These brief descriptions will give you some background information about the cultures that made many of the objects on Odyssey Online. We’ve tried to include information such as the name of the country where these cultures live (many of them overlap political boundaries), their population size, and general information about their history, how they make a living, or their religious beliefs.

We have adapted these entries from several sources, including the Art and Life in Africa website at the University of Iowa. Visit their African Peoples Database for more extensive information about these cultures and almost 100 others.


The Akan culture actually refers to several ethnic groups who speak similar languages, for example the Asante and the Fante peoples. The Akan live in southern Ghana and the Ivory Coast. There are about four million Akan-speaking people today. Much of our knowledge of ancient Akan culture is known from oral histories rather than written records. Trade routes to move gold throughout the region were probably established around the 13th century. This trade activity led to the rise of early Akan centralized states, and by the end of the 17th century the grand Asante kingdom emerged in the central forest region of Ghana.


The grasslands of central Cameroon is a large cultural area where several related cultures live in individual kingdoms. Some of these kingdoms are: the Kom, Bamum, Babungo, Babanki, Batcham, and Bamileke. Each of these kingdoms is ruled by a chief (called a Fon). The Fon’s palace is the center of the community and much of it’s activity. Many objects are made to be used in ceremonies at the palace. Most of the people are farmers who grow maize (corn), yams, and peanuts as staple crops and they raise some livestock (chickens and goats). Women are responsible for planting and harvesting; while men clear the fields for planting and practice some hunting.


The Dogon live in southeastern Mali and Burkina Faso. Their current population is about 100,000. They are an agriculutral people and grow onions for export as well as millett and sorghum. Their society is structured around clan and village groups. The Dogon worship ancestors and spirits. They are best known for their extensive carving of masks and wooden figures. The primary colors used by the Dogon in their art are red, black, and white, and popular patterns include spirals and checkerboards.


The Efik live in southeastern Nigeria along the lower Cross River. As traders in continuous contact with the other Cross River cultural groups, they assimilated the artistic styles that they came into contact with and dispersed them over a large area along the river.


The Fang people live in southern Gabon and Cameroon. Their population today is about 800,000. They migrated into their current area in recent centuries as small groups or families of nomadic farmers. As they moved into new areas, they seized land from their neighbors. They farm the rain forests where they have settled using slash and burn techniques. Their traditional religion centered around ancestors, who are believed to wield power in the afterlife. The skulls and long bones of these men were kept hidden away and were protected by wooden reliquary figures.


The Fante live along the southern coast of Ghana and, along with the Asante, make up the two largest and best known ethnic groups that make up the Akan. Each Fante family is responsible for maintaining political and social order within its confines (family compound????). The Fante, who live along the coast, rely heavily on fishing, both for their own food source and for trade with inland peoples. Men engage in fishing, and both sexes participate in growing crops such as cocoa, yams, and taro.


The Fon live in southern Benin and Togo. Between the early 18th and the mid-19th centuries the Fon kingdom of Dahomey reached its political and economic peak. The Fon conquered numerous small coastal states and monopolized the region’s slave trade to make great economic gains. This income helped support the wealth of the King whose power was absolute until he was defeated by the French, and the kingdom became a French colony in 1894. Today the primary cash crops in this region are yams, cotton, and taro. The Fon also grow sorghum, sesame, millet, palms, maize, and okra for local consumption.


The Igbo live in southeastern Nigeria and their population is about eight million. The first Igbo in the region may have moved in between four and five thousand years ago. The earliest surviving Igbo art forms are from the 10th century -- copper alloy castings which suggest that the Igbo had already achieved a level of technology rivaling medieval Europe. Today the majority of Igbo are farmers. Their staple crop is yam, and they also harvest palm tree fruit, which is processed into palm oil, and exported to Europe. The Igbo are a diverse and politically fragmented group. They don’t have a central chief or king. Instead, leadership is traditionally held by village councils made up of elders, titled men, and men who have established themselves economically in the community.


The Kota live in eastern Gabon. Their population is about 75,000. They farm the rain forests which surround them with slash and burn techniques. Plantains and manioc are their main crops. Each Kota village has a leader who inherits his position based on his relationship to the founding family of the village. Ancestors were important and were worshipped in the Kota traditional religion. Ancestors’ bones were believed to have power and control over the well-being of their family. These sacred bones were protected by wooden figures overlayed with copper.


About 700,000 Mende people live in southern Sierra Leone. The Mende are traditionally rice farmers who also grow yams and canava as staple crops. Cocoa, ginger, groundnuts (peanuts), and palm oil are produced as cash crops. The Mende have two educational societies -- Poro (for men) and Sande (for women). In these socieities individuals are taught the expectations of the community. The societies serve to convey community morals and act as a means of social control.


The Turkana people of Kenya are nomadic. They move their herds every few weeks and build temporary shelters at each new grazing site. The Turkana use their livestock as their main source of food and clothing. They also fish to supplement their diet and to trade.


About 100,000 We people live in Cote d’Ivoire. Their political syustem is made of non-centralized, fragmentary political groups. In these groups, decisions are made for the community by councils of elder men. Hunting and farming were the traditional means of making a living, but they have been largely replaced by working in diamond camps or at the rubber plantation. The We believe that the cosmos is divided into two separate catgegories: 1) things controlled by man (found in the village), 2) things not controlled by man (found in the bush). Crossing the dividing line between these realms is dangerous and must be done carefully. For example, when the We clear land or cross through the bush, the spirits must be appeased.


The Yoruba live in southwestern Nigeria and Benin. Their population is about ten million. Yorubaland is made up of numerous densely populated urban centers with surrounding fields for farming. The political and social systems vary greatly in different regions. There isn’t a central leader in Yorubaland, instead allegiance is paid to the large urban center of each area. Each town has a leader, who is considered to be a direct descendant of the founder of the city. A council of chiefs assists the leader in his decisions.


© Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University,
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester and Dallas Museum of Art
For more information please contact odyssey@emory.edu.
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