The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2013, 281-302

Historiography without Writing? Abstract Signs and Pictorial Marks as a Means of Historical and Cultural Information Preservation and Transmission in Precolonial Benin

D. M. Bondarenko, P. M. Roese

Though there was no writing in pre-colonial Benin, the Bini had elaborated an original system of information preservation and transmission by means of pictorial marks and drawings. The elaboration of this system was not provoked by social needs connected with growth of production and trade and appearance of clear ideas of the state and private property as politico-economic categories, as it usually was the case in the countries of classical antiquity both in the East and the West. Its appearance in Benin was predestined by permanent care of the ideology's strengthening by the supreme authority in the times of both the first (Ogiso) and second (Oba) dynasties. An official manipulation with the royal and people's history, on the one hand, and pedaling of the idea of the rulers' connections with their ancestors and deities, on the other hand, were among the most important means by which the authority was achieving this goal. That is why practically all the information Benin pictorial marks and drawings contained was historical and cultural (religious and mythological). Inseparable in the Bini's consciousness and destined by authority to serve the latter by fulfilling the common – ideological task, history and mythology had intervened: the myth was historicized and politicized, and history was mythologized and thus juggled in favor of the supreme authority. In view of the aforesaid, it is logical that the layer of the “literate” Bini was very thin and most probably included courtiers only – chroniclers, some artisans and priests. Contrary to the Ogiso of the 10th–12th centuries, the Oba managed to establish effective and quite rigid central authority by the mid-13th century. This could not but result in the supreme authority's “monopolization” and “appropriation” of official history and political mythology, and hence of the means of information preservation and transition. Thus, the fact that all the known marks are invariably related to the historical and mythological aspects of official ideology testifies the central authority's strength in Benin of the Oba period.

Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, precolonial Africa, historical writing, pictorial marks, ideology

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