eventually.

Meanwhile, I noticed that one point came up repeatedly. Whenever writers on the subject want to show cultural traits spreading as a result of competition between groups, one of the key examples (if not the only example), is the spread of the Nuer people of the Sudan in the 19th century.

The odd thing about this is that not much is known about the Nuer in the 19th century. Evans-Pritchard’s classic book on the Nuer begins by listing the Victorian explorers’ accounts, but says ‘I have not been able to make much use of their writings, however, for their contact with the Nuer was slight and the impressions they recorded were superficial, and sometimes spurious’.

The prospects for a reliable account of the 19th century Nuer are poor. So why are so many writers on cultural evolution so keen on them?

The fashion seems to have started with Elliott Sober and D. S. Wilson’s 1998 book Unto Others. Sober and Wilson prominently featured a book by Raymond C. Kelly on The Nuer Conquest (1985). Kelly argues that the spread of the Nuer at the expense of neighbouring tribes (especially the Dinka) can be explained by the larger size of their raiding parties. This in turn depends on the Nuer tribal organisation, which depends on their lineage system, which ultimately is determined by their brideprice requirements, which are more demanding than those of other Nilotic peoples. As a result of their greater military effectiveness, the Nuer extended their territory throughout the 19th century, and absorbed several Dinka tribes who adopted Nuer customs. We therefore seem to have a good example of a cultural trait (Nuer brideprice) leading indirectly to its own competitive success.

No wonder this is attractive to advocates of ‘cultural evolution by group selection’, but is it true?

To find out, I went back to the source: Kelly’s book.

First, I have no major criticism of Kelly. His book is scholarly and well-argued (up to a point), and his thesis may even be true. He is not responsible for the use made of it by others.

What is reprehensible is the way that other writers, beginning with Sober and Wilson, have presented a highly speculative hypothesis as if it were a proven fact. My main objections are:

a. As already mentioned, little is known about the 19th century Nuer. We have less first-hand reporting on them than we do on Merovingian France or early Anglo-Saxon England.

b. Kelly’s argument involves a long chain of inferences. Like all such arguments, unless each step of inference is firm, the final conclusion is only weakly supported.

c. The argument also depends on the exclusion of rival hypotheses, and the rigour with which this is done. Kelly does deal with some previous hypotheses, such as ‘population pressure’, but it is not clear that he has considered all the alternatives. I subsequently discovered that there are other rival theories which he does not discuss.

d. In such a technical field much weight must be given to the verdict of experts. I have found two reviews of Kelly’s book. One, in American Anthropologist, is short and enthusiastic, but not by a Nuer specialist; the other, in Africa, by a French Nuer expert, is longer and more sceptical. (I could not find a review in Man, the journal of the (British) Royal Anthropological Institute.) There is also a long book by Sharon Hutchinson, Nuer Dilemmas, which merely mentions Kelly’s book among a dozen or so hypotheses on the reasons for Nuer expansion. Wendy James, another Nuer expert, in her introduction to the 1990 reissue of Evans-Pritchard’s Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer, surveys recent work on the Nuer but does not even mention Kelly. It seems fair to conclude that Nuer experts have not unanimously accepted Kelly’s thesis.

e. Finally, Kelly does not explain the underlying difference in brideprice practices itself, and it seems logically possible that he has put the cart before the horse: that the Nuer have heavier brideprice requirements because they are militarily strong (and therefore find it easy to raid cattle from neighbouring tribes), and not vice versa. The limited available evidence may not be sufficient to resolve the issue of causal priority.

But my concern is not to argue whether Kelly’s thesis is right or wrong, but to point out that it should not be presented as an unquestioned fact.

Posted by David B at 03:22 AM