Ancestors in Africa:

Selected readings and Mambila case material

prepared by David Zeitlyn as part of the Experience Rich Anthropology Project

Preface and summary

The status of ancestors in African anthropology has been much discussed over the course of the 20th century. Some of the classic texts are presented below along with some of the correspondence that has resulted in the columns of the professional journal Man (now JRAI). These discussions provide an analytic framework which may be used to assess the Mambila case material that follows. Mambila is an interesting case to consider since it remains unclear whether or not the Mambila can meaningfully be said to have ancestors. The readings and case material allow the readers, to make their own minds up.

Ancestors in Africa - readings and a case study


This collection was developed as part of an exploration of the process of teaching and learning anthropology. It has been prepared as part of a project funded by the UK Higher Education Funding Council. Its intended audience is undergraduate students of anthropology, although I should say that I have learnt a lot myself in the process of its preparation. The exercise of teaching is itself a learning experience! What follows is a case study that provides some material with which to answer the question of whether the Mambila of Nigeria and Cameroon have an ancestor cult. In order to attempt an answer we must have a clear understanding of what ancestors are, and since the very meaning of the term is contested, a collection of some of the key articles on the subject forms the opening chapters. These are complemented by some of the correspondence they occasioned in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (then called Man) which serve to emphasise the points of controversy.

From the theoretical background we turn to a case in point. For Mambila, as I understand them, the dead are not of as critical importance as is the case for the Tallensi or the Suga. To justify this claim I summarize the evidence and produce case material relevant to attitudes to the dead. Since this is a case study rather than a monograph I have tried as best I can to produce all the evidence available to me, so that readers can argue the opposite case. I believe that whatever conclusion one comes to about Mambila ancestors, they fail to fit comfortably with the terms of the major theories about ancestors in general. The struggle to make sense of both the theory and the data illuminates the one as much as the other.

Selected readings

  1. Gluckman, M. 1937. Mortuary customs and the belief in survival after death among the South-Eastern Bantu. Bantu Studies 11, 117-36.
  2. Fortes, M. 1961. Pietas and ancestor worship. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 91(2), 166-91.
  3. Fortes, M. 1965. Some reflections on Ancestor Worship in Africa. In African Systems of Thought (eds) M. Fortes and G. Dieterlen. London: Oxford University Press for the International African Institute.
    A summary of this article in French is also avaialble.
  4. Kopytoff, I. 1971. Ancestors as Elders. Africa 41, 129-42.
  5. Calhoun, C.J. 1980. The authority of ancestors: a sociological reconsideration of Fortes's Tallensi in response to Fortes's critics. Man (n.s.) 15(2), 304-319.
  6. Glazier, J. 1984. Mbeere ancestors and the domestication of death. Man (n.s.) 19(1), 133.

Calhoun's complete 1975 Master thesis is also available

Correspondence from Man

  1. Kopytoff, I. 1981. The authority of ancestors. Man (n.s.) 16(1), 135-137.
  2. Calhoun, C.J. 1981. The authority of ancestors. Man (n.s.) 16(1), 137-8.
  3. Fortes, M. 1981. The authority of ancestors. Man (n.s.) 16(2), 300-2.
  4. Drucker-Brown, S. 1981. The authority of ancestors. Man (n.s.) 16(3), 475.
  5. Brain, J.L. 1982. The authority of ancestors. Man (n.s.) 17(3), 546-7.
  6. Ruel, M. 1982. The authority of ancestors. Man (n.s.) 17(3), 547-8.
  7. Kopytoff, I. 1982. The authority of ancestors. Man (n.s.) 17(3), 548.
  8. Keesing R. 1983. Ancestors, sociology and comparative analysis. Man (n.s.) 18(1), 185-190.
  9. Calhoun, C. 1983. Ancestors, sociology and comparative analysis. Man (n.s.) 18(3), 602-4.

Mambila case material

  1. Rehfisch, F. 1969. Death, Dreams and the Ancestors and Mambila Culture. In Man in Africa (eds) M. Douglas and P.M. Kaberry. London: Tavistock Press.
  2. Zeitlyn, D. 1991. Mambila avatars and the ancestor cult: Problems of History and Interpretation.
  3. Fieldnotes and photos
  4. Background - an Anthropologist at the funeral