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History of the Dogon

Among the Dogon several oral traditions have been recorded as to their origin. One relates to their coming from Mande, located to the south-west of the Bandiagara escarpment near Bamako. According to this oral tradition, the first Dogon settlement was established in the extreme south-west of the escarpment at Kani-Na (Dieterlen 1955). Over time the Dogon moved north along the escarpment, arriving in the Sanga region in the 15th century (Griaule 1938). Other oral histories place the origin of the Dogon to the west beyond the river Niger, or tell of the Dogon coming from the east. It is likely that the Dogon of today combine several groups of diverse origin.

Archaeological investigations and anthropological research in the region of Sanga have shown that in the 15th century the Dogon populated the Bandiagara escarpment. They slowly replaced a resident population, the Tellem (ëwe found themí). On the basis of archaeological finds from burial caves high up in the escarpment, the Tellem occupation has been dated to the 11th to 16th centuries (Bedaux 1972 and 1988). Well preserved finds include textiles, such as burial blankets and clothing, leather items and wooden sculptures. These finds belong to the oldest organic materials from archaeological contexts preserved in sub-Saharan Africa. The Tellem were not the first to live in the cliffs, however. Cultural remains, such as granaries, dating to the 3d and 2nd centuries BC have been attributed to a population termed the Toloy (Bedaux 1972).

The settlement history of the plateau and the plain is less understood. Local traditions in the plateau, such as those collected for Sibi-Sibi (Bouju, 1984) claim that this particular region was unpopulated before the arrival of the KarembÈ clan from the west. Contrastingly, recent archaeological investigations at Ounjougou suggest a long settlement history on the plateau, spanning the Stone Ages to the recent past (Huysecom et al. 2001).

At the time of the first Dogon settlement in the Sanga region the political arena in the region was dominated by the Empire of Mali, which at this point was on the verge of disintegration (Ly Tall 1977). After the fall of the Empire of Mali small, rivalling power centres occupied the political landscape in the 16th and 17th centuries, causing political unrest in the form of wars and slave raiding. The second half of the 17th century saw the foundation of two Bamana empires: SÈgou and Kaarta. During the 17th and the 18th centuries the Bamana from SÈgou regularly caused conflict in the Bandiagara escarpment (Huet 1994: 56-58).

In 1818 the Fulani Empire of Macina was founded by Sheikh SÈkou Ahmadou, an important Islamic leader who aimed at the full conversion of the inhabitants of his empire to Islam. He established his residences close to the Bandiagara plateau: a camp at ModjodjÈ and three years later his capital at Hamdallahi, about 37 km south-east of Mopti (Mayor 1997). Part of the Dogon population fled to the Bandiagara escarpment to seek refuge from the slave raids of both the Fulani from the west and the Mossi from the south. Because of its inaccessibility the Bandiagara escarpment was never under the full control of the Fulani. However, some villages on the plateau cooperated with the Fulani and converted to Islam in order to avoid confrontation (De Bruijn & Van Dijk 1993).

Around 1862 the Fulani came into conflict with another proponent of Islam, the Toucouleur El Hadj Omar. His nephew and successor Tidjani Amadou Seydou Tall established his headquarters in Bandiagara, from where he defeated the Fulani in 1864. The Fulani fled towards Timbuktu and the Seno plain and attacked the Toucouleur repeatedly until 1880, causing unrest in the Dogon area. The Dogon villages on the plateau were a source of slaves for the Toucouleur, and many were converted to Islam (Mayor 1997).

In 1890 the French began to colonise the Inner Niger Delta and adjacent regions. The Dogon resisted French colonial rule for more than two decades. In 1920 the last Dogon village, Tabi, submitted to the French (Arnaud 1922). The French improved communication systems and the infrastructure, leading to an opening up of the Bandiagara region. This facilitated the spread of Islam as well as western influences.


Arnaud, R.
1922 Le dernier Èpisode de la conquÍte du Soudan franÁais (l'affaire de Tabi). Renseignements coloniaux (supplÈment du Bulletin Mensuel du ComitÈ de l'Afrique FranÁaise et du ComitÈ du Maroc).
Bedaux, R.M.A.
1972 Tellem, reconnaissance archÈologique d'une culture de l'Ouest africain au moyen ‚ge: recherches architectoniques. Journal de la SociÈtÈ des Africanistes 42, 2: 103-185.
1988 Tellem and Dogon material culture. African Arts 21, 4: 38-45.
Bouju, J.
1984 Graine de líhomme, enfant du mil. Paris.
Bruijn, M. de, W.E.A. van Beek & H. van Dijk
1997 Antagonisme et solidaritÈ: les relations entre Peuls et Dogons du Mali central. In: M. de Bruijn & H. van Dijk (eds.), Peuls et Mandingues. Leiden: 243-267.
Dieterlen, G.
1955 Mythe et organisation sociale au Soudan franÁais. Journal de la Societe des Africanistes 25: 39-76.
Griaule, M.
1938 Masques dogons. Paris.
Huet, J-C.
1994 Villages perchÈs des Dogon du Mali. Paris.
Ly Tall, M.
1977 L'empire du Mali: contributions ‡ l'histoire de l'empire du Mali. Dakar/Abidjan.
Mayor, A.
1997 Les rapports entre la Diina peule du Maasina et les populations du Delta intÈrieur du Niger, vus au travers des traditions historiques et des fouilles archÈologiques. In: Bruijn, M. de & H. van Dijk (eds.) Peuls et Mandingues. Leiden: 33-60.

Author(s): Text: Brigit Dietz, extract from C. Kleinitz and B. Dietz (2003), Signs of the times, times of the signs: Rock art and circumcision at Songo. Leiden: Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (digital publication at
Date created: 2003-10-18 - Date modified: 2004-03-02

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Geneva Kachman, 02/10/2005
Am writing a critique of the claim that contemporary (1980s) Dogon women's reproductive pattern is "more similar to" that of their Pleistocene-era and forward ancestors, compared to that of "modern contracepting populations" -- perhaps they are equally dissimilar, although in different directions; that is, twice as many live births per woman versus half as many in "modern contracepting" populations. See also: for discussion of menstrual hut usage and/or female genital circumcision as forms of "paternity-dependent contraception."

Taylor Alyxandra Schmidt, 06/04/2006
Incredible! Great! etc!...

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