Sunday, January 22, 2012


The Fulani/Fulata, or "Fulitani" of the Roman writers, preserve an ancient pastoral nomadic and dying culture in modern Africa.   Men of this Fulani group often reach 7 feet in height according to Werner Herzog.
This post was dedicated to the Fulani ancestors of so many African Americans - a people with an ancient culture whom according to colonialists "never retreated in battle".  

Woodabe-Fulani man in traditional turban

This High priest of the "Libyan" tribe of  Meshwesh discovered in royal Egyptian tomb of the Libyan Pharaoh Psusennes is reminiscent of Fulani menh

      The peoples best known as Fulani, Felata, Fulbe, Pullo or Peul in French are a pastoral cattle herding and farming ethnic group spread across the Sahara, Sahel and Sudan as far as between Mauritania Guinea and Ethiopia. Today in different regions the Fulani ethnic and linguistic population is thought to include up to as many as 15,000,000 people.
        One peculiarity found among the lesser modified or “red Fulani”, such as the Wodaabe (who preserve to a great extent  the original Fulani appearance and lifestyle), was pointed out by Werner Herzog in his documentary “Herdsmen of the Sun”.  There is a tendency to great height or stature. Apparently many of the men of the northern Fulani groups as with the Tuareg frequently reach 7 feet in height and over, something historians tend to forget, or are not always aware of when assessing "Fulani" origins.

Modern Fulani young woman of the Wodaabe group
     The original Fulani appear to have been fairly widespread in North and Saharan Africa from a very ancient period. They are probably mentioned in northern Algeria or what was considered Mauritania Caesarea as the Fulitani or Barzu Fulitani on the late 4th map of Julius Honorius (Mommsen 1867, p. 28 and 62). They are also mentioned as having come down a few centuries later from the Tichit region by the Tariq es-Sudan written in the 1600s.  They, thus are likely the Warith/Wariz (a probable variant of Barzu) said to have been pushed down from the Mauretanian Adrar region by the Arab Quraishi conqueror, Uqba ibn Nafi and converted to Islam.
   As for the Banu Warith or Waritan of the medeival period, they are described as a  clan of the Sanhaja or of the Geddula or Banu Joddala Berbers ( the latter were considered by that time a branch of the Sanhaja) by Arabized writers such as Ibn Hawqal and El Bekri and others. (Levtsion and Hopkins, 2000, pp. 50, 67, 237; Palmer, 1970, p. 61)     
     By the 10th century and 11th century Fulani were living amongst several peoples of other Nilo-Saharan groups who had mixed with and adopted the dialect of Niger-Congo groups in kingdoms of the Sudan. The Fulani gradually spread as far east as Ethiopia where they are known as Bororo and from Mauretania across Senegambia along the West African costs and savannah they spread to places like the Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso, but appear to have been the same adversaries appearing in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings of the time of Seti and called Tjehenu.

      Many of the groups that today speak the Fulbe, Fulfulde or Pulaagu dialects are in fact a mixture of the original Fula or Fulitani and these various Songhai and Mande ethnic groups. They are also associated with the people and place name Futa or Futabe.  A good example of such groups are the Toucouleur, formed and perhaps named from the Takruri and Fulani who had come to occupy the region of Futa Toro and Futa Jallon. In the northern Sahel and Sahara the group preserving the earliest Fulani lifestyle are known in Western texts “Wodaabe”a variant of the earlier Futa-be. 
      Although the Fulani had been mainly vassals in the early Sudanic kingdoms of Songhai and Ghana, by the 1500s the Fulani were at Macina/Massina in the Middle Niger river region in Mali. They are associated with coming to occupy and dominate the Empire called Sokoto and kingdom of Bornu originally founded by peoples of Nilo-Saharan and Tuareg ethnicity.

        The origins of the Fulani have stir some lasting controversy over the last several decades due to their physical appearance or phenotype, Arabic records concerning their origins, the presence of Zebu cattle thought to be native to India, certain inconsistencies with regard to their phenotype and their current linguistic affinities which were thought to not match their phenotype. Due to European colonialist ideas about indigenous African origins and especially North African “racial” origins, the notion has gradually evolved – as it has with the Tuareg and other dark-skinned Africans once prevalent in North Africa -  that their ethnic roots were “enigmatic” or “unknown”. Yet, in fact, the earliest Fulani were one of the few peoples for which there is an abundance of evidence for origins in the Sahara oases and North Africa since the Neolithic. The evidence is both archeological and anthropological and tends to show that original Fulani population belonged to a group of neolithic pastoralists in the central and northern Sahara who were spread to Kharga, Kerma and possibly further east in Africa in later times. They appear to have been among the first people to be known to ancient Egyptians as under the names Tjehenu or Temehou.
      Their presence in stone age north Africa probably led to contact with other groups as far back as the late stone age which has led to their current so–called non-African features such as notably lengthy and less frizzly hair than other west African tribes and perhaps the introduction of a curvature to their innately narrow long noses.

Typical faces of Woodabe Fulani
      As for the current linguistic situation of the Fulani, it should be said that there are many peoples in Africa that over the past 2,000 years have adopted dialects foreign to their own that subsequently evolved into newer forms. This has happened for various reasons, often due to trade or immigration.  A good example is the current situation of North Africa where many groups of varied ethnicity and diverse biological origin over the last 2,000 years have adopted either the Arabic or Berber dialects and claim either Arabic or Berber origin or nationality today. At one time Berbers themselves were said to have been largely “Romanized” while now it appears descendants of Romans, Vandals, Scythians, Central Asians and other peoples who have settled in North Africa (or have otherwise been brought in) have themselves been somewhat Berberized and Arabized through admixture and adopting of certain linguistic and cultural patterns and mores.
    The Nilo-Saharans are an example of indigenous Africans who are known to have mixed with and adopted Niger-Congo dialects of the Atlantic branch, becoming the Sarakholle, Serer, Soninke, Djallonke, Jahanke and other groups now designated “Mande” or “Mandinke”. Thus, the fact that certain groups now speak a specific dialect doesn’t always say much about their cultural origins.      
       Due largely to Fulani physical appearance and culture, early colonial observers viewed them as part of an imagined great warlike “Caucasoid” race near black in complexion which they called “hamitic” that had amalgamated with what they called  “Negro” tribes. This idea was spurred and bolstered by the fact that when colonialists first encountered Fulani in the Sudan they were often viewed by other Africans as a separate, lighter-skinned caste in places like the region of Massina where they were even described as “whites” by their own and in Arabic writings (a description that is used in Africa for many black African groups that are somewhat dark brown in tint rather than black or brown black).
     Furthermore, in many places there was a certain ethnic rivalry between Fulani and other groups as is common between more nomadic and more settled agricultural peoples in Africa. And these tensions (which haven’t completely disappeared in Africa since they were aggravated by European colonialist notions) in various regions was often attributed to “racial “differences between the “lighter-skinned” “nobles’ of “hamitic stock” and the so-called “black African” or “Negro” agriculturalists.
    Of course Africa is made up of diverse populations of various complexion and phenotype from the yellow brown of the San and Kung Bushmen to the blue black of some Nilotic groups, and copper or bronze brown of certain Fulani and Beja. None of these groups can obviously be considered more black or African than the other as each has specialized development that has led to their particular phenotype.
      That being said, it is true that the Fulani especially the northern Fulani like the Woodabe often have a lighter caste to their skin than African tribes they live amongst and very often preserve features that are similar to the Nilo-Saharans and Cushitic speakers further much further east. The latter also often have a complexion that is often more of a dark copper brown than it is black brown. Still the Fulani were and are one of the major African groups contributing to the ancestry of blacks in the Americas (until recently known as “Negroes”), a fact that is now being confirmed by genetics, but was already established from colonial records in the U.S. and elsewhere. Thus, the conception of them as a “non-black” African group, as had been commonly suggested was a bit silly to entertain – and disingenuous, to say the least.

 Fulani man stands in front of his herd of cattle
      Fulani came in large numbers to America during the Atlantic slave trade and have been said by scholar Sterling Stuckey to have greatly influenced the cowboy and cattle culture in the United States. They have been cattle and sheep herdsmen for thousands of years and have kept many traditions alive. Herdsmen often affectionately name each member of their herd and know each by name. Cattle were not slaughtered for their  meat, but useful for their milk and other things. Long ago the ancestors of the Fulani and related people came to make the cow a symbolic of their gods in the Sahara and along the Nile.

 Yarrow Mahmoud - Fulani man in the U.S. who had won freedom lived in Washington, D.C. 

Abdul Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori-former U.S. slave

    Abdul-Rahman (above) had been a student at Timbuktu (Tin Buqti) even then a world famous capital of learning in Mali. But he fell into hard times after serving as a leader in battle under his father against an enemy tribe. After being ambushed by his enemies with some of his war party on the way back to his father, he was sold as a prisoner of war by an enemy tribe. Like numerous other Fulani -  Abdul-Rahman  was brought to America by slavers. The year was 1788, and he was 26 years old.  He spent the next 40 years as a slave and slave overseer in Mississippi. He won his freedom and liberated his family moving to Liberia where he fell ill and died only a few months later.

       Like the Tuareg, the Fulani were admired by colonialists for what were perceived as cultural traits traceable to their “white hamite” origins. They were perceived as being more war-like than the more agricultural groups who were darker-skinned and known and praised for such values as “never turning back” in battle. There was also the fact that the colonialists who met the Fulani ruling elites found them to have profiles and coloring rather like those of the ancient “Egyptians”. They were never hesitant about commenting on the coiffures of Fulani men which they found to be curiously similar or identical to those of the ancient “Libyan” men portrayed in the tombs of Seti and other early Egyptian pharaohs.
     Several early authors documented this habit of wearing the hair among the Fulani, consisting of long plaits with long curled sidelocks worn by the ruling class of 19th century  Massina (in what is now Mali), as well as places in Chad. Speaking of the Fulani rulers of Massina or Macina, Ignatius Donnelly wrote in his 1882 book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, that in “Soudan, on the banks of the Niger, dwells a negro tribe ruled by a royal family (Masas), who are of rather fair complexion, and claim descent from white men…the Masas wear their hair in the same fashion as the Tamahus” (Donnelly & Sykes, 2003, p. 182). The “Negro” tribe in this case were the Mande population. Unfortunately this habit of weargin long curled locks is more characteristic of women than men today but is represented in many ancient Egyptian portayals of the people dwelling in oases adjacent to the Nile.

The ancient face of the earliest Libou/Tehenou men are often captured in modern Wodaabe face

Ancient "Libyans" with sidelocks as they exist on 19th dynasty tomb of Seti
Fulani men of the Woodabe clan customarily adorn themselves. 

Woodabe by Ferdinand Reus on Flickr. 
     Some early scholars were evidently  misled by the portrayals of Libyans by the 19th century Richard Lepsius who in his canon for reasons which are not quite clear or perhaps all too clear, seems to have rendered the ancient Libyans of a particular tomb in a tint much lighter than they appeared in the actual painting. Other scholars appear not to be aware that the ancient use of the term Tamahou or Tjemehou was originally used exclusively for the dark brown people of the Kharga and the other southern oases as (the name first appears in the 6th dynasty) and only much later for westerners in general including the rather mixed conglomeration of “Sea peoples”.

Caricatures of the ancient Libyans repainted to look like Europeans with beards and African hairstyles


Another strangely distorted and unrealistic or fantastical depiction of a "Libyan" by Richard Lepsius that is wrongly said to appear  in an ancient Egyptian tomb

    The above renderings are probably an attempt by some Egyptologists to mold the Libyans into the famous "Hamitic caucasoids" of colonialist fantasy. But the Libyans that appear in the tombs they are said to come from only appear either in a very dark color of the modern Fulani and Maasai or else like those below.

True to life painting from the New Kingdom dynasties of Egypt. 
  Even with the dark paint brown paint fading from their skins and the black from black plaited hair and side locks, one sees their "true colors" and the African origins of these rather late Libyans are evident. 
     Another archeologist named Oric Bates author of a foundational work known as The Eastern Libyans, also commented on these hairstyle similarities saying “the Fulbe or Fulahs of the Chad-zone sometimes braid the hair in a manner which strikingly recalls the Libyans of the monuments” (Bates, 1914, p. 136).

Individuals possibly sporting the Fulani sidelocks on the neolithic rock art of Kidal in the Adrar region of Mali.  Sidelocks are not commonly seen on Fulani today as they were in the days of colonialist observers.
Furthermore, it was not only the hairstyles, but the complexion, the attire, hats, feathers and designs in their costumes and tattoos, as well,  which seemed to link them to certain of the early peoples settled in Libyan oases next to Egypt (in places like Kharga and Dakhla) and Nubia since Neolithic times.  

ABOVE: Tattooed Fulani men

 Specialist Marion von Offelen in the more recent Nomads of Niger also noted resemblances in the attire and clothing designs of the present Woodabe group of Fulani to attire and tattoos designs on the “Libyans” of 19th dynasty tomb paintings of Seti (Van Offelen & Beckwith, 1984, p. 177). The details of these elaborate designs are obviously too alike to be just coincidence.

Elaborate designs on the this Fulani young man's attire go back thousands of years in Saharan art and ancient Egyptian potrayals of the New kingdom Libyans.  The designs have a special significance.

 However, what clinches the case is the well documented archaeological connection of the early people of the oases like Kharga and similar peoples in Nubia to some of the pastoral nomads in earlier eastern and central Saharan rock art of the Neolithic. Bates long ago noted that on Fulani garments were also the same designs that appear on the C group pottery of Kerma, (Bates, p. 251). As well archaeologist David Phillipson noted the archaeology of C-group pastoralists suggests a Saharan origin. (Phillipson, 1977,  p.66). These connections are not only strong at Kharga and Wadi Howar, but at Tassili and Annadi, Tibesti, Air, Ahaggar/Hoggar, Jebel Uweinat, Gilf Kebir and Wadi Djerat where the paintings date back to the neolithic period known to art historians and archeologists as the “Bovidian” dating back to the 3rd and 4th millenniums B.C. 
Rock art from the Algerian Sahara - individuals fix their hair or turbans

Women of the Fulani today continue to wear long side locks and ancient Saharan hairstyles.

 Ancient inhabitants of Tassili in Algeria appear to sport the modern Fulani bun hairstyle

 This is an area stretching from Algeria and Niger to Libya Sudan, and Chad where cattle in rock art with horns artificially deformed and cattle pendants typical of those of the C-group population of Nubia have been discovered. Gabriel Camps attributes these practices to C-group Nubian influence rather than vice versa. The two groups most characteristically associated with these paintings of “Bovidian” pastoralists according to Camps resemble the “tall” slender Fulani, and the smaller built populations called euphemistically brown or gracile Mediterranean man of Nubia (A and C-group), Egypt and the countries of the Horn i.e. the ancestors of many Nilo-Saharan, Afroasiatics or Cushitic-speakers (Camps, 1982,  pp. 574-575)
Aside from Camps, numerous archeologists and rock art specialists of both European and African descent have noted that many elements in Fulani culture, from the type of huts to their current rituals and hair styles and profiles, seem to be depicted in some of the very early pastoralist art work of Saharan oases stretching into the Central Sahara. The Fulani anthropologist Amadou Hampate Ba along with Germaine Dieterlen, authors of the article, “The Frescos of the Bovidian epoch in Tassili n'Ajjer and Traditions of the Peul” thought they had identified similarities between rituals and ceremonies shown in some of the rock paintings and those practiced by certain of the Fulani of today (Hampate Ba & Dieterlen, 1966, pp. 151-157).
  J. Hiernaux, a noted specialist on ancient rock art or frescoes of neolithic Saharan pastoralists also expressed an opinion on this. He was struck by similarities of the crest headgear and bun hairstyle in pastoral rock art of the Hoggar and Tassili and those of Fulani men and women of Macina/Massina near the Niger. The large lyre-shaped horns, so typical of the bovine figures, carvings and cave paintings are found especially in the Bororo Fulani herds.
 Christian Dupuy author of “The Rock Carvings of the Adrar des Iforas”, also expressed his belief that Fulani may have been responsible for some of the central Saharan rock art in which warriors are depicted. He wrote, “Certains des Peuls établis aujourd'hui dans la moyenne vallée du Niger, pourraient être affiliés aux auteurs des gravures de guerriers du Sahara méridional…” (Dupuy, 1991).
  At Jabbaren where Bovidian rock art dates back to the 4th millennium the artists have depicted a practice maintained by the Fulani of transporting the armature of huts, and the head gear, cattle, clothing and most typical physical characteristics of human figures of the pastoral period resemble the present day Fulani. These were undoubtedly similar to the early people who first appeared in the Fayum as Tjehenu in the Old Kingdom.                                                          

Modern Fulani man of Nigeria
The skin color of many Fulani has often been commented on by colonial scholars.

Libyan or "Tjehenu" man from the Old Kingdom era of Egypt wears characteristic "crossbands"

Modern crossbands of young Fulani men

    More recently scholars like J.L. Quellec in "Les Gravures Rupestre in Fezzan" have spoken of the numerous connections between C-group Nubians and ancient occupants of the Fezzan (Quellec,  1985, p. 373). These connections likely corroborate why ancient Libyans in Egyptian tomb paintings were found by Bates to wear tattoo designs similar to those present on C-group pottery.  
 Interestingly, modern Fulani also sport at times a hairstyle in which the hair is left long in the back and head shaved in the front, similar to the description of the hairstyle worn by the ancient Machlyes of ancient Libya who according to Herodotus spread to the river Triton in the Syrtic region.

The ancient Machyles "Libyans" (Northeast Africans) of Lake Triton let their hair "grow long in the back of the head".   Herodotus 5th century B.C., Book  4.180.1 

The women of the Machlyes were said to have practiced mock ritual battle with the neighboring women of the Auseans, in honor of their deitesse Minerva or Pallas Athena. According to the Greeks, the ancestor of the Libyan Machlyes,  the Psylli and the Adyrmakidae of both Nubia and Libya was Amphithemis, son of Acalle (or Acacallis) the daugther of Minos, son of Triton, the water nymph.

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Ba, A, H. and Dieterlen, G. (1966). Les fresques d’époque bovidienne du Tassili n’Ajjer et les traditions des Peul: Hypothèse d’interprétation, Journal de la Société des Africanistes, 36, 151–157.

Bates, O. (1914). The Eastern Libyans. Frank Cass.

Camps, G. (1982). Beginnings of pastoralism and cultivation in Northwest Africa and the Sahara: Origins of the Berbers. Cambridge History of Africa Vol. 1:548-612.

Donnelly, I. & Sykes, E. (2003). Atlantis: The antideluvian world.

Dupuy, C. (1991). Sous Zone 3 Les gravures rupestres de l’Adrar des Iforas  Retrieved from

Hays, T. R.(1975). Neolithic settlement of the Sahara as it relates to the Nile Valley. In F. Wendorf and Marks Eds. Problems in Prehistoric North Africa and the Levant

Levtzion, N. and Hopkins, J F. P. (2000). Corpus of Arabic sources for early West African History. Mark Weiner.

Mommsen, T., Picot, E. & Mullenhoff, K. (1867).  Memoires sur les  Provinces Romaines, et sur les listes qui nous en sont parvenues depuis la division faite par Dioclétien jusqu'au   commencement du cinquième siècle.  Paris: Didier & Cies. Retrieved from;page=root;view=image;size=100;seq=10

Palmer, R. (1970). The Bornu Sahara and Sudan.

Phillipson, D. (1977). The later prehistory of eastern and southern Africa. 

Quellec,  J.L. (1985).  Les gravures rupestres du Fezzan  Anthropologie, Paris /pdf_files/124/1244875719.pdf

Reynolds, D. W. (199). The African heritage and ethnohistory of the Moors: Background to the emergence of early Berber and Arab peoples, from prehistory to the Islamic dynasties. In Golden Age of the Moors, Journal of African Civcilizations Vol. II Fall 1991.

Van Offelen, M. & Beckwith, C. ( 1984 )  Nomads of the Niger. Henry N. Abrams. 

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  1. i like the post and i'm curious about the names Fulani/Fulata, or "Fulitani, i've seen tv doc years ago and these people were named the , wudabe, in the tv documentry , i cant spell it correctly only phoneticlly , woo-dah-beh.
    they're so unique with their makeup :)

    1. Yes - they have been called in European pronunciation Futa-be or Woodabe or simply Futa (also generically called Peul, Fula, Fulbe Fulani or Fellata depending on the region). An excellent book regarding the Woodabe is Nomads of Niger by Marion Van Offelen and Carol Beckwith. In my view its one of the most pictorially beautiful books on Africa to be found. The Woodabe are pretty special because the preserve the most ancient Fulani appearance both phenotypically and culturally - that is judging by the rock art and ancient Egyptian paintings. : )

  2. thank you very mush i am a peul from (futa jallon) guinnee and always wonder were my roots may have started :)...

  3. You are quite welcome. People such as yourself are the reason I started this blog.:)

  4. dana you have done very deep studies . you have provide some great information regarding tattoos designs .

  5. Thanks - more of this tatto info is actually easily accessible in a book called Nomads of Niger, by Marion Van Offelen.

  6. Hi, my father is a Peul from The North-East of Senegel (Fouta Toro), my mother is Dutch and Im born in the Netherlands so for me its hard to find information about the cultural background of my father. My father also told me that he doesnt know why Peul are often so light-skinned and tall. This blog is the most interesting site Ive found so far! Thanks!

  7. Hi Anonymous - you have an interesting ethnic background. Africa is also filled with interesting people from diverse ethnic heritages and exciting histories. Thanks for your compliments and please drop by soon as there's a lot more to come!

  8. Hi, I took the African Ancestry test and they confirmed for me that my family on my mothers side are descendants of the Fulani people. I have many family members that are very tall! I now know why they are so tall! Thank you for all that you do!

  9. Sincere thanks for stopping by and your compliment, Brian: )