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States Vs Segmentary Societies

The first and most obvious distinction to be made between the various peoples who first populated the area of Zaire is between the small-scale, segmentary societies of the rain-forest zone and the state systems of the savannas. Segmentary societies, which may be defined as societies that are divided into a number of units, such as lineage or clan groups, which are structurally similar and functionally equivalent, were widely distributed across the interior north and south of the great bend of the Congo River.

Most of the peoples of the rain-forest area were organized into village communities, under the leadership of chiefs or of dominant clans or lineages. Some of these communities were able to absorb or conquer neighboring villages and thus develop into sizable chiefdoms. In specific instances, as among the Mangbetu, these expanding societies provided the basis for a common sense of identity among otherwise unrelated peoples. Elsewhere, however, social fragmentation remained one of the most salient characteristics of the rain-forest peoples.

A classic example of such fragmentation is offered by the various communities loosely referred to as the Mongo people, who occupied most of the central basin. Divided as they were into congeries of smaller communities (Ntomba, Mbole, Kutu, etc.), they had nothing resembling a unifying political focus. Their social boundaries were generally coterminous with village groups.

The same applies to the so-called gens d'eau (water people), a generic term coined to designate the Bobangi, Lobala, Ngiri, and neighboring groups who lived along water courses to the north of the Congo River. Most of the peoples between the Congo and Ubangi, however, such as the Ngbandi, Ngbaka, Banda, and Ngombe, possessed lineage-based systems that were more hierarchical than those found farther south. Finally, to emphasize the great diversity among the peoples and their social organization in this region, the Zande and the Mangbetu, who lived in the far northeast, were organized into states.

A different picture emerges from the history of the southern savannas, the traditional habitat of several large-scale societies with centralized political systems, variously described as kingdoms, empires and chiefdoms, that emerged between 1200 and 1500 AD. These include the Kongo, Lunda, Luba, and Kuba state systems, all of which shared certain common features, such as a centralized structure of authority identified with a single ruler, more often than not enjoying the attributes of divine kingship; a corpus of oral traditions tracing the birth of the state to a mythical figure; and a tendency to incorporate and assimilate smaller neighboring societies.

Cultural assimilation went hand in hand with political conquest. As recent historical research suggests, territorial expansion of the original nuclear kingdom involved various methods, ranging from armed raids and military occupation to more peaceful forms of interaction. Yet in each case, the end result was the creation of large-scale political entities that were far more capable of concerted action than the segmentary societies of the rain-forest zone.

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Page last modified: 22-06-2015 21:02:00 ZULU