Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past


Animals living in the wild (yurɔ in Nafaanra ; pl. yurɛ) have long been valued as a source of meat (kaara), hides (hankro), animal skins (hlɛ), fur (yooro) or other materials like ivory (hlo ŋgaala). Hunting (nyaŋgulɔ) as a livelihood was important to people living in the Banda area over many centuries. But like other livelihoods, hunting and how it was practiced has changed over time.

Since the mid-20th century hunting across Ghana has been regulated by the Ghana government and hunters must have a license issued by the Wildlife Division of Ghana Forestry Service. This agency decides which animals can be hunted and the time of year when people can hunt. The government has also established Wildlife Protected Areas across the country, including one located in the Banda area. Established in 1971, Bui National Park is the third largest animal and forest reserve in Ghana. The reserve covers more than 1800 km2 of land north and south of the Black Volta River along the Banda hills. Parks and hunting regulations are a response to concerns about how use and trade of bushmeat during the late 20th and 21st centuries has affected Ghana’s biodiversity.

Hippos on the Black Volta River, upstream from the Bui Dam site, 2009
Bɔfɔɔrɔ percussion instruments, Fawoman, 2019

The presence of the national park and government regulations have limited hunting as a source of livelihood in Banda over recent decades. But oral histories and archaeology help us to understand the importance of hunting to people living in the area over centuries. In oral histories, it is often a hunter (bɔfɔ in Nafaanra) who is said to have found a new place for people to settle when they decided to move. Meat obtained through hunting was an important element of local diets, and hunters were the source of animal skins, hides, horns and ivory valued by chiefs as part of their stool regalia.

The grandfathers who hunted as a source of livelihood were skilled people (penchinfun; pl. penchinfɛɛlɛ). They observed animal habits (when and how different animals eat, drink and rest) and they knew about animal habitats (the places where animals find food, water and shelter). Hunters learned how to track animals (dunu tɔɔnri) and they knew how to disguise their presence so that they could approach their prey. Hunting could be dangerous and so hunters had special ways of protecting themselves through rituals, the clothing they wore and the ways that they moved while in the bush.

For generations hunters have celebrated their skills through a special form of dance (Bɔfɔɔrɔ in Nafaanra) that ancestral hunters learned from watching a gathering of animals in the bush. Having copied the animals movements, the hunters returned home with the percussion instruments used by the animals after scaring them off. These instruments are a generational connection between hunters today and their ancestors. Hunters from Fawoman performed some of these dances at a 2019 Banda Heritage Event, a video of which you can see here.

Hunting with Firearms

Men performing a hunter's dance, Fawoman, 2019

Skilled hunting today and over recent decades is associated with firearms. Guns (pua in Nafaanra) were introduced to coastal West Africa through European Atlantic trade by the late 1500s. Coastal communities and Asante people had early access to imported guns, but they were keen to limit their circulation in order to maintain an advantage in warfare. According to oral history shared by Tolɛɛ Kofi Dwuru II in 1965, people in Banda did not know of guns when the Nafana chief Sielɔngɔ first visited Asante during the time of Asantehene Osei Tutu (early 1700s). One hundred years later, an Englishman named Joseph Dupuis visited Kumase at a time when the Banda chief and his warriors were there to claim their reward for aiding Asante in a war against Gyaman. In March, 1820 Dupuis described the warriors as being armed with “bows and poisoned arrows, javelins, guns, sabres, clubs, and case-knives” (Dupuis 1824:77). The guns would have been imported, but the bows, arrows, spears and knives were things made locally.

Flintlock gun mechanism, with flint mounted

The guns used at this time were known as flintlocks. The “flint” (chirɛbɔ) was a square piece of fine-grained stone that created a spark when the gun’s trigger was pulled. Carefully shaped flints were placed in a flintlock mechanism called a hammer. Pulling the gun’s trigger released the hammer, causing the flint to strike a steel plate called the frizzen. As the stone struck the steel, it created sparks. These sparks lit the gun’s powder (pua tuwe), creating a flame in the gun barrel and propelling the shot or other ammunition forward out of the barrel. Click here to see an animation of a flintlock mechanism in action.

Archaeologists have found examples of these carefully shaped flint stones on 19th-century sites like Makala Kataa. The kind of stone and the way the stones were shaped shows that these flints were imported from England where they were made in large numbers in towns like Brandon, Suffolk. These shaped pieces of stone are also sometimes called “strike-a-lights” because they could be used to start fires used for cooking or other purposes. In this case they would be used together with a piece of iron or steel which, when struck together, created a spark used to light tinder.

Gunflint or strike-a-light from Makala Kataa, 1990
Iron strike-a-light, Makala Kataa

Hunting Without Firearms

While the introduction of firearms changed the way people hunted, there were many ways of capturing animals that did not rely on guns. One way is trapping (pɛɛri in Nafaanra). Animals could be trapped in different ways. Sometimes steep-sided deep holes (wee jiom) were dug in the ground. The hole was hidden by placing branches and leaves over top of it. An animal that fell into the trap could not escape and could be killed if the hunter found it alive. Animals could also be trapped using snares (jɔŋgi; pl. jonyi) made of cord or wire anchored by a sturdy stake or tree. If an animal tripped the snare, it would be caught in a loop that tightened as it tried to get away. Another kind of trap used by the grandfathers to capture small animals was a deadfall trap (fɛbo) in which a platform loaded with stones was propped up with a stick. The trap was baited and had a trigger string or stick. When the animal disturbed the trigger, the rock or log would fall on it. In recent centuries, some hunters used metal spring foothold traps (pɛlɛ; pl. pɛɛlɛɛ) that were first manufactured in Europe in the 1600s and later made by local blacksmiths. Foothold traps used by poachers (illegal hunters) are known to be particularly dangerous because people can accidentally step on them, causing serious injuries.

The bows (bɛŋɛ; pl. bɛnyi), arrows (snini), sabres or swords (brɔfiɛŋunu; pl. brɔnfiɛnlɛ), spears (chombo; pl. chomboolo) and knives or cutlasses (brɔfiɛn) that Joseph Dupuis described in the 1820s could have been used in warfare but also in hunting. These weapons were made from locally available materials: wood and fiber to make bows; wood for spear and knife handles; reeds for arrow shafts; and locally made iron for arrow tips and blades. Skilled hunters among the grandfathers would have used these special tools for hunting. But many young boys and men who were not dedicated or skilled hunters also hunted. The grandfathers describe how people came together in groups to hunt—they would spread themselves out and then begin moving toward the same spot or toward a place where others awaited. Animals like grasscutter (also known as Greater cane rat; in Nafaanra kaŋglo; pl. kaŋgulo) or antelopes (klɔsaliɔ) would be driven from their hiding places toward those who stood ready with clubs (van; pl. vɛɛn). This type of group hunting was banned by government wildlife officials in the late 20th century. Young men were also known to hunt small animals like grasscutter using metal-tipped spears (chombo; pl. chomboolo). Other animals like tortoises (gunuŋgo) could be collected from the bush without need to use a weapon.

A difference between skilled and casual hunting was that skilled hunters often traveled farther from home, sometimes staying away for a night or more on hunting trips. If a hunter killed a large animal, he would butcher it in the bush and smoke it there before carrying it home. Some hunters traveled with a dog (nyukuan; pl. nyikaania) to help locate wild animals. Farmers often took dogs along to farm where the dogs were encouraged to go after animals in and around the farm fields. Whether bush meat was brought to town by skilled hunters or by young boys and farmers, the grandmothers and grandfathers remember that it was an important food source in the past.

Hunting through Time

One way we can learn about hunting in the past is to study the animal bones (kajle in Nafaanra) found on archaeological sites. After being thrown away, bones decay slowly and they are commonly found on archaeological sites. Scientists who study animal bones from archaeological sites are called zooarchaeologists. They can tell what kind of animal a bone comes from by studying its size and shape. Depending on the bone, they may be able to tell which side of the body (right or left) a bone came from. Sometimes they can tell how old the animal was. Cut marks on bone are clues to how animals were butchered and they can help archaeologists to study how people processed animals.

Studying the animal bones from sites in the Banda area has helped archaeologists to learn about the role of hunting and the importance of livestock like cattle (lelɔŋgɔfiun), sheep (mbɔɔ; pl. mbaala) and goats (sugbɔ; pl. sikaala) at different times in the past. Because animals live in different habitats, learning about the kinds of animals that people kept and hunted can also tell us something about landscape conditions. For example, small antelope like duikers prefer forest cover and would have been more common in times when rainfall was higher compared to recent times. In drier times there was less tree cover and animals that live in more open conditions were more common. Landscape conditions and rainfall also affected livestock-keeping. For example, cattle are affected by a disease called trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) which is spread by tsetse flies (naknɔ; pl. nakunlɔɔ). Tsetse flies are more common when conditions are wet, with the result that cattle suffer more disease in times of high rainfall. Understanding these relationships helps us to appreciate the decisions that people made in the past about which livestock to keep and the kinds of animals they hunted.

18th to 20th Centuries

In the 1990s a student from the State University of New York, Binghamton named Andrew Black talked with Banda area grandfathers and grandmothers about the role of hunting as a livelihood. They described how boys and young men of the house would often go out to find bush meat using some of the techniques described above. Everyone who talked to him spoke of how their 20th-century households relied on wild animals as a source of meat. If families did not have young men at home who could hunt, they purchased meat from butchers at the market. At this time, grasscutter (kaŋglo; pl. kaŋgulo) was a very common source of bush meat.

Animal bones from archaeological sites like Makala Kataa show us that people during the late 18th and through the 19th century hunted and trapped in their close surroundings. Some wild animals are attracted to farms (see; pl. seele) where they can easily find food. The bones of these types of small animals are common at Makala Kataa, which suggests that many animals were hunted or captured as people farmed. People’s use of fish varied depending on where they lived. Settlements close to big rivers like the Volta (Kpaan) and Tain had more fish bones than those located away from rivers. People living in Banda during these centuries seemed to rely on small animals like grasscutter (kaŋglo; pl. kaŋgulo), giant pouched rat (krote), hares (pee) and monitor lizard (taanree) for meat. This was particularly the case during the later 19th century when people in the area were being troubled by warfare. People in the later 19th century were also living at a time when there was greater rainfall compared to recent times. Small antelope like duiker that live in wooded habitats are more common among animal bones from sites of this time compared to earlier centuries. Because duiker are shy animals that do not roam widely, it seems likely that people hunted these small animals using snares or traps.

13th to 17th Centuries

The years between about 1400 and 1650 CE saw long, strong droughts across this part of West Africa. Scientists know this because of a very big drop in the water level of Lake Bosumtwi (Ashanti Region), a deep natural lake formed many thousands of years ago. Scientists have studied evidence for how Bosumtwi’s lake levels rose and fell as a way to learn about changing climate over the millennia.

Before the droughts, during the time between about 1200 to 1400 CE, the region seems to have had relatively wet conditions, similar to the 19th century. Duikers, giant forest hog and African palm civet are found among the bones from archaeological sites dating to this period, all of which are associated with more forested landscapes. Sites of this time also had bones of animals like elephant (hlo; hulo) hippopotamus, leopard (kajinyurɔ; pl. kajinyurɛ), colobus monkey and smaller animals including grasscutter, squirrel, hare, pouched rat, monitor lizard, and tortoise. People kept livestock in this time, but hunting also supplied food and other materials.

When droughts set in from around 1400 CE, the livelihoods of Banda area people were affected. Farmers living in the area responded by growing more drought-resistant crops like pearl millet (fifiire) (see Farming through the Centuries). But this was also a time when people diversified their livelihoods. Evidence from archaeological sites suggests that more livestock may have been kept. Sheep and goat were commonly kept between about 1400 and 1600 CE and, as drier conditions continued after 1600 CE, more cattle seem to have been kept. Hunters of this time captured a very wide range of animals. Bones of large cats like lion (blɛkpɔɔ; pl. blɛkpɔɛ), leopard (kajinyurɔ; pl. kajinyurɛ) and golden cat are found at sites where people lived during this time. These large dangerous carnivores were probably hunted by skilled hunters, more for their pelts than as source of food. Hunters during this time also hunted crocodiles (dɛnkɛ), which people in recent times valued as a source of leather to make shoes. Other animals found on sites in the time between 1400 and 1700 CE were elephant, hippopotamus, aardvark, several kinds of monkey (lekaŋu; pl. lekambia), including vervet, diana and colobus, as well as baboon, hyena (kombo; pl. komboolo), mongoose, genet, rock hyrax, warthog, and porcupine. These were in addition to the small animals like hare, squirrel, grasscutter, monitor lizard and tortoise that people hunted throughout the centuries. This was a time when people in the area were actively trading goods with people living in distant northern centers like Djenné, located on the Niger River in what is today the country of Mali, as well as with coastal communities to the south. Animals or animal products were traded over long distances during these times. Some examples found on Banda-area archaeological sites include a backbone piece (vertebra) of a great white shark and shells of salt-water molluscs like oyster. Finds like these are uncommon but they remind us that people in these times traveled and traded widely across zones ranging from the Niger River to the Guinea coast.

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