The Nuer & neighboring peoples include: DINKA, NEUR, SHILLUK, ANUAK
o The Nilotic people are the Nuer, they call themselves Nath consist of about 200,000
souls & live in the swamps and open savannah that stretch on both sides of the Nile
o The Nuer are similar to the Dinka & both together comprise a subdivision of the
o Political institutions are the main theme & the Nuer political system is consistent with
o The Nuer’s political system includes all the people with whom they come into contact;
all persons who speak the same language and have the same culture and consider
themselves to be distinct from like aggregates.
o The largest political segment of the Nuer is the tribe, which is divided into a number
of territorial segments. The largest tribal segment is the ‘primary sections’, the
segments of a primary section ‘secondary sections’ and the segments of ‘secondary
sections’ are ‘tertiary sections’.
o Chief is a sacred person without political authority since the Nuer have no government
and live more by anarchy; they lack law. Leopard skinchiefs & prophets are the only
ritual specialists who have any political importance.
o Nuer lineages are agnatic (consist of persons who trace their decent exclusively
through males to a common ancestor). The clan is the largest group of lineages and is
segmented into lineages. The largest clan is divided and called ‘maximal lineages’, the
segments of a maximal lineage is its ‘major lineages’, the segments of a major lineage
is its ‘minor lineages’ and the segments of a minor lineage it’s ‘minimal lineages’. A
minimal lineage is the on a man refers to when asked about his lineage.
o The adult male population is stratified into groups based on age, called ‘agesets’.
o The Nuer are socially differentiated according to sex.
o The Nuer people were very difficult to talk to and they did not wish to share any
“Azande would not allow me to live as one of themselves; Nuer would not allow
me to live otherwise. Among the Azande, I was compelled to live outside their
community; among Nuer, I was compelled to be a member of it. Azande treated me as a
superior; Nuer as an equal.”
o The Nuer are highly dependent on their environment
o Cattle are their dearest possession and they gladly risk their lives to defend their herds
or to pillage those of their neighbors. Their attitude and relationships with neighbors
are influenced by the love of the cattle. A ritual specialist is the WutGhok, Man of the
Cattle. Besides agesets, men are also described by their relations to their cattle.
Everything revolves around cattle; union of marriages, legal status of partners and
their children, etc.
o All conversations usually lead to talking about the cattle so it is an important part of
o The warlike Nuer in the past could always restore their losses by raiding the Dinka;
Nuer are richer in stock than the Shilluk but not so prosperous as Dinka.
o Cattle are mostly used for their milk, which is the staple food of the Nuer. The Nuer
believe that the needs of children to be satisfied are the most important and they get this satisfaction from drinking milk. Girls are the ones who are supposed to milk the
cows & there are generally 2 milkings, the first taking longer and producing more milk
than the second.
o Sheep and oxen are often slaughtered/ sacrificed at ceremonies. Cattle are not
ordinarily slaughtered for food & a man would never kill even a sheep/goat merely on
the grounds that he desired meat. Animals that die a natural death are eaten.
o Every evening, they bleed a cow at its neck, which is supposed to cure a cow of any
unfitness by letting out the bad blood of the sickness.
o While Nuer don’t kill their stock for food, the end of every beast is in fact, the pot, so
that they obtain sufficient meat to satisfy their cravings and have no pressing need to
hunt wild animals, an activity in which the engage little. Except for when epidemics
are rife the usual occasions of eating meat are ritual and it is the festal character of
rites, which gives them much of their significance of the life of the people.
o The bodies of cattle are also used: skin used for beds, trays, horns cut into spoons, tail
hairs as ornaments, urine for churning and cheesemaking and bathing face and hands.
o Married women wear the skin of sheep and goats as garments but the dung/urine is not
o Cattle & men sustain life by reciprocal services to one another. Men use cattle urine to
o There is a vast vocabulary used to describe cattle, which refer to colors, distribution of
colors, and color associations. The shape of their horns also describes cattle. Even
their songs revolve around cattle.
o The wars between the Nuer and Dinka always revolve around the cattle.
o The season in Nuerland is either dry or rainy. Transition between these two is quite
o The flatness of the country prevents surface drainage. Scarcity of rain is more serious
than low river water but both are an inconvenience.
o The land is:
Has clay soils
Is very thinly and sporadically wooded
Is covered with high grasses in the rains
Is subject to heavy rainfall
Is traversed by large rivers which flood annually
When rain ceases and rivers fall, it is subject to server drought.
o All these conditions work together and compose an environmental system which
directly affects Nuer life & influences social structure.
o Although Nuer have a mixed pastoralhorticultural economy, their country is more
suitable for cattle husbandry than for horticulture so the environmental bias coincides
with the bias of their interest and doesn’t encourage a change in the balance on favor
of horticulture. o Nuer cannot live in one place throughout the year, except in a few favored spots. The
floods drive them and their herds to seek protection of higher ground. This life of
necessity migratory is called transhumant.
o Another reason for their constant movement is their inability to subsist solely on the
products of their cattle. They also need grain and fish and fish are found in the
sea/rivers, distant from these elevated stretches. Fish are an important source of food.
Fish largely takes the place of grain and meat as the principal food from JanuaryJune.
o First problem Nuer face: excess or insufficiency of water. Each family has its own
well, which has fresh water. The problem is water is related to the problem of
vegetation. Variation of water supplies and vegetation forces Nuer to move and
determines the direction of their movement.
o Nuer are forced into villages for protection against floods and mosquitoes and to
engage in horticulture and are forced out of villages into camps by drought and
barrenness of vegetation and to engage in fishing.
o A Nuer homestead consists of cattle byre and huts.
o Another circumstance that determines Nuer movements is the abundance of insect life,
which is an everpresent menace, for the cattle get little rest from stinging flies and
ticks from morning till nightfall and would be worries to death if their master did not
give them some protection. People use windscreens to keep them out. The seroot fly is
a seasonal pest that comes from May to July, and is responsible for trypanosomiasis.
o Presence of microscopic organisms causing disease is also a consideration of
importance. The two most serious contagious diseases are Bovin pleurapneumonia
and Rinderpest. If infected, the herd has to be isolated.
o Nuer have to make use of a mixed economy, since their herds do not supply them
with adequate nourishment.
o Nuer are also rich in game: antelopes, buffalo, elephant, hippopotami. Nuer eat all
animals except carnivore, monkeys, some smaller rodents, and zebra. They refuse all
reptiles except crocodiles and turtles. They consider it shameful to eat waterfowl
animals (ostriches, geese, duck, etc)
o Nuer hunt with dogs and spears. They don’t eat wild fruits, seeds or roots.
o Fishing, hunting, and collecting are dryseason occupations
o Oecological change is the annual cycle that determines the variation in foodsupply
throughout the year and its sufficiency for life at all seasons.
o Millet is the main crop, Nuer know nothing of crop rotations and don’t do it