The Sao were an African civilization from the Nile River that flourished from ca. the sixth century BCE to as late as the sixteenth century CE. The Sao lived by the Chari River south of Lake Chad in territory that later became part of Cameroon and Chad. They are the earliest people to have left clear traces of their presence in the territory of modern Cameroon. Sometime around the 16th century, conversion to Islam changed the cultural identity of the former Sao. Today, several ethnic groups of northern Cameroon and southern Chad but particularly the Sara, Kotoko claim descent from the civilization of the Sao.
There are several theories concerning the origin of the Sao. Archaeologists J.-P. Lebeuf and A. Masson-Détourbet suggest that the civilization characterized by city-states may have been influenced by the advanced Nubian civilization of the Nile. According to the historian Dierk Lange, the Sao were from the ancient Near East in consequence of the fall of the Assyrian Empire at the end of the seventh century BC. Victor Fanso believes that the Sao were the descendants of the Hyksos who re-conquered Ancient Egypt in the sixteenth century BCE from foreign invaders then may have moved southwest from the Nile valley into middle Africa in several waves under pressure from Arab invaders. A more widely accepted theory is that the Sao were simply the indigenous inhabitants of the Lake Chad basin and that their ultimate origins lie in the Nile River.
Rise and decline
The Sao civilization may have begun as early as the sixth century BCE, and by the end of the first millennium BCE, their presence was well established south of Lake Chad and near the Chari River. The city states of the Sao reached their apex sometime between the ninth and fifteenth centuries CE.
The Sao's demise may have come about due to conquest, Islamization, or both. Traditional tales say that the Sao west of Lake Chad fell to "Yemenites" from the east. These invaders made several unsuccessful attempts to conquer the Sao before finally succeeding by resorting to trickery. If true, the newcomers may have been Arab Bedouin or Sayfuwa raiders coming from the east who moved into the region in the fourteenth century . Although some scholars estimate that the Sao civilization south of Lake Chad lasted until the fourteenth or fifteenth century, the majority opinion is that it ceased to exist as a separate culture sometime in the 16th century subsequently to the expansion of the Bornu Empire. The Kotoko are the inheritors of the former city states of the Sao.
Little is known about the Sao's culture or political organisation: They left no written records and are known only through archaeological finds and the oral history of their successors in their territory. Sao artifacts show that they were skilled workers in bronze, copper, and iron. Finds include bronze sculptures and terra cotta statues of human and animal figures, coins, funerary urns, household utensils, jewellery, highly decorated pottery, and spears. The largest Sao archaeological finds have been made south of Lake Chad.
Ethnic groups in the Lake Chad basin, such as the Buduma, Gamergu, Kanembu, Kotoko, and Musgum claim descent from the Sao. Lebeuf supports this connection and has traced symbolism from Sao art in works by the Guti and Tukuri subgroups of the Logone-Birni people. Oral histories add further details about the people: The Sao were made up of several patrilineal clans who were united into a single polity with one language, race, and religion. In these narratives, the Sao are presented as giants and mighty warriors who fought and conquered their neighbors.
- Hudgens and Trillo 1051.
- Lebeuf/Masson Detourbet, Civilization, 174.
- Lange, "Immigration of the Chadic-speaking Sao", 101-3.
- Fanso, History, 15-19.
- Fanso 18.
- Lange, "Immigration of the Chadic-speaking Sao", 95-3; Fanso, History, 18.
- DeLancey and DeLancey 237.
- Fanso 19.
- Palmer, Memoirs, II, 66-68; Levtzion/Hopkins, Corpus, 347.
- Insoll, Archaeology, 281; Fanso, History, 18.
- Lebeuf, Principautés, 53-120.
- Fanso 19; Hudgens and Trillo 1051.
- Lebeuf, Principautés, 137-173; Fanso, History, 19.
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- Fanso, V. G. (1989). Cameroon History for Secondary Schools and Colleges, Vol. 1: From Prehistoric Times to the Nineteenth Century. Hong Kong: Macmillan Education Ltd.
- Hudgens, Jim, and Richard Trillo (1999). West Africa: The Rough Guide. 3rd ed. London: Rough Guides Ltd.
- Insoll, Timothy (2003: The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge.
- Lange, Dierk (2007). "The Emergence of social complexity in the southern Chad Basin towards 500 BC: Archaeological and other evidence," Borno Museum Society Newsletter, 68-71, 49-68
- --(2008). "Immigration of the Chadic-speaking Sao towards 600 BCE", Borno Museum Society Newsletter, 84-106.
- Lebeuf, Annie: Les principautés kotoko, Paris 1969.
- Lebeuf, Jean-Paul,and Annie Masson Detourbet (1950). La civilization du Tchad, Paris.
- Levtzion, Nehemia, and John Hopkins (1981). Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, Cambridge.
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