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Vansina, Jan 1929-

Vansina, Jan 1929-

PERSONAL:

Born September 14, 1929, in Antwerp, Belgium; came to United States in 1960; son of Dirk (a painter and writer) and Suzanne (a painter) Vansina; married Claudine Herman, September 3, 1954; children: Bruno. Education: Catholic University of Louvain, B.A., 1949, M.A., 1951, Ph.D., 1957; University of London, graduate study, 1951-52.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Madison, WI.

CAREER:

Historian, anthropologist, educator, and writer. Institut pour la Recherche Scientifique en Afrique Centrale, Zaire, researcher, officer, and head of social science, 1953-60; University of Wisconsin—Madison, assistant professor, 1960-63, associate professor, 1963-66, professor of history, 1966-76, Vilas Research Professor of History, beginning 1976, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor, then emeritus professor. UNESCO committee for writing a general history of Africa, member, 1971—, vice-president, 1981-94, emeritus, 1994—. Military service: Belgian Army, infantry, 1954-56.

MEMBER:

International African Institute (member of board of directors, 1968-76), Koninklijke Akademie voor Overzeese Wetenschappen.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Belgian National Prize in history, 1960-65; Herskovits Prize from African Studies Association, 1967, for Kingdoms of the Savanna; American Academy of Arts and Sciences fellow, May, 1982.

WRITINGS:

Tribus Ba-Kuba et les Peuplades Aparentees (title means "Ba-Kuba and Related Peoples"), International Publications Service, 1954.

Esquisse de grammaire Bushoong (title means "Sketch of Bushoong Grammar"), Musee Royal du Congo Belge, (Tervuren, Belgium), 1959.

(Editor with R. Mauny and V.L. Thomas) The Historian in Tropical Africa: Studies Presented and Discussed at the Fourth International Seminar at University of Dakar, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1961.

De la tradition orale: Essai de methode historique, Musee Royal de l'Afrique Centrale (Tervuren, Belgium), 1961, translation by H.M. Wright published as Oral Tradition, Aldine (Chicago, IL), 1965, reprinted with a new introduction by Selma Leydesdorff and Elizabeth Tonkin, published as Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, Aldine Transaction (New Brunswick, NJ), 2006.

L'Evolution du Royaume Rwanda des origines à 1900 (title means "Evolution of the Kingdom of Rwanda from Its Beginnings to 1900"), Academie Royale des Sciences d'Outre Mer (Brussels, Belgium), 1962, Johnson Reprint, 1969.

Geschiedenis van de Kuba (title means "Kuba History"), Musee Royal de l'Afrique Centrale (Tervuren, Belgium), 1963.

Le Royaume Kuba (title means "The Kuba Kingdom"), Musee Royal de l'Afrique Centrale (Tervuren, Belgium), 1964.

Introduction à l'ethnographie du Congo (title means "Introduction to the Ethnography of Zaire"), C.R.I. S.P. (Brussels, Belgium), 1965.

Kingdoms of the Savanna, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1966.

La legende du passe: Traditions orales du Burundi (title means "Legend of the Part-Oral Traditions from Burundi"), Musee Royal de l'Afrique Centrale (Tervuren, Belgium), 1972.

(With Henri Brunschwig and Georgette Lagarde) Brazza Explorateur: Les Traités Makoko, 1880-1882 (letters and reports of Savorgnan de Brazza), Mouton (Paris, France), 1972.

The Tio Kingdom of the Middle Congo: 1880-1892, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1973.

(With W.K. Foell, P.G. Hayes, J.M. Lang, and others) Resources and Decisions, Duxbury (North Scituate, MA), 1975.

Les anciens royaumes de la savane: Les etats des savanes meridionales de l'Afrique centrale des origines à l'occupation coloniale, 2nd edition, University Press of Zaire (Kinshasa, Zaire), 1976.

The Children of Woot: History of the Kuba Peoples, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1978.

(With P.D. Curtin, L. Thompson, and S. Feierman) African History, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1978.

(With others) Études africaines: Offertes à Henri Brunschwig, Éditions de l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris, France), 1982.

Art and History in Africa, Longman (London, England), 1983.

Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1990.

Habitat, Economy, and Society in the Central African Rain Forest, Berg (Providence, RI), 1992.

Living with Africa (autobiography), University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1994.

(Editor and contributor, with Carolyn Keyes Adenaike) In Pursuit of History: Fieldwork in Africa, Heinemann (Portsmouth, NH), 1996.

Le Rwanda ancien: Le Royaume Nyiginya, Karthala (Paris, France), 2001, translation by author published as Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2004.

How Societies Are Born: Governance in West Central Africa before 1600, University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, VA), 2004.

Contributor of over one hundred articles to scholarly journals.

SIDELIGHTS:

Historian and anthropologist Jan Vansina has conducted field research in Libya, Zaire, Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo. He speaks Dutch, French, German, and Bushoong, and is familiar with other European and Bantu languages. He has also been a seminal player in the development of the study of African history and has written numerous books focusing on Africa. "Jan Vansina is probably the greatest Africanist of our age," noted J.D.Y. Peel in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa, published in 1990, reconstructs the history of the forest lands that cover all or part of southern Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, the Congo, Zaire, the Central African Republic, and Cabinda in Angola. The author discusses topics such as the original settlement of the forest, periods of expansions and innovation in agriculture, and the conquest of the rainforests by colonial powers and their destruction of a way of life. "This remarkable book by Jan Vansina is a paradigm-shifting tour de force," noted Thomas O'Toole in Africa Today.

In his 1994 autobiography, Living with Africa, Vansina recounts the time he spent in Africa beginning in 1952 as a young Belgian scholar of European medieval history. He first lived in a remote Kuba village doing fieldwork for a Belgian cultural agency. The author discusses his belief that people with no texts still have a viable history and his discovery that he could analyze Kuba oral tradition using the same methods he had learned for interpreting medieval dirges. In addition to detailing the development of African history as a viable scholarly pursuit, the author includes a background narrative on the collapse of colonialism in Africa and the emergence of newly independent nations. "If there were a prize for the most readable book in the African history field, Jan Vansina's autobiography, Living with Africa, would almost certainly win it," wrote J.D. Fage in the Journal of African History. "I began to read it as soon as I had opened the packet containing it, and for the remainder of that day I was lost to the rest of the world."

Vansina is coeditor with Carolyn Keyes Adenaike of In Pursuit of History: Fieldwork in Africa, which features ten papers by academics reminiscing about experiences in field work in Africa. Vansina also contributes a paper reminiscing about his fieldwork among the Tio of Congo-Brazzaville in 1963. "The personal focus and tone of these essays certainly makes many of them entertaining reading," noted Robin Law in a review in African Affairs. Justin Willis wrote in the Journal ofAfrican History: "The contributions are concise and clearly written, offering little in the way of formal advice, but ample reassurance to novice researchers as they blunder along and worry that they are getting it all wrong."

In Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom, first published as Le Rwanda ancien: Le Royaume Nyiginya, the author examines the history of Rawanda as recorded by early missionaries and court historians. Providing a bottom-up view of Rawanda's history by drawing on hundreds of grassroots narratives from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the author explores the origins of the Hutu and Tutsi identities and their growing social and political differences. He also examines their bitter feuds, which have led to massacres, and the relevance of this dramatic history to modern post-genocide Rawanda. "This magisterial work on the precolonial royal history of Rwanda … is both a capstone book, bringing together a generation of recent scholarship, and a path-breaking one, drawing on sources until now almost entirely neglected," commented David Newbury in a review in the Journal of African History.

How Societies Are Born: Governance in West Central Africa before 1600 is a political and agrarian history of West Central Africa. The author delves into how societies first coalesced from small foraging communities that once roamed the area for thousands of years. Using a combination of archaeology and historical linguistics, the author explores the creation of relatively large societies that extended beyond the typical foraging groups that characterized the area since 500 B.C. He also examines the political and social institutions that made large-scale cooperation possible. "Although the book is extremely dense because of the emphasis on change over time and variability even within a particular model, Vansina summarizes his arguments at the end of individual chapters and in the conclusion," noted Eugenia W. Herbert in a review in the Historian.

The author's early work De la tradition orale: Essai de methode historique, first published in 1961 and then in a translation as Oral Tradition in 1965, has been reprinted in 2006 with a new introduction by Selma Leydesdorff and Elizabeth Tonkin. Published as Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, the book examines oral traditions and their validity in history and is considered the seminal work that gave the study of precolonial African history scholarly justification.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Vansina, Jan, Living with Africa, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Africa Today, summer, 1995, Thomas O'Toole, review of Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa, p. 99; summer, 2006, David Schoenbrun, review of Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom, p. 146.

African Affairs, October, 1997, Robin Law, review of In Pursuit of History: Fieldwork in Africa, p. 627.

Historian, summer, 2006, Eugenia W. Herbert, review of How Societies Are Born: Governance in West Central Africa before 1600, p. 330.

History: Review of New Books, spring, 2005, Lamont Dehaven King, review of How Societies Are Born, p. 118.

Journal of African History, October, 1996, J.D. Fage, review of Living with Africa, p. 487; July, 1998, Justin Willis, review of In Pursuit of History, p. 347; October, 1999, Jan Vansina, review of Linguistic Evidence and Historical Reconstruction, p. 469; March 1, 2006, David Newbury, "Reassessing Rwandan History," review of Antecedents to Modern Rwanda, p. 145.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December, 1995, J.D.Y. Peel, review of Living with Africa, p. 877.

Reference & Research Book News, August, 2005, review of Antecedents to Modern Rwanda, p. 56; February, 2006, review of How Societies Are Born; May, 2006, review of Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology.

ONLINE

Humanities and Social Sciences Online,http://www.h-net.org/ (November 1, 2001), Karel Arnaut and Hein Vanhee, "History Facing the Present: An Interview with Jan Vansin."

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