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C.A.R. Early History

The C.A.R. appears to have been settled from at least the 7th century on by overlapping empires, including the Kanem-Bornou, Ouaddai, Baguirmi, and Dafour groups based in Lake Chad and the Upper Nile. Given the overall distribution of the Bantu language groups, there must have been a much stronger thrust eastwards, along the edge of the forests, carrying the predecessors of the eastern Bantu languages as far as the Great Lakes. This theory is neither borne out nor invalidated by other data. No eastern Bantu languages are found in these regions although some languages spoken in the Sudan and in the eastern part of the Central African Republic might very well belong to that group.

While some sources identify over 30 local ethnic groups, the main distinction is between the southern, riverine or Ubangi people and the northern, savannah people, such as the Sara who belong to the Nilo-Saharan linguistic grouping. By 1100, craft techniques had acquired the characteristics they were to preserve until about the end of the nineteenth century: iron metallurgy was well developed, and other activities included pottery, wickerwork, raffia weaving, cooperage, the production of rock and sea-salt, and the extraction of salt from plants and salt marshes. The Ubangi people lived near the Ubangi River in the Central African Republic and Zaire. The women traditionally pierce and stretch their lips around flat wooden disks. Possibly this was to make the women so ugly that they would not be worth taking as slaves by the Arabs. However, those people have long ago ceased this practice.

The excavations at Bouar in the Central African Republic and those at Sanga provide proof of metal-working. Smelting activities were documented at a few sites in the southern Central African Republic (i.e. Bagbaya, Ngara, and Lingbangbo), which were in use during short time periods: between ca. AD 10001100, AD 13001400, AD 15001700, and AD 17001900. Iron-smelting sites are only few, they are concentrated in the southern Central African Republic, and were in use during short periods. The volume of charcoal used and, by extension, the associated deforestation, should have been important for feeding the furnaces.

The first time period before AD 1300 corresponds to a dry climate, consistent with the higher latitude Medieval Warm Period. From AD 1300 to 1850, pollen sequences indicated a relatively wet climatic period. Nevertheless, burning increased, and this burning is attributed to human activities because the moisture content of the vegetation was too high for fires to often occur naturally. The decrease in the run-off with an increased rate of sedimentation between AD 1400 and 1600 corresponds to the climatic period of the Little Ice Age. The patrilineal non-Bantu-speakers scattered through the Central African Republic lived in hamlets ruled by the men of a lineage, although there were no real chiefs among them. Villages were replaced by a scatter of hamlets, and society was in fact very egalitarian. But in other regions, among the patrilineal forest-dwellers along the Ubangi and Chari rivers, there were large residential groupings, the lineages were much stronger and some chiefs were recognized.

Lords of the land were recognized throughout the southern savannah and on the borders of the forest, both north and south. Because they stood in a privileged relationship with the land through the spirits whose priests they were, these rulers enjoyed an authority which was in reality political. Whether the spirits they dealt with were natural or ancestral is of little importance. These lords of the land seem to have governed groups of villages, each forming a canton or territorial unit, an embryonic kingdom. The Gbaya, who lived in contact with ethnic groups like the Mbum, were organized into states, but did not follow their example.

The oral tradition of the Ngbandi, who lived in the bend of the Ubangi and are organized in patrilineal lineages - in fact the equivalent of seigniories or feudal lordships - goes back to the period before 1500. It would appear that the Zande became localized about 1500, between Kotto and Dar Runga, and that the western part of the present Central African Republic was then occupied by the Manja/Ngbaka and the eastern part by the Bantu.

Population migration in the 18th and 19th centuries brought new migrants into the area, including the Zande [Niam-Niam], Banda, and MBaka-Mandjia. The Bonjo natives, who inhabit the northern part of the forests, are cannibals, and, like the Niam-Niams, the cannibals further east, were superior to many native tribes. They cultivate over twenty vegetables, and are advanced in iron, wood, and pottery working; yet they were very miserable, for war, disease, and famine had greatly weakened them.

By about 1900 the Sabanga were only little islands lost among the great mass of the Banda, and largely assimilated by them. At the same time the west of what is now the Central African Republic was convulsed by a massive Gbaya migration caused by Hausa slave raids from Adamawa.

A large trade was carried on between the Oubangi and Lulungu Rivers. The people inhabiting the mouth of the Oubangi bought the Balolo slaves at Masankusu and the other markets. They then took them up the Oubangi River and exchanged them with the natives there for ivory. These natives who were confirmed cannibals bought their slaves solely for food. Having purchased slaves they feed them on ripe bananas, fish, and oil, and when they get them into good condition they kill them. Hundreds of the Balolo slaves were taken into the river and disposed of in this way each month.

Various sultanates claimed present-day C.A.R., using the entire Oubangui region as a slave reservoir, from which slaves were traded north across the Sahara and to West Africa for export by European traders. In 1875 the Egyptian sultan Rabah governed Upper-Oubangui, which included present-day C.A.R. Europeans, primarily the French, German, and Belgians, arrived in the area in 1885.

Generally speaking, the land through which the Oubangi flows is swampy, and the banks of the river are clothed with densest tropical vegetation, huge trees, among which lovely creepers trail from branch to branch. The Oubangi has four hundred miles of navigable water before the Rapids are reached. On the lower reaches of the river the Balui, a section of the Bangala tribe, have settled. These people, besides being keen traders, are skillful hunters. They trap the elephant in the forests, and on foot pluckily hunt with spears the buffalo in the plains; nor is the hippopotamus in the river safe from their deadly weapons.

A hundred miles from the mouth one meets another tribe, speaking an entirely different language, but with habits and tastes as horrible as those of the Balui. These tribes are most confirmed cannibals and freely advertise that fact, exhibiting the bones of their victims. The members of these tribes are constantly at war with one another; each village seems only too anxious to pounce down upon some other. This state of things has maintained a perpetual state of alarm; nearly every village is surrounded by a heavy stockade of sharpened posts, strapped to which are bundles of wooden spears, ready to the hand of the warrior in case of a sudden attack. One is constantly passing patches of cleared ground, which show the charred stumps and general debris of destroyed villages.





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