Jul 062017

The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1940, pp.340


Reviewed by

Anakha Ajith

Ph.D. Research Scholar

Department of Anthropology

University of Hyderabad, Telangana


Published in 1940 and written against the backdrop of British colonial rule, “The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people” is the first among the trilogy of books penned on this people by the renowned anthropologist Evans- Pritchard (the other two being “Kinship and marriage among the Nuer” and “Nuer religion”). The book can be looked at as a fruit of colonial administration since the author was hired by the British ruled government of Sudan to study the Nuer political structure. As the title suggests, the major themes of the book are the way of life of the people, their ecological conditions and modes of livelihood as well as the social organisation of the Nuer. It is the latter half of the book that deals with the description of the Nuer political, lineage and age-set systems which is the crux of this work.

In the introductory section, Pritchard conveys the hardships and tough times he had to go through in Nuerland, the limitations of his work and other methodological constraints. Nuerland is the abode of the Nuer, a Nilotic ethnic group that occupies the endless marshes and the wide Savannah plains of Sudan. The initial pages of the book are dedicated to the description of these pastoralists whose lives revolve around their cattle. Cattle being the mostly valued asset as well as a source of food supply find their significance in the spheres of marriage, rituals such as initiation ceremonies etc. and this love for cattle goes to the extent of men being addressed by the name of their favourite oxen. This is manifested in the author going to the extent of stating that the people’s social idiom is a bovine idiom.(p.19). Though they are fond of meat and sacrifice the oxen, the possession of cattle adds to one’s prestige as cattle wealth is one of those criteria which makes a person formidable among the other members. However, the author clarifies the idea that the people are not parasites of their cattle as the latter also depends on the men and both lead a symbiotic relationship.(p.36).He also traces that the unfavourable ecological conditions do not let them to depend on one source of food, thereby leading this community to engage in millet growing, fishing, hunting etc. in addition to cattle rearing.


Pritchard also remembers to make a note of the inter-tribal fights and adds that the Nuer consider it as their duty to raid the Dinka who are their immemorial enemies though the both are much physically and culturally akin. The Nuer who call themselves “Nath” are an oft-cited instance of segmentary political system and it is the tendencies of any political group towards fission and fusion which lies at the centre of Nuer political structure. The segmentation of Nuer tribes into primary, secondary and tertiary tribal sections is exemplified with the cases of different tribes in the chapter ‘The political system’, which is the main focus of the work. These fission and fusion tendencies are a fundamental principle of their social structure and this segmentation process would interest the readers. This Nilotic people whose state is an acephalous kinship state (having no leader/head)  lead more or less an egalitarian life (though women and children are subservient to men). Neither is any chief given more respect, nor is anyone granted with authority. This idea is exemplified in the case of the leopard-skin chief who acts as a mediator and ritual agent but lacks any kind of political authority.

Like the political system, the lineage system of the Nuer is also segmented and it is evident from the division of the lineage into maximal, major, minor and minimal lineages. Lineages are associated with territories and these people follow rules of clan exogamy. It is worth noting that the usage of the word “cieng” (which a person uses when referring to the group which he belongs to) often confused the author as its usage varies with the social context. These tobacco-loving men whom the author describes as courageous, generous and proud give significance to the group. Pritchard remarks- “By ‘group’ we mean persons who regard themselves as a distinct unit in relation to other units, and who all have reciprocal obligations in virtue of their membership of it” (p.263). The final chapter deals with an important characteristic feature of the community which is its system of age-sets, which place the adult male population into stratified groups based on age. The author makes the point that this system differs from that of the lineage and territorial systems as an age set group changes its position in relation to the whole system. People looking for the main themes of the book can have a glance at the section towards the end of the last chapter ‘The age-set system’ and the 11 points explained there would serve the purpose (p.262- p.266).

The book is composed in such a way that the author came up with a rich ethnographic account despite the constraints of conversing in the native language of the Nuer. Pritchard can be accused of being ethnocentric in his attitude towards the Nuer and the account teems with many such examples. To quote a few would be “…their derisive pride amazes a stranger” (p.90), “…..the Nuer social organisation is simple and their culture bare” (p.9) etc. The author does not deal with the role of women in the society and the only instance where one finds the mention of women is in relation to milking of the cattle. This neglect might be either due to the lack of access to studying the women or due to the ethnographer’s choice of treating the voice of the male as the dominant one which represents the whole of the society. One might also feel that the author should have included some details about the religion of the Nuer in this book since religious system demands significance as lineage system or political system. It must be to cover up this limitation that he came up with the last work in the trilogy which is entirely dedicated to their religion and is entitled “Nuer religion”. Though it might sound dry and lengthy at some instances, the way he put forth his ideas have often succeeded in dragging back the reader's’ attention and making them interested in the further description. However Evans-Pritchard has succeeded in taking his readers in the voyage to Nuerland and “The Nuer” being considered as a classic in social anthropology is an open testimony to this.

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