The Anuak live in a region straddling the border of the southern Sudan and Ethiopia, between 10° and 5° N and 34° to 38° E. The Anuak language is most closely related to Shilluk. Together, the two languages comprise a subfamily within the larger classification of Nilotic. Although an accurate census has not been carried out since the late 1950s, the Anuak are estimated to number between 35,000 and 50,000 individuals. Anuak live in small isolated compounds or hamlets that vary in size from 30 to 500 individuals.
History and Cultural Relations
Anuak traditions suggest that they migrated into their present country from the northwest, beginning some four hundred years ago. It has been suggested by a number of authorities that the ecological variation that exists within the territory they came to settle has had a significant impact on the course of intracultural variation among different Anuak settlements. In the northwestern regions of their country, the land is low and flat and is thus subject to seasonal flooding from the Pibor and Sobat rivers, which feed the White Nile. Settlements in this part of Anuak country tend to be dispersed and isolated, particularly during the season of rains and floods (April to September). Farther to the south and east, however, the elevation of the countryside increases. Here, hamlets are typically in closer proximity, and communication between different settlements is more frequent throughout the year. The population densities of hamlets in the southeastern part of the country are notably higher than in the northwest. Villages are often surrounded by wooden enclosures.
Subsistence activities are centered around the cultivation of maize, millet, beans, sesame, and a number of additional crops that supplement the staple grain diet. Gardens are dependent upon natural rainfall, and the use of draft animals was unknown in aboriginal times. The horticultural diet is supplemented by the meat and milk of domesticated sheep and goats. Additional animal protein is gained through the exploitation of riverine resources. Anuak also hunt the larger game animals that are found locally, such as giraffes, elephants, and a variety of antelope. Although the Anuak are a settled, horticultural society, their language includes a wide variety of terms relating to cattle raising, suggesting that before they began to settle in their present country, domesticated cattle may have been the primary focus of their economic life and culture.
Among the northwestern Anuak, residents of isolated hamlets claim kinship links with a single "core" patrilineal descent group, which is spoken of collectively as the "owners of the land." Living members of this core lineage are imagined to be descendants of the long-deceased ancestors who originally established or settled each hamlet. In each hamlet, one finds a "headman" who is able to trace especially close links with the founding ancestor. Only sons of former headmen can ever inherit this office as adults. Because of his direct link with deceased ancestors, the headman has a quasi-sacred authority, and with this elevated status he carries the authority to settle disputes and regulate certain rituals. On a day-to-day basis, his most important obligation is to provide feasts for the hamlet's residents. Given the character of Anuak system of descent, the headman of any single hamlet is also patrilineally related to headmen in other hamlets. The headman governs with his charisma and authority, rather than through secular power. When a headman becomes "stingy" in the eyes of hamlet residents, he is deposed in favor of another member of the core lineage, often a younger man whose father was previously a headman. Research has shown that most headmen remain in office for a relatively short time, two to three years being the norm.
The sociopolitical organization of hamlets in southeastern Anuak country tends toward a more fixed hierarchical form. Here there exists a single patrilineal clan. The founder of this noble clan is said to have emerged from a river, long ago. He was then abducted by residents of one hamlet in order to replace the then-reigning headman. It has been observed that the Anuak noble clan may be regarded as a single lineage of potential ruling headmen scattered throughout Anuak country.
No detailed study of Anuak cosmology has yet been published. In general, Anuak explanations and interpretations of personal misfortune call attention to a variety of spiritual agents who are thought to bring illness and ultimately death to human beings. Anuak are especially concerned with the capability of ghosts of the recently deceased to seek vengeance among the living. Only a small number of Anuak have professed Islam or Christianity in favor of their traditional religious customs and tenets. The Anuak were last visited by a professional anthropologist in the early 1950s. As a result, it is difficult to provide an authoritative depiction of their present society and culture.
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Wall, L. (1976). "Anuak Politics, Ecology, and the Origins of Shilluk Kingship." Ethnology 15:151-162.
JOHN W. BURTON