Sao civilisation

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Terracotta Sao statuette

The Sao civilization (also called So) flourished in Central Africa from ca. the fourth or sixth century BC to as late as the sixteenth century AD.[1] The Sao lived by the Chari River basin in territory that later became part of Cameroon and Chad. They are the earliest civilization to have left clear traces of their presence in the territory of modern Cameroon.[2] 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.


The Sao civilization began as early as the sixth or fourth century BCE, and by the end of the first millennium BCE, their presence was well established around Lake Chad and near the Chari River.[3] The city-states of the Sao reached their apex sometime between the ninth and fifteenth centuries CE.[4]

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.[5] The Kotoko are the inheritors of the former city states of the Sao.[6]


It had been suggested that the Sao were descendants of the Hyksos who conquered Ancient Egypt, that they moved south from the Nile valley into middle Africa under pressure from invaders, or that they originated in the Bilma Oasis north of the lake Chad.[7] However, 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 south of the lake.[8] And recent archaeological research indicates that the Sao civilization developed indigenously from earlier cultures in the region (such as the Gajiganna culture, which began at around 1,800 BCE and began to build fortified towns by about 800 BCE), gradually increasing in complexity.[9][10][11][12] Sites like Zilum of the Chad Basin are examples of this.[11] Sao artifacts show that they were a sophisticated civilization working in bronze, copper, and iron.[13] Finds include bronze sculptures and terra cotta statues of human and animal figures, coins, funerary urns, household utensils, jewelry, highly decorated pottery, and spears.[14] The largest Sao archaeological finds have been made south of Lake Chad.

G.T. Stride presented these important facts about the Sao civilization:

[T]he So people possessed considerable political and artistic genius. Although they never combined effectively to form an empire, they developed city-states which were the centres of intense local patriotism ... Each city was surrounded by strong defensive walls and dominated the life of the surrounding countryside which it both protected and governed. Government was by an elaborate hierarchy, headed by a divine ruler ... Except on ceremonial occasions, the rulers made few public appearances and even then remained concealed from the common gaze by a screen. Women occupied a respected position in society and the Queen Mother and senior sister of the ruler exercised considerable political influence on the government of the states. The So people were mainly settled farmers but among them were craftsmen of considerable industrial and artistic merit. They were able to work in both clay and metals to manufacture household utensils, tools, and works of art for religious purposes. Impressive objects found by archaeologists include burial urns and ... figures of animals and human beings both in clay and bronze. All this had been achieved ... before about A. D. 700 ... The vigour of the government and civilization is best demonstrated by their long resistance to the empires of Kanem and Bornu [sic] and the fact that many cultural characteristics of the Kanuri [were later] adopted from the So.

— G.T. Stride, Peoples and Empires of West Africa[15]

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.[16] 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.[8]


  1. ^ Walker (2011).
  2. ^ Hudgens & Trillo (1999), p. 1051.
  3. ^ DeLancey & DeLancey (2000), p. 237.
  4. ^ DeLancey & DeLancey (2000), p. 237; Walker (2011).
  5. ^ Fanso (1989), p. 18; Insoll (2003), p. 281.
  6. ^ Lebeuf (1969), pp. 53–120.
  7. ^ Fanso (1989), pp. 15–19.
  8. ^ a b Fanso (1989), p. 18.
  9. ^ Augustin FC (July 2006). "Pathways to Complexity: The Rise and Demise of a Chadic Polity". Gefame: Journal of African Studies. 3 (1). hdl:2027/spo.4761563.0003.101.
  10. ^ Breunig P, Nüsse M, Franke G (June 2008). "Early sculptural traditions in West Africa: New evidence from the Chad Basin of north-eastern Nigeria". Antiquity. 82 (316): 423–437. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00096915.
  11. ^ a b Magnavita C, Breunig P, Ameje J, Posselt M (2006). "Zilum: a mid-first millennium BC fortified settlement". Journal of African Archaeology. 4 (1): 153–169. doi:10.3213/1612-1651-10068.
  12. ^ Breunig P, Neumann K, Van Neer W (June 1996). "New Research on the Holocene Settlement and Environment of the Chad Basin in Nigeria". African Archaeological Review. 13 (2): 111–145. doi:10.1007/BF01956304. JSTOR 25130590.
  13. ^ Fanso (1989), p. 19; Walker (2011).
  14. ^ Fanso (1989), p. 18; Hudgens & Trillo (1999), p. 1051.
  15. ^ Stride & Ifeka (1971), pp. 113–115.
  16. ^ Fanso (1989), p. 19; Lebeuf (1969), pp. 137–173.