Crossroads of Culture: People of Mali - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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People of Mali "Crossroads of Culture"
February 28, 2001

Dogon | Fulani | Songhai | Senoufou


Nomadic camel herders of Berber origin who inhabit eastern Mali and Niger, the Tuareg migrated into the western Sahara following the Arab invasion of North Africa in the seventh century A.D. The Tuareg have been called the "blue people of the desert," because of the deep azure color imparted by indigo dye beaten into their garments. Ownership of costly indigo garments is reserved for the elite; blue pigment on one's skin a mark of high status. Tuareg camps are scattered throughout the northernmost reaches of the country; a few can be found in the shadow of the Bandiagara Escarpment.


The precise origins of these cliff-dwelling inhabitants of the Bandiagara Escarpment, have been lost in the mists of time, but several scholars have suggested that the Dogon may have come into the region from the Nile Valley, via Libya and Niger, sometime in the fifteenth century A.D. With their tight-knit social structure, they have resisted the various waves of Islam that have swept through Mali, maintaining their traditional way of life. Animists, the Dogon have one of the elaborate cosmologies to be found in this region of the world.


With their fine, aqualine facial features, commonly associated with North African peoples, these Muslim cattle herders live primarily in the Inland Niger River Delta between Mopti and Djenné. Fulani women are readily recognizable by their exquisite adornments--large gold earrings known as kwottenai kanye, heavy silver rings and bangles, and hairdos that incorporate large amber beads, Maria Theresa silver dollars, and Venetian glass beads.


A subsaharan people who migrated from northern Benin in the seventh century, the Songhai live in the Sahel between Timbuktu and Gao, the latter once capital of the Songhai Empire. Like the Fulani, they pride themselves in personal adornment; the women like their Fulani counterparts favoring large amber beads, coins, and agate fingerrings woven into their hair.


Originally from what is now Ivory Coast, these subsaharan peoples live in the southern reaches of the country near Sikasso.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America