has been well analysed in Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Nuer of the South- ern Sudan and in Fortes’ account of the Tallensi of Northern Ghana.11
Early British administrators among the Tiv of Nigeria were aware of the great importance attached to these genealogies, which were continually dis- cussed in court cases where the rights and duties of one man towards another were in dispute. Consequently they took the trouble to write down the long lists of names and preserve them for posterity, so that future administrators might refer to them in giving judgement. Forty years later, when the Bohan- nans carried out anthropological field work in the area, their successors were still using the same genealogies.l2 However, these written pedigrees now gave rise to many disagreements; the Tiv maintained that they were incorrect, while the officials regarded them as statements of fact, as records of what had actually happened, and could not agree that the unlettered indigenes could be better informed about the past than their own literate predecessors. What neither party realised was that in any society of this kind changes take place which require a constant readjustment in the genealogies if they are to con- tinue to carry out their function as mnemonics of social relationships.
These changes are of several kinds: those arising from the turnover in per- sonnel, from the process of “birth and copulation and death”; those connected with the rearrangement of the constituent units of the society, with the migration of one group and the fission of another; and lastly those resulting from the effects of changes in the social system itself, whether generated from within or initiated from without. Each of these three processes (which we may refer to for convenience as the processes of generational, organisational and structural change) could lead to alterations of the kind to which the administration objected.
It is obvious that the process of generation leads in itself to a constant lengthening of the genealogy; on the other hand, the population to which it is linked may in fact be growing at quite a different rate, perhaps simply re- placing itself. So despite its increasing length the genealogy may have to refer to just as many people at the present time as it did fifty, a hundred, or perhaps two hundred years ago. Consequently the added depth of lineages caused by new births needs to be accompanied by a process of genealogical shrinkage; the occurrence of this telescoping process, a common example of the general social phenomenon which J. A. Barnes has felicitously termed “structural amnesia”, has been attested in many societies, including all those mentioned above.13
11 The Nuer (Oxford, 1940); “The Nuer of the Southern Sudan” in African Political Systems, ed. Meyer Fortes and Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard (London, 1940); Meyer Fortes, The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi (London, 1945). 12 “A Genealogical Charter”, p. 314. 13 John A. Barnes, “The Collection of Genealogies”, Rhodes-Livingstone Journal: Human Problems in British Central Africa, 5 (1947), pp. 48-56, esp. p. 52; Meyer Fortes, “The Significance of Descent in Tale Social Structure”, Africa, 14 (1944), p. 370;
JACK GOODY AND IAN WATT
Organisational changes lead to similar adjustments. The state of Gonja in Northern Ghana is divided into a number of divisional chiefdoms, certain of which are recognised as providing in turn the ruler of the whole nation, When asked to explain their system the Gonja recount how the founder of the state, Ndewura Jakpa, came down from the Niger Bend in search of gold, con- quered the indigenous inhabitants of the area and enthroned himself as chief of the state and his sons as rulers of its territorial divisions. At his death the divisional chiefs succeeded to the paramountcy in turn. When the details of this story were first recorded at the turn of the present century, at the time the British were extending their control over the area, Jakpa was said to have begotten seven sons, this corresponding to the number of divisions whose heads were eligible for the supreme office by virtue of their descent from the founder of the particular chiefdom. But at the same time as the British had arrived, two of the seven divisions disappeared, one being deliberately in- corporated in a neighboring division because its rulers had supported a Man- dingo invader, Samori, and another because of some boundary changes in- troduced by the British administration. Sixty years later, when the myths of state were again recorded, Jakpa was credited with only five sons and no mention was made of the founders of the two divisions which had since dis- appeared from the political map.14
These two instances from the Tiv and the Gonja emphasise that genealogies often serve the same function that Malinowski claimed for myth; they act as ‘charters’ of present social institutions rather than as faithful historical records of times past.15 They can do this more consistently because they operate within an oral rather than a written tradition and thus tend to be automatic- ally adjusted to existing social relations as they are passed by word of mouth from one member of the society to another. The social element in remember- ing results in the genealogies being transmuted in the course of being trans- mitted; and a similar process takes place with regard to other cultural ele- ments as well, to myths, for example, and to sacred lore in general. Deities and other supernatural agencies which have served their purpose can be quietly dropped from the contemporary pantheon; and as the society changes, myths too are forgotten, attributed to other personages, or transformed in their meaning.
One of the most important results of this homeostatic tendency is that the individual has little perception of the past except in terms of the present;
Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer, pp. 199-200; Peters, “The Proliferation of Segments”, p. 32. See also I. G. Cunnison, The Luapula Peoples of Northern Rhodesia (Manchester, 1959), pp. 108-14. 14 Jack Goody, unpublished field notes, 1956-7; the heads of the divisions who could not succeed to the paramountcy also claimed descent from sons of the founding an- cestor, Jakpa, but this was not an intrinsic part of the myth as usually told, and in any case their number remained constant during the period in question. 15 Myth in Primitive Psychology (London, 1926), pp. 23, 43.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF LITERACY
whereas the annals of a literate society cannot but enforce a more objective recognition of the distinction between what was and what is. Franz Boas wrote that for the Eskimo the world has always been as it is now:16 it seems probable, at least, that the form in which nonliterate societies conceive the world of the past is itself influenced by the process of transmission described. The Tiv have their genealogies, others their sacred tales about the origin of the world and the way in which man acquired his culture. But all their con- ceptualisations of the past cannot help being governed by the concerns of the present, merely because there is no body of chronologically ordered statements to which reference can be made. The Tiv do not recognise any contradiction between what they say now and what they said fifty years ago, since no en- during records exist for them to set beside their present views. Myth and history merge into one: the elements in the cultural heritage which cease to have a contemporary relevance tend to be soon forgotten or transformed; and as the individuals of each generation acquire their vocabulary, their geneal- ogies, and their myths, they are unaware that various words, proper-names and stories have dropped out, or that others have changed their meanings or been replaced.