The Fulani people, also called Fulbe (pl. Pullo) or Peul, are well known for the delicate decoration of utilitarian objects such as milk bowls that reflect their nomadic and pastoral lifestyle. The history of the Fulani in West Africa begins in the fifth century A.D. Islamized early on and traveling constantly, they did not develop a tradition of figural, sculpted art. The complex nature of art among this large and long-established group in West Africa is widely recognized but still understudied.
A Long Itinerary
Although the migrations of the Fulani cattle herders, as well as their physical appearance, have generated a variety of hypotheses about their origins outside the region, current studies demonstrate that Fulani culture belongs to the West African context.
Their language, the Pular or Fufulde, onto which some pre-Berber components are grafted, is of the Niger-Congo group. The ancestors of the Fulani, among other groups, seem to have been pushed from the Sahara southward at the onset of its desertification around the third millennium B.C. Established in southern Mauritania at the beginning of the Christian era, Fulani people developed a strong presence in Futa Toro in Senegambia from the fifth to the eleventh century. From there, they migrated further east.
Fulani people were among the first Africans to convert to Islam. Between the eighth and the fourteenth century, Fulbe-speaking people of Takrur had produced a class of Muslim clerics, the Torodbe, who would take on proselytizing activities across the entire western Sudan. Increasingly, the memory of their previous pastoral religion was lost, except in some sub-groups such as the Bororo or Wodaabe (i.e., “Isolated”), who remained animists and nomads. Between the eleventh and the seventeenth century, the Fulbe gradually extended their grazing territory from over much of the West African savanna up to Borno. They usually took no part in the political life of the surrounding entities, and were sometimes subjected to heavy taxes.
To resist taxation and military conscription or acquire more grazing land, Fulani waged religious wars in the nineteenth century. From these jihads, or holy wars, Muslim theocracies emerged, for instance, the Sokoto caliphate that became, under the leadership of Usman dan Fodio (‘Uthman ibn Fudi), the largest single West African state of the nineteenth century.
Over the centuries, Fulani migrations have interacted with all the other groups in western and central Sudan. Today, Fulani people live in nearly every country of the West African savanna, between Senegal and Cameroon.
Traces of Fulani Culture in Tassili
Examination of certain rock paintings in the Tassili-n-Ajjer suggests the presence of proto-Fulani cultural traits in the region by at least the fourth millennium B.C. Scholars specializing in Fulani culture believe that some of the imagery depicts rituals that are still practiced by contemporary Fulani people.
At the Tin Tazarift site, for instance, historian Amadou Hampate Ba recognized a scene of the lotori ceremony, a celebration of the ox’s aquatic origin. In a finger motif, Ba detected an allusion to the myth of the hand of the first Fulani herdsman, Kikala. At Tin Felki, Ba recognized a hexagonal carnelian jewel as related to the Agades cross, a fertility charm still used by Fulani women.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “The Fulani/Fulbe People.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fula_2/hd_fula_2.htm (October 2002)