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The Bissagos Islands, also spelled Bijagós (Portuguese: Arquipélago dos Bijagós), are a group of about 88 islands and islets located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the African nation of Guinea-Bissau. The archipelago was formed from the ancient delta of the Rio Geba and the Rio Grande and spans an area of 2,624 km2 (1,184 sq. miles).
Only some 20 islands are populated year-round, namely Bubaque which is where the Bissagos administrative capital is situated and is the most populated island, Bolama, Carache, Caravela, Enu, Formosa, Galinhas, João Vieira, Maio, Meneque, Orango, Orangozinho, Ponta, Roxa, Rubane, Soga, Unhacomo, Uno, and Uracane.
There is a high diversity of ecosystems: mangroves with intertidal zones, palm forests, dry and semi-dry forests, secondary and degraded forests, coastal savanna, sand banks and aquatic zones. The archipelago was declared in 1996 a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve—Boloma Bijagós Biosphere Reserve, known for animals including marine turtles, hippopotamus and the southern islands are today a nature reserve.
The population is estimated at about 30,000 (2006) and the local ethnic group known as Bijago (Portuguese: Bijagó) predominates. It is a relatively youthful population due to high birth rates and low life expectancy even by African standards.
The economy is largely rural, with many families living from subsistence farming and fishing. There is some tourist activity, mostly boat charters from neighboring Senegal. Lack of infrastructure and communication links prevent the development of the islands' unique tourism potential.
In pre-European colonial times, the islands were central to the trade along the coast of West Africa and they built up a powerful navy. In 1535, this enabled them to rout the Portuguese when they attempted to conquer the islands, which were not taken by Portugal until 1936.
Due to difficulties of communication with mainland Guinea-Bissau that persist to this day, the population has a considerable degree of autonomy and has shielded its ancestral culture from outside influence. Mostly Bidyogo (Bijago in Portuguese) is still spoken along with Portuguese and creole.
Bissagos society is characted by age-grade progression for both men and women (separately). The grade-ascension ceremonies (generally known as "fanados") take place years apart and entail extensive preparation and ceremony. The Bissagos has a unique tradition of matriarchy, whereby it is the women who choose their husbands and terminate the matrimony; in Orango they make a single plate of food (often a traditional fish-eye platter) for the spouse-to-be, who agrees to the marriage by eating of the fish.
The Bissagos peoples produce many artifacts for daily use and ritual following a traditional iconography that is unique to their culture, but shows variations from island to island. Among the most striking Bidyogo art pieces are the portable ancestor shrines ("iran") and the zoomorphic masks respresenting cows ("vaca-bruta"), sharks, stingrays and, occasionally, other local animals. Traditionally-decorated artifacts are also produced for "fanado" coming-of-age ceremonies (wood masks, spears, shields, headgear, bracelets), daily activities (fishing, agriculture) and personal use (stools, basketry, foodware). Its unique aesthetics make Bidyogo art easily distinctive from other African tribal art.
- Guiné-Bissau: Arquipélago dos Bijagós utilizado como depósito dos narcotraficantes – Governo, Agência Lusa, Visão magazine
- Geheimnisvolle Inselntropen Afrikas: Frauenstaat und Mutterrecht der Bidyogo; ein Forschungsbericht 1933
- "Bijagos." Bijagos
- "Bijagós Islands." Encyclopædia Britannica
- An article about the land and the people of Bijagós Archipelago
- TVEDTEN, Inge The Difficult Transition from Subsistence to Commercial Fishing. The Case of the Bijagbs of Guinea-Bissau. Pages 129 to 130 In VAN GINKEL, Rob and VERRIPS, Jojada (editors) MAST (Maritime Anthropological Studies) Vol. 3, No. 1 1990 Krips Repro, Meppel, The Netherlands.