The Nuer are a short-black skinned race living mainly in the Southern Sudan. They were the subject of one of the most famous anthropological monographs of all time, creatively called The Nuer by the doyen of British Anthropology, Evans-Pritchard. Essentially, the Nuer were an interesting case study since they had no hierarchical political system. Literally, none. The closest thing they had to a political leadership was The Leopord Skin Chief, who had no actual power other than moral suasion, and whose authority was mainly confined to the mediation of blood fueds.

The Nuer live in a watery plain near the end of the Nile river, and survive, even today, mainly on cattle. Evans-Pritchard called them The Parasite of the Cow, because everything they own seems to come from their cattle, other than a small amount of fishing untensils and very little agriculture. Women are traded among the tribespeople for cows, and various political and economic events affect the Cow-to-Woman Ratio, which had gone significantly up when Pritchard first visited, but seems to have stablized at 11 cows per bride, according to more recent antrhopologists (Such as Huntington. Other than growing cows, the Nuer have an extremely complicated kinship system which is generally what leads to their long and complicated blood feuds. Despite - or because of? - the lack of any real political system, these Feuds go on for generations, according to strict rules, and those who break the rules are often the victims of moral opprobrium.

Despite not having a government, the Nuer are effective fighters banding naturally into tribal armies. They seem to be in a state of "war" (a euphemism for a raiding action in which a bride or two gets carried off, and perhaps a couple of cows), with their two neightbors: the Dinka, who speak a language and live a lifestyle similar to their own, and the Shilluk, a kingdom to the north - something that the Nuer find incomprehensible.

(One Nuer is quoted as telling Evans Pritchard - those Shilluk have an old man who tells them what to do...and he listens to them! As if any free man would listen to another person!"

Life seemed pretty idyllic in Nuer Land - so much so that Evans-Pritchard, the very model of a modern anthropologist, is pushed to write some uncharectaristically lyric comments about them.."They have no sense of time...They live in internal suspension...they are the lucky ones." Indeed, time passes in a fluid cycle of six age groups, the seventh group being essentially the reincarnation of the first, so that nothing can really "happen" in Nuer history, just repeat. When a Nuer was explaining to Evans-Pritchard that the world was created under a big tree, and the anthropologist asked where, the Nuer simply pointed to a big banyan tree - "why right there, " he said, "right under that tree." So - no real sequential history, no political institutions.

Unfortunately for the Nuer (for us all?) now they have both of those, and plenty of them. First the British made cow for women transactions essentially illegal, demanding that women and cows be paid for with money in order to introduce the British Pound into the economic system. I leave it to you imagination to understand what this did to the social system. Then, independent Sudan was run by Muslim Arabs who quickly decided to wipe out the Nuer.

The Nuer's tribal, semi-nomadic lifestyle survived when the only enemies were Dinaks or Shilluks - but when trained military detachments with machine guns began massacring them in the swamps, all three nations quickly banded to form the South Sudanese Liberation Army, funded by Ethiopia, Israel, and god knows who else...Soon the Nuers had politics, prophets, theocrats, government administrators, capitalist production systems - everything you need to build a guerilla army and a modern nation state.

Nuer culture is in the process of completely coming apart. A simple, pastoral people, interested mainly in trading cows for women, raiding the neighbors, and blood-feuding with each other, unable to maintain their way of life into the 20th century.

I suppose whether you see that as tragic or a good thing depends on your point of view.

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