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date: 22 June 2017

Precolonial History of South Sudan

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.

Histories of South Sudan are rare. Indeed a pre-colonial history of what is actually, geographically, the world’s largest swamp (South Sudan) is challenging and at present impossible without the use of oral histories, along with a very few archaeological and linguistic studies. Only two scholarly accounts lend information about the obscure history of this region of Africa. Oral histories suggest that the very earliest inhabitants of South Sudan were a mound-building folk known to the Dinka as the Luel, and to archaeologists as the Turkwel. Sometime after the later Middle Ages and the fall of the 11th-century Christian kingdom of Alwa, the Western Nilotic Dinka claim to have migrated with their cattle into South Sudan from the Gezira because of fear of slave raiders. The Dinka claim to have found Bari, on the East Bank of the Nile, a historical point that is corroborated by Bari oral histories. Some decades later, the Dinka crossed the Nile following the rich soils that were most favorable to their favorite agricultural food, kec. Over time they penetrated deeply into the western swamps of Southern Sudan. Sometime around the 15th century, another Nilotic people, now known as the Shilluk, thrust northwards beyond the depths of the South Sudanese swamps, settling approximately at the junction of the Nile and the Sobat rivers. Oral histories claim the Shilluk were led to this homeland by a great leader, Nyikang, the first in a long line of kings. The last great ethnic groups to migrate into what is now the boundary of modern South Sudan were the non-Nilotic Azande.

Of interest is that all of these ethnic groups were slave-holding cultures and, with the exception of the Azande, were agro-pastoralists. The Bari were prominent iron-making specialists, as were the highly martial Azande. All of these cultures had social hierarchies, and migration is a connecting theme among the larger societies; none of the present cultures of South Sudan appear to have originated in South Sudan except the Nilotic Luo. By the late 17th century, with the fall of Sultan Sanusi of the Central African Republic, numbers of non-Nilotic peoples fled into various western regions of South Sudan. Additionally, with the fall of the Islamic sultanate of Sinnar and the coming of the Turco-Egyptians in the early 19th century, much of South Sudan had been historically peopled by the Nilotic Luo, whose progeny appeared to have evolved into numerous ethnic groups of South Sudan; groups that would now include the Shilluk-Luo, the Nuer, the Atuot, Anyuak, and various Luo communities that now exist under various names.