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ETHNONYMS: Dogom, Dogono, Habbe, Hambbe, Makbe, Tombo, Tommo, Toro


Identification. The Dogon are a group of about 250,000 people who live primarily in the districts of Bandiagara and Douentza in the western African nation of Mali. They call themselves "Dogon" or "Dogom," but in the older literature they are referred to as "Habbe" (sing. Kado), a Fulbe word meaning "stranger" or "pagan."

Location. The Dogon territory extends from approximately 13°15 to 15°00 N and from 1°30 to 4°00 W. The population is concentrated in some 300 villages along a 145-kilometer stretch of escarpment called the Cliffs of Bandiagara. Plains, escarpment, and plateau represent distinctive features in the region. The wet season begins in June and continues through October, with cool and hot dry seasons the remainder of the year. Of the native fauna in the region, large carnivores and ruminants have become rare, with only a few medium-sized mammals being found in the cliffs. Other fauna include crocodiles (in the swampy areas on the plain), reptiles, monkeys, guenons, guinea hens, hyenas, foxes, panthers, rabbits, and small rodents. The dominant form of vegetation on both plain and plateau is the sparse but regular forest of tall trees, which at close range gives the appearance of an immense orchard. Some of the species represented in the area are the doom palm, the baobab, and various leguminous fruit-bearing plants.

Demography. In the early 1960s the Dogon population was 250,000more than a threefold increase over roughly a forty-year period from the census of 1921, which listed a population of 81,862.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Dogon language is classified within the Voltaic (or Gur) Subfamily of the Niger-Congo Language Family. Minor regional dialectal differences exist. A secret language known as sigi so is used by members of the men's society (awa ) in connection with religious rites.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Dogon moved into the region of the Bandiagara escarpment in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, probably as a result of the breakup of the Mali Empire at the beginning of the fifteenth century. European contact was first made in 1857. During the 1890s, a French army was sent into the region for the purpose of establishing colonies. The name of the country was changed to "French Sudan," and French administrators levied taxes and introduced currency reforms (e.g., French francs to replace the native cowrie shells). Although some Dogon accepted the new regime, many strongly opposed and resisted it for many years. Photographs of masked dancers, first taken in 1907, as well as examples of native art work, soon made their way into Europe and the United States, catching the interest and curiosity of the Western world. Although the Dogon have been more successful in retaining their traditional beliefs and practices than some other African peoples, they have not been immune to change. In 1912 a school was established for them in Sanga, followed by a Christian mission in the 1930s, and later a medical dispensary. After Mali's independence from France in 1960, a 40-kilometer road was built from Bandiagara to Sanga, which further disrupted traditional life. Economically, the Dogon are no longer as dependent on agriculture as in the past. Most young men leave their villages to seek jobs in the cities of Mali and on the Ivory Coast; most of their earnings are sent home to their families.


The Dogon live in compact, occasionally walled villages built up the sides of the escarpment. Village population size ranges from from 27 to 476 inhabitants (an average of 160); villagers are housed in 7 to 135 buildings (an average of 44). Villages usually contain a single localized lineage whose dwellings are grouped around the "great house" (ginna ) of the head. Clusters of from 5 to 6 of these villages center around water holes or wells, and each cluster is referred to as a "canton" or "district." Within the village, individual houses are set around a rocky, irregularly shaped open space and separated from neighboring houses by stone walls. Often the buildings are so close to one another that the floors of some houses begin where the roofs of adjacent ones end.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Dogon are primarily agriculturists, their principal crops being millet, sorghum, rice, onions, beans, tobacco, and sorrel. Other crops include sesame, maize, peanuts, yams, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, okra, watermelons, papayas, some figs, gourds, and cotton. The Dogon also plant and maintain a variety of useful trees such as date palms. Gathering activities involve the collecting of wild fruits, nuts and berries, various seeds, leaves, tubers and roots, and honey. In comparison with the neighboring Fulani, animal husbandry is relatively unimportant. Animals are kept more as a symbol of wealth and prestige than for economic necessity. The principal domestic animals are sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs, chickens, guinea fowls, ducks, some cattle, a few horses, and cats. A few villages also keep bees.

Industrial Arts. Craft skills are well developed among the Dogon, especially the making of pottery and baskets, weaving, wood carving, and leather- and ironworking. Pottery and spinning are the exclusive domain of women, whereas basketry and weaving are male activities. Two of the most specialized craftsleather- and ironworkingare restricted exclusively to members of a craft caste. The blacksmith, set apart by his caste, has no rights in the village and lives entirely on the proceeds of the sale of his goods to other villagers.

Trade. Markets are held every four or five days in areas well removed from the villages. Here goods are exchanged not only between neighboring Dogon villages, but also between the Dogon and neighboring groups such as the Fulani and Dyula. Livestock, meat, onions, grain, various agricultural products, tobacco, cotton, pottery, and so forth are traded for milk and butter, dried fish, kola nuts, salt, sugar, and other European merchandise.

Division of Labor. Work activities are clearly differentiated. Craft specialization is determined by gender and caste. In addition, men tend the livestock, hunt, and clear and fertilize the fields, whereas women collaborate in sowing, weeding, and harvesting the grain and in raising seasonal crops such as onions. Both sexes market, fish, and gather wild foods.

Land Tenure. In traditional Dogon society, land was transmitted within the family group (ginna, or lineage), and was considered inalienable property. Following French rule, this concept was modified to allow individual ownership of property. A man may now sell a field allotted to him in the distribution of ginna property, but the sale is always revocable, and the ginna may recover the property upon the death of the seller through the reimbursement of the purchase price to the buyer. Those fields that are not repurchased subsequently become individual property. Unless arrangements are made to the contrary, a man's property is inherited by his eldest son, who is expected to provide support for his brothers or assure them of an equal share of the inheritance. Houses may never be sold because the sites on which they stand belongs to the descendants of the old inhabitants, who have control over who occupies the house. Fruit trees are valued possessions, and although they may be sold, the previous owner reserves the ownership of the field in which they are planted for his own use.


Kin Groups and Descent. The fundamental unit of Dogon social organization is the patrilineage, or ginna. Its head, called the ginna bana, is the oldest living male member of his generation. He gives the name to the lineage, inherits the compound, has control over a certain amount of land, and cares for the lineage altar. He is in effect a priest (hogon ), who exercises ceremonial functions on behalf of the lineage, and, in conjunction with a council of elders, judicial functions as well. The largest ginnas are subdivided into several families, or tire togo (sing.). Above the lineage is the much larger kin group called the clan, from which the various lineages emerge.

Kinship Terminology. In referring to relatives, linguistic usage distinguishes between the forms of address and the specific relationship. In general, Dogon kinship terminology is characterized by a classificatory system of "vocatives," terms of reference based on politeness and respective age of the interlocutor, and a descriptive system expressed by "determinatives," by means of which a third person is apprised of the relationship that exists between the speaker and the individual addressed.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Monogamy is the major form of marriage, although nonsororal polygyny with a limit of two wives is permitted. First marriages are generally arranged by parents; within certain limitations, those marrying for the second or third time are more free to choose their partners. Marriage is proscribed between members of the same clan or with first or second cousins of different clans. Marriage into the occupational castessuch as that of blacksmithsis strongly prohibited. Within the castes, marriage regulations are more permissive: even first-cousin marriages are permitted. Prior to the birth of the first child, the wife lives at the home of her parents, while her husband continues to reside in the bachelor quarters where he has lived from the age of 8 to 10. Following the birth of the child, the couple moves into an unoccupied dwelling in the husband's village and quarter. Divorce is not uncommon; it occurs most often in polygynous households. When a woman leaves her husband, she takes with her only the youngest childthe remaining children stay with the husband's family.

Domestic Unit. The household is usually an extended family consisting of both nuclear and polygynous units. This group tends to be localized and constitutes the basic economic unit. The authority of the household unit is vested in the father, who controls both the economic and ceremonial functions of the family and demands unquestioning obedience from his offspring.

Inheritance. Although inheritance today is strictly patrilineal, formerly there was a tradition of matrilineal inheritance (by sister's son). A younger brother is first in line to inherit all collective property, followed by the eldest son. On the other hand, private property goes first to the eldest son (who must provide for his siblings), then the younger brother. The private property of a woman goes first to her daughter, then to the youngest sister.

Socialization. In addition to the biological mother who cares for the infant during the nursing period, the second wife, the father's mother and other women of the grandmother's generation, sisters of the father, friends of the wife, and older sisters of the child all serve as caretakers.

Sociopolitical Organization

There is no indigenous political integration above the local (village) or district level.

Social Organization. Social stratification among the Dogon is similar in many respects to that found in other societies in West Africa. One of its most distinctive features is the hierarchical series of occupational "castes" or status groups consisting of iron- and leatherworkers, griots (lineage genealogists), musicians, poets, and sorcerers. These caste groups live apart from the general population. Each caste is endogamous, and members do not take part in any of the common religious cults. Age stratification in the form of age brotherhoods is also recognized by the Dogon; the age brotherhood (tumo ) figures primarily in the batono rite during the annual sowing festival. Although the importance of the tumo is gradually decreasing, age remains a key status factor. A men's society, frequently referred to as the "awa," or masked-dance society, is characterized by a strict code of etiquette, obligations, interdicts, and a secret language (sigi so). Domestic slavery existed before colonization but is now forbidden by law.

Political Organization. Each isolated village or district (canton) in the region has a headman or chief (hogon) who has both religious and judicial responsibilities. Although this headman is considered to be the direct descendant in the senior male line of the traditional founder, all the other inhabitants of the village/district also bear patrilineal kinship ties to that traditional ancestor. The district headman is also head of his lineage and occupies the "great house" (ginna) of that kin group. In conjunction with the council of elders, he makes decisions concerning public affairs. The hogon is assisted in office by a sacrificial totem priest (yebene ), three bodyguards or policemen, a public crier or herald, and an ambassador who deals with other districts. Succession to office is patrilineal (by younger brother). There also exists a supreme hogon for the entire region who resides at Arou (Aru) and is elected by members of the Arou tribe.

Social Control. Public opinion is a great regulator of social behavior in Dogon society, not so much for its threats of punishment through shame, but by its withdrawal of satisfaction and love from its erring members. Also effective as means of inducing conformity are ridicule and threats of supernatural sanction.

Conflict. In the past the Dogon were considered a warlike people; they often fought with other Dogon districts as well as with their non-Dogon neighbors such as the Fulani. Each district had its own recognized war leaders. Blood alliances frequently were contracted between the Dogon and other groups such as the Bozo.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Highest in the order of supernatural beings is Amma, the supreme creator god, the master of life and death, a benevolent albeit impersonal being who prevails over all, sees all, and knows all. He is responsible for the creation of three other subordinate beings, the worship of which is the basis of several totemic cults. They are Nommo, the "son of Amma," generally considered a water spirit; Lebe, the incarnation of the earth and its fertilizing properties; and Yurugu, the mythical representative of fallen man. The Dogon also believe in various malevolent and benevolent spirits who populate the bush, trees, and uninhabited places.

Although the Dogon recognize the creator god Amma as the Supreme Being and address prayers and sacrifices to him, the core set of beliefs and practices focuses on ancestor worship. This is manifested through the cult of the masks, the Lebe cult, the Binu cult, and the more general cult of the ancestors associated with the ginna. The spread of Islam throughout Africa has brought about some degree of change in the basic religious orientation of the Dogon. Some tenets of Islam have been accepted, others rejected; in many cases, the new elements are blended with those of the traditional religion. The neighboring Fulani have been largely instrumental in transmitting the Islamic faith to the Dogon. About 10 percent of the Dogon are Christians.

Religious Practitioners. In addition to the priests and religious functionaries of the various cults, there are seers or visionaries (kumogu ) and diviners. Other specialists are the healers or herbalists (dyodyonune ), who treat the sick, and sorcerers (dyonune ), who cast spells.

Ceremonies. The principal ceremonies center around agriculture and death. The great annual Feast of Sowing (bulu ) begins in April or May, prior to the beginning of the rainy season, in all the villages of the region. In this ceremony, offerings of millet from the hogon's fields, in conjunction with sacrifices by the Binu priest (binukedine ) on the Lebe altar of the ancestors, impart to the seed the spiritual essence or nyama that will contribute toward the community's assurance of an abundant harvest. The funerary ceremonies of the Dogon consist of two parts: the initial rites, which take place immediately following death and continue for about a week, and the more elaborate dama rites that terminate the mourning period after an indeterminate period of time. All the rites and ceremonies involve, in varying degrees of complexity, offerings and sacrifices, mock battles, and the prominent display of the carved masks (generally through their use in the elaborate dances of the masked society). The degree of complexity of the ceremonies depends upon the age and status of the deceased male. Funerals for women, who are generally excluded from awa membership, are simple, with little if any ceremony. Once in every sixty yearsroughly within a Dogon's life spana major Sigi (Siguí) ceremony takes place. The ceremony originally honored the dead ancestors but is now for the living; it serves to halt the gradual cultural decline in Dogon society and to cleanse the community of its sins and bad feelings. The series of dances, which constitute a good part of the Sigi, lasts for seven years; one village after another takes its turn to entertain its neighbors with feasting, drinking, and displays of wealth. At this time, new masks are carved and dedicated to the ancestors.

Medicine. The Dogon attribute illness to a variety of causes, such as the weakening of the vital life force (nyama), the creation of a state of impurity in the individual through the influences of evil spirits, violation of a taboo or prohibition, and sorcery. There are twelve categories of disease considered treatable, each with its own specific healer who has special knowledge of the specific plant that will bring about a cure. Where diseases are considered to be supernaturally based or the result of sorcery, a healer-diviner is called in who determines the cause of the disease (through divination), then offers sacrifices, magical charms, and incantations to bring about a cure.

Death and Afterlife. Death is conceived as the separation from the body of the two parts that make up the personalitythe nyama, or vital life force, and the kikinu say, or soul. Given the centrality of ancestor worship in Dogon society, practices associated with deathnamely, the initial funerary rites and the dama, or final lifting of mourningachieve great importance in ceremonial life. Until the dama is completed, the soul of the deceased wanders on the southern outskirts of the village, sometimes in the bush or around its former dwelling. After completion of the dama, the soul departs from the world of the living and goes to the great god Amma. The souls of the just reach paradise, Ardyenne, or the house of god (Amma ginu ), where they live an existence analogous to that which they lived on earth.


Griaule, Marcel (1938). Masques dogons. Université de Paris, Travaux et Mémoires de l'Institut d'Ethnologie, 33. Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie.

Palau Marti, Montserrat (1957). Les dogon. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Paulme, Denise (1940). Organisation sociale des dogon (Soudan Français). Paris: Éditions Domat-Montchrestien, F. Loviton

Pern, Stephen (1982). Masked Dancers of West Africa: The Dogon. Amsterdam: Time-Life Books B.V.