Complex Society in the Malian Empire
Examples of complex society can be described and referenced in many ways, shapes or forms. However, when defining a certain society as “complex,” one must follow two loose guidelines that should trace the vague foundations of any thriving civilization. Therefore, it is generally agreed upon that the civilization in question must have a large, easily identifiable population (the larger, the more complex), and that it must have a clear division of labor. Every society studied that can be considered “complex”, can vary both in population and it’s division of labor. When looking at a civilization such as the Malian Empire, It is not a question of whether the society was complex or not, that much is known; but instead through specific examples, one must ascertain how complex they were. Specific features from different complex civilizations throughout history vary greatly, some possessing models that have since separated the great empires from the legendary ones. Examples of this range from the complex political rhetoric found in ancient Greece, to intricate diverse philosophical teachings in Chinese civilization. While judging a society, certain aspects of the culture must be looked at without prejudice, as not all societies are identical. In D.T. Niane’s translation of “Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali”, society in 13th century West Africa is observed through the story of one of Africa’s greatest conquerors, Sundiata Keita. It is through this view that the reader is able to see specific societal qualities that lend itself to the complexity of the culture and civilization present at that time and place. Through examples revealed in Niane’s translation; one can be certain that a complex thriving society was present at that time and place, with illustrations of complex cities, extensive trade systems, organized military, as well as a unified religious theology provided as evidence of it’s complexity. The author, D.T. Niane portrays a detailed descriptiveness of the various cities visited by the conqueror in his book, illustrating the sophistication and advancement the many cultures in that region demonstrated at that time. The very fact that the populations of these societies don’t solely reside in crude scattered huts (as is popularized in modern culture in reference to Africa), shows that civilization at this time was not limited, but rather urbanized and established. Many of the cities visited by Sundiata, showed great advancement in urban planning, fortifications, and construction of mosques.
As described above, there was an abundance of complex, highly advanced cities, which housed a variety of citizens who contributed to the continuing functionality of the civilization and its population. These jobs demonstrated a clear division of labor, as referenced in the guidelines for a model complex society. The division of labor in the upper Niger, brought about metalworking factions, agricultural farmers, fisherman, shaman, pastoralists, and miners.
With a good division of labor, surplus in each niche can be generated, and economic prosperity is created. An abundance of plants, herbs, and medicine, as well as livestock, gold, and iron, paves the way to complex trade routes and economic systems. Caravan trade plays a major role in Sundiata’s early life, and is essential for the prosperity of the many cities and cultures of the region. There are many examples throughout Niane’s translation, demonstrating the reliability and care the caravan traders brought. Often times, the exiled prince and his siblings travelled with the traders of the land. While travelling, he often sought their extensive knowledge of the various regions and their cultures. Due to constant traveling, the traders held extensive knowledge in regards to the political events taking place throughout the region, so naturally they were a vital source of information for the young Sundiata (Niane 32). So as one can see,...
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Collins, Robert O. "5. Ibn Battuta." Documents from the African past. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2001. 14-16. Print.
Niane, Djibril Tamsir. Krina. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Harlow: Longman, 1994. 59-70. Print.
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