History of the Nuba, part I

History, part II
History, part III

I. The name Nuba
II. Kingdoms on the Nile
III. The origins of the Nuba


The Nuba are a group of peoples who share a common geography in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan Province, known as Jibal al-Nuba or Nuba Mountains. The origins of most Nuba peoples are obscure, but there is no doubt that they are Africans. They arrived to the area from various directions and in the course of thousands of years. Today there are over fifty Nuba tribes, who speak as many different languages. Traditionally the Nuba are farmers, but they are now employed in all segments of society. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, labour migrants have formed large Nuba communities in the large cities of North Sudan, like El Obeid, Khartoum and Port Sudan. Their combined number is estimated at 2.5 million people.

Until the Egyptian occupation of Sudan during the nineteenth century, most Nuba tribes lived relatively isolated. Contiguous events that shaped their history are the short but extremely violent rule of the Mahdi and his successor, and colonial rule by the British. Sudan took its independence in 1956 and since the 1960s the Nuba have been at odds with their successive National Governments. From 1987 to 2001, the Nuba Mountains were a battle zone in Sudan's larger civil war between the Government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

A cease fire in the Nuba Mountains eventually led to a Comprehensive Peace Agreement reached in 2005. This CPA included the Nuba Mountains but proved inadequate to solve the differences between the parties. Just weeks before the secession of South Sudan, in 2011, fighting broke out in Kadugli, escalating into another long violent conflict that takes a heavy toll on the civilian population.

The following brief history aims to provide a broad perspective on the history of the Nuba. I have drawn from many different sources, and consulted scientists considered to be expert in their field for the more remote history. For the period of 1970 - 2005, I have relied largely on interviews with Nuba who were closely involved in the developments leading to the war in the Nuba Mountains and eventually the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The most recent developments are mainly a summary of news articles and reports.


I. The name Nuba

For centuries, the geographical area where the Nuba tribes live has been known as Dar Nuba: the land of the Nuba. The Tegali Kingdom (a truly Nuba kingdom indeed) was known under its poper name, as were several individual hills, but to the Arab people living around the area, the people of the Mountains were all Nuba. The Europeans, relying on the Arabs for information, used the same name.

Until very recently the Nuba people themselves would rather use their tribal name and many didn’t really consider themselves to be Nuba. In the words of Yousif Kuwa Mekki:

It is one of the funniest things: when you were in the Nuba Mountains, you just knew your own tribe. We for example were Miri. So if we were asked: "Who are the Nuba?" we would try to say: "The other tribes - but not us." Only when we came out of the Nuba Mountains, to the north or south or west, we learned that we are all Nuba.1

Please note the word ‘try’ here: linguist and anthropologist A.C. Stevenson noticed that:
Some of the more educated are also shy of applying the term to themselves, they tend to reserve it for those they think of as rustic hill-dwellers: for them ‘Nuba’ is the reverse of a status symbol.2

An old theory supposes a relationship between the word ‘Nuba’ and the Archaic Egyptian nbw [nebu], meaning ‘gold’. In ancient times the land south of Egypt produced a lot of gold and so the people were gold diggers; or the ‘land of gold’ would be called Nubia (which it wasn’t) and its people Nuba… Brief: lots of charming nonsense.3 And then there is A.J. Arkell’s explantion:

The name of the Nuba apparently comes, like so many other tribal names in the Sudan (Berti, Berta, Burgu, etc-) from a word in their own language which means 'slaves'.4
Surely there is a connection: the Nuba were harassed by slave raiders for many centuries and to the Arabs ‘Nuba’ became nearly synonymous with ‘slave’. But since Arkell doesn’t mention in which of the many Nuba languages their name means ‘slave’, there is little we can say about his theory, except quoting anthropologist S.F. Nadel:
I will not attempt to trace the origin of this name or to speculate on its original meaning. Suffice to say that in none of the groups which I have studied is the term Nuba indigenous […]5


II. Kingdoms on the Nile

1. Nubia
There are Nuba and there are Nubians and this is cause for great confusion. The Nuba are the different peoples living in the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan. The Nubians today are a people who live along the Nile at the border between Egypt and Sudan. Many of them were relocated when the Nasser Dam was built. The Nubians are considered to be descendants of the great Nubian Kingdoms of Kush; Meroe; Nobatia; Makuria (Dongola) or Alodia (Alwa).

I will first run through Nubian history and then turn to the present insights on any connections between the Nuba of Kordofan and the Nubian Kingdoms.

The word ‘Nubia’ is used to describe the land along the Nile south of Egypt; divided into a ‘lower Nubia’ for the area between the first and the second cataract, and an ‘upper Nubia’ for the land beyond the second cataract. Historically however there never was any kingdom or tribe or civilisation by the name Nubia. The use of ‘Nubia’ for the region seems to originate with European atlas makers of the early renaissance who drew maps based on the work of the astrologist and geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus (90-168 AD).6

The earliest Egyptian kings (pre-dynastic and those of the first dynasties) referred to the people to their south as Ta Seti or ‘people of the bow’, for their skill as archers. The Ta Seti were well organised, and their civilisation was not unlike that of the first Egyptians. They disappeared however.

By the Sixth Dynasty (ca. 2323-2150 BC), Egyptian references to Wawat, Irtjet, and Setju seem to identify different small kingdoms in Lower Nubia. They also mention Yam, a kingdom in upper Nubia. There was trade between Yam and Egypt.

While the Middle Kingdom replaced the Old Kingdom in Egypt (ca. 2134-2040 BC), political changes also took place in Upper Nubia. ‘Yam’ disappeared from Egyptian texts and was replaced by Kush, which the Egyptians described as ‘vile’ or ‘contemptible’. Kush became a major power in the south and it took over Lower Nubia around 1700 BC.

Chances turned again and the Egyptians of the New Kingdom (c.1532-1070 BC) crushed the Kush kingdom and its capital Kerma. By the end of the reign of Thutmose I in 1520 BC, all of Upper Nubia had been annexed. The Egyptians built a new administrative and religious centre at Napata; the Nubian elite adopted the worship of Egyptian gods and the hieroglyphic writing system. This way a lot of the ancient Egyptian culture was kept alive for many centuries while the power of Egypt slowly declined.

By 800 BC Egypt had fragmented into rival states, but in 747 BC the Kushite king Piankhy (Piyi) marched north from his capital at Napata and reunified Egypt. Kushite kings ruled both Nubia and Egypt until the invasion of an Assyrian army in 667 BC. The Nubian king fled back to Napata and was defeated decisively in 664 BC.

In 656 BC Psamtik I, founder of the 26th Saite Dynasty, reunited Egypt. In 591 BC his successor Psamtik II invaded Kush and sacked and burned Napata. The kings of Kush moved their capital to Meroe;, where they continued to build temples to Nubian and Egyptian gods. The kings were buried in pyramid tombs. Meroe; developed a new script and began to write in the Meroitic language, which has yet to be fully deciphered.

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC. His empire was short lived and Egypt once again became a kingdom, under the Ptolemy Dynasty (306-30 BC). The Ptolemies were of Greek descent and in official records the people to the south are now referred to as Aethiopians: Greek for ‘burned faces’. This name, given to them by the first great historian Herodotus, was kept by the Romans, who took control over Egypt in 30 BC.

During the reign of the Ptolemies, Meroe prospered. The initial relationship with the Romans wasn’t that good. According to geographer Strabo (63 BC-24 AD), in 24 BC:

[the Aethiopians] attacked the Thebaïs and the garrison of the three cohorts at [Aswan], and by an unexpected onset took [Aswan] and Elephantine and Philae, and enslaved the inhabitants, and also pulled down the statues of Caesar.7

In 23 BC the Roman governor of Egypt, Petronius,

first compelled them to flee to Pselchis, an Ethiopian city, and sent ambassadors demanding the return of what they had taken, and the reasons why they had begun the war.
The Aethiopians didn’t respond, so in 22 BC Petronius attacked them at Pselchis. Defeating the Aethiopians there, he advanced to Premnis. He took the city and continued to the capital of the Aethiopians at Napata, which he sacked. After some more hostilities, the Aethiopians and the Romans came to a peace agreement, and trade between them flourished for several centuries.

Before turning to the Nuba, I want to stress once more that wherever Nubia is mentioned, we must remember that there are no historic sources from antiquity that use this name. For the word Nuba, it’s a different story.

2. The Nuba enter history
Erastothenes (276 to 194 BC) is the first known author to mention a tribe called Nubae. We don’t have the original text, but Strabo was speaking on Erastothenes’ authority when he said:

[…] the parts on the left side of the course of the Nile, in Libya, are inhabited by Nubae, a large tribe, who, beginning at Meroe;, extend as far as the bends of the river, and are not subject to the Aethiopians but are divided into several separate kingdoms.8

Erasthotenes is working his way downstream along the Nile, so he means that the Nubae lived between Meroe and Dongola.. It’s important that he makes a clear distinction between the Aethiopians and the Nubae.

I’ve already mentioned Claudius Ptolemaeus’ Geographica, that in c.150 AD places the Nubae south of Egypt. Contrary to what many people assume, he puts them east of the Nile. Ptolemaeus says the Nubae live to the far west of the Avalitae. Point is: Ptolemaeus is in this paragraph generally talking about the people east of the Nile, and he places the Avalitae to the African coast of the bay of Eden. Actually, Ptolemaeus mentions several tribes living between the Nubae and the river Nile.

Anyway: the Kings of Meroe no longer cared much for Lower Nubia, and neither did the Romans: Procopius of Caesarea (500-565 AD) relates how the Emperor Diocletian (245–312 AD) decided to withdraw Roman troops from Lower Nubia. Two nations to the south worried him though: the Blemmyae (Beja) to the southeast and the Nobatae to the southwest at a place called Premnis:

[…] so he persuaded these barbarians [the Nobatae] to move from their own habitations, and to settle along the River Nile […]. For in this way he thought that they would no longer harass the country about Pselchis at least, and that they would possess themselves of the land given them, as being their own, and would probably beat off the Blemmyae and the other barbarians.
And since this pleased the Nobatae, they made the migration immediately, just as Diocletian directed them, and took possession of all the Roman cities and the land on both sides of the River beyond the city of Elephantine.9

Clearly the Nobatae are no subjects of Meroe. At this time, around 300 AD, Meroe’s power declined rapidly, weakened by the advance of people from both East and West.

In the east Axum was coming up. This Kingdom in what is today Ethiopia, reached the height of its power under its first Christian ruler Ezana (330–356 AD). In an inscription found in Meroe, he announces:

I took the field against the Noba when the people of Noba revolted and did violence to the Mangurto; Hasa and Barya, and the Black Noba waged war on the Red Noba. I fought on the Takkaze [Atbara] at the ford of Kemalke. They fled, and I pursued the fugitives twenty-three days slaying them and capturing others and taking plunder; I burnt their towns, and seized their corn and their bronze and the dried meat and the images in their temples and destroyed the stocks of corn and cotton; and the enemy plunged into the river Seda [Blue Nile].
I arrived at the Kasu [Kush], slaying them and taking others prisoner at the junction of the rivers Seda and Takkaze. I dispatched troops up the Seda against their towns of Alwa and Daro; they slew and took prisoners and threw them into the water and they returned safe and sound. And I sent the troops down the Seda against the towns of straw of the Noba and Negues; the towns of masonry of the Kasu which the Noba had taken were Tabito, Fertoti; and they arrived at the territory of the Red Noba, and my people returned safe and sound after they had taken prisoners and slain others and had seized their plunder.10

Despite advances made by archaeologists and linguists in unravelling the complex situation around Meroe, it is still impossible to say what really happened. Apparently the Black Noba were the ones revolting; they attacked the neighbouring people, including the Red Noba and they took over some Kasu towns. But towns still held by the Kasu, were sacked just the same, and the Red Noba territory wasn’t spared by the Axumite armies either.

In the next few centuries three Christian Kingdoms emerged from the ruins of the Kushite Kingdom. The first one is Nobatia in Lower Nubia; there’s little doubt that Nobatia was established by the Nobatae mentioned by Procopius. The second one is Makuria, between the third cataract and somewhere between the fifth and the sixth; also known after its capital as Dongola, it could well have evolved from the part of the Kushite Kingdom that was taken over by the Black Noba. The third is Alodia to the South of Makuria; also known as Alwa, it could have been the remainder of the Kushite Kingdom. The rulers of these kingdoms were converted to Christianity by missionaries from different sects.

Nobatia was annexed by Makuria somewhere in the seventh century AD, probably just before the Muslim invasion of Egypt that commenced in 639 AD. The Muslims pushed southwards, but were halted by the army of the Makuria King, with whom they signed a treaty known as the Baqt, to which both parties seem to have kept for quite a long time. It wasn’t until the fourteenth century that Makuria collapsed, soon followed by Alodia, that was overtaken from the south by the newly emerging Funj empire.

The current state of understanding regarding the origin of the Nubians has been summarised by D. A. Welsby. After going through all the available information of historic sources and archaeology, he concludes that:

In the sources we have a plethora of names which may refer to a single people, among them Nubae, Nobades, Nobates, Annoubades, Noba, Nouba and Red Noba. The significance of these names is unclear, they may be different names used loosely by our sources, Greek, Roman, Aksumite, Byzantine and Arab, for the same people, refer to sub-groups, or refer to different peoples altogether. Certainly archaeologically we cannot recognise different cultural assemblages to match each name, but we do not have a single culture covering the whole of the area occupied by these peoples. It is these people or peoples who coalesced into the three Nubian kingdoms first attested in the sixth century.

It is assumed that the Nubians gradually infiltrated the Kushite state, with or without the acquiescence of the Kushite rulers, and that, with the weakening of Kushite central authority, they were able to take over the reins of power and eclipse the Kushite ruling class. Another manifestation of this rise to prominence is the sudden appearance on the one hand of their traditional hand-made ceramics in the southern part of the middle Nile Valley, and the demise of the finer Kushite pottery as well as the apparent demise of the Kushite state and religious institutions, Kushite art, architecture, and literacy in the Meroitic language.

A graffito in Greek, carved on the wall of the former Temple of Isis at Philae sometime after 537, reads ‘I, Theodosios, a Nubian’ (Nouba) and provides evidence for the name used by the Nubians to describe their ethnicity.11

3. The Nuba on the Nile and the Nuba in the Mountains.
Of course it’s tempting to draw a line from the Nile south-westward. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to provide the Nuba with an ancestry that goes well beyond the arrival of the Arab conquerors? Al right: the Nuba came to the Nile Kingdoms after the time of the Pharaohs, so we forget about Kush and the rule over Egypt… but three ancient Kingdoms that lasted from roughly 400 to 1600 BC wouldn’t be bad, would it?

Well, to begin with: for the majority of the Nuba tribes there is nothing to suggest a relationship with the Nuba on the Nile. No archaeological finds, no linguistic relationships. The only Nuba tribes that can be linked to the Nuba on the Nile, are those speaking one of the Nubian languages. In order to understand more about the relationship between the two groups, we need to look into linguistics classifications.

The basic idea behind linguistic classification is that people speaking the same language can drift apart, after which the language develops differently in the two groups. After so many hundreds of years this leads to the creation of two different languages. Linguists look at lexicological, grammatical and structural aspects of different languages to group them according to affiliation. With the help of standard word lists they can determine the level of proximity between two affiliated languages.

Researchers of the nineteenth century already acknowledged the linguistic affiliation between the Nuba on the Nile, several Nuba tribes in the Mountains and some scattered communities in Darfur.12 They all speak Nubian languages, classified with the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan language family. For a long time, the burning question was: did the Nuba in the Mountains come from the Nile, or did the Nuba on the Nile come from the west?

Despite the Arab conquest of Egypt and the ensuing Islamisation, the people along the Nile in Lower Nubia retained their original language, known as Nubian, or Nobiin for linguists. Closely related to Nobiin is Dongolawi, spoken up the river around Dongola in present day Sudan. Nobiin and Dongolawi probably drifted apart about 1100 years ago – give or take a century or two. Their languages, and specially Nobiin, are considered to be remnants of Old-Nubian, spoken in the Christian Kingdoms of Nobatia, Dongola and Alwa.

Both Nobiin and Dongolawi are related to the so-called Hill Nubian languages of the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. The tribes that speak Hill-Nubian include those of Dilling, Kadaru and Ghulfan; Wali, Karko, Habila, Debri and some tribes more to the West like Tabag and Abu Jinuk.13 Looking at their geographical dispersion, you can imagine them coming from the northeast, some entering the Nuba Mountains from the side of Kadaru, some moving on westward around the Nyimang hills.

This combines well with events at the Nile in the 13th century AD. After centuries of stability, Bedouin tribes driven south by the Mameluks14 , started raiding Makuria. To the east the Beja were harassing Egypt and the Mameluks decided that if Makuria couldn’t keep the Beja in check, it was time to take matters in their own hands. The region was completely destabilised and we can imagine the people from Makuria fleeing south, until they found refuge in the Nuba Mountains. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Well… to make a long story longer: linguistic evidence rules against it. Apart from Nobiin, Dongolawi and Hill-Nubian, there are two other Nubian language group: Birgid and Meidob, found further to the west scattered over Darfur (Meidob being extinct by now). Combining linguistic data from the different Nubian languages, J.H. Greenberg concluded that ‘to assume any split between Hill Nubian and Nile Nubian more recent than 2,500 years B.P. [before present] would be incorrect.’15

Of course we can’t give up a beautiful ancestry that easily: C. Herzog noticed that some Hill-Nubian languages have Christian words for days of the week, and other loan words too: the Nuba in Kordofan came from the Nile after all!16 But R. Thelwall wasn’t impressed:

We are very confident that Nobiin (and later Dongolawi) came to the Nile from a centre of dispersion in Darfur-Kordofan which they occupied and controlled for perhaps 4000 years. We know that there were Nubian speakers on the Nile at least as early as the 500s CE and probably much earlier. The fact that the Hill Nubian languages have words for the days of the week dating back to Christian Nubian indicates that these languages were in contact at least during the Christian Nubian period which probably covers 500 CE - 1400 CE. This does not necessarily mean that the Hill Nubians did more than expand from central Kordofan into the Nuba Mountains during the period of Nubian political dominance from Aswan to Kosti (at least). But given the location of the Hill Nubian speakers (Dair, Dilling, Karko etc) along the NE edge of the Mountains it appears that they were "incomers" settling among the existing Nyima and Temein groups who were there before them.17

It might be a disappointing conclusion for some Nuba, but by now no scholar would still argue that the Nuba in the Mountains are descendants of the Nubian Kingdoms. But let’s not linger with the Nubians any longer: there’s more to explore!


III. The origins of the Nuba

1. ‘We have always lived here.’
But if the Nuba didn’t come from the Nile, then where did they come from? Shall I just say that we have no idea where the Nuba people came from? It would not be far from the facts. S. F. Nadel puts it this way:

We know little about the ancient history of the Nuba tribes. […] It often seems as if historical traditions had been cut short by the overpowering experience of the Mahdist regime (1881- 1898), which must have severed all links with a more distant […] past. In some tribes the tradition of past movements or previous places of settlement are summarized in one sentence: ‘we have always lived here.’ Other tribes have more definite and more illuminating traditions, which may even be supported by objective evidence. […] They shed no light on the question of the original home of the Nuba peoples, nor do they supply information as to when and how this area became the habitat of its large and varied population.18

There are simply neither written sources nor archaeological finds that can shed more light on what wanderings brought all the different Nuba tribes to their present place. Below we will see that for the groups that arrived most recently (within the past millennium or two) we have at least an idea of where they migrated from. But beyond that: nothing.

2. The classification of Nuba languages
Maybe systematic archaeological research could shed more light on the origins of the Nuba people, but right now we will have to concentrate on linguistic findings. Linguistics is a complex field, not very sexy to be honest, but in many cases, it’s all we have. So we will first look at the classification of the different Nuba languages, and then move on to the question of who came to the Mountains at what time.

The Nuba Languages can be classified into members of two or perhaps three language families: Nilo-Saharan and Kordofanian.
A. The Kordofanian languages consist of four groups located in the southern and eastern areas of the Nuba Mountains: Heiban, Talodi, Rashad and Katla. Kordofanian languages are considered a branch of the Niger-Congo family, which encompasses all Bantu languages, and in general most of the languages spoken in Sub-Saharan Africa. The only thing is: Kordofanian doesn’t resemble any of the other Niger-Congo languages closely. It constitutes a group of its own and geographically also, Kordofanian is isolated. In other words: we don’t have a clue as to how these Kordofanian speaking Nuba ended up in the Nuba Mountain.
B. The Kadugli Group is located in the south east central fringe area near Kadugli. It was earlier classified as part of Kordofanian but is currently considered part of Nilo-Saharan. This is another large phylum: Dinka and Nuer are Nilo-Saharan languages, and so are many languages of Chad and Congo, as well as several languages spoken in Nigeria.
C. The rest of the Nuba languages are classified as part of a major sub-group of Nilo-Saharan called Eastern Sudanic. They consist of Hill Nubian, Daju, Timein and Nyimang. The tribes speaking Eastern Sudanic languages can be found in the north western areas of the Mountains.

3. Linguistic settlement
As we’ve just seen in the case of the Nubian speakers, shifts in related languages can tell us something about how long ago the speakers of those languages went their own way. Unfortunately this is not very exact, as Robin Thellwall explained to me:

[the] reconstructions are based minimally on linguistic distance and extrapolated onto a fairly speculative time frame (glotto-chronology).  Such a time framework is only a provisional and relative model to be tested against other evidence (archaeology, oral traditions, blood types, climate history, agricultural and animal husbandry terminology etc). This has not happened for the NubaMountains.19

However, for ‘The Linguistic Settlement of the Nuba in the Mountains’ Thelwall and Schadeberg20 analysed all the available data from the Nuba languages, and they came up with the following hypothesis regarding the relative chronology of the linguistic settlement of the Mountains:
1. Kordofanian language speakers came earlier than all the others
2. Nyimang; Temein and Kadugli language groups followed them
3. Daju speakers of Shatt and Liguri were next
4. Hill Nubian speakers – probably somewhere between 500 and 1400 AD
5. Daju speakers around Lagawa, who settled there relatively recently.

4. Kordofanian
Heiban, Katla, Rashad and Talodi are the current names for the different groups of Kordofanian languages that cover the eastern half of the Nuba Mountains and a large part of the centre. Within the language group, differentiation has progressed much further than in the other Nuba language groups. According to R. Thelwall ‘the family has a time depth of a minimum of 6000 years.’21 This means that you would have to go back at least 6000 years in time to find all Kordofanian speakers speaking the same language. Kordofanian is classified with the Niger-Congo languages, and the nearest Niger-Congo speaking people would be found over the border of Sudan in southern Chad, in Central African Republic and in the Congo. The relationship between Kordofanian and the rest of Niger-Congo is not clear. The current subdivision of Kordofanian is as follows:

I. Heiban is spoken in a large area that has a geographical centre in the town of Heiban. It can be subdivided in an eastern section, with Kau and Werni in the south-east; a central section with Koalib, Laro, Heiban, Otoro, Shwai and Logol, and a western section with Moro and Tira.

For these tribes, memory doesn’t reach back far enough to retain any information about the origins of the people. We might learn that the Nuba of Kau, who became world-famous through the photographs of Leni Riefenstahl, have been living in their present location for at least 200 years. According to J. C. Faris:

Oral traditions document that they were in place before the first Arab Movements into the area (c. 1800, see Cunnison, 1966: 3), and remains of surface habitation, genealogies, and linguistic separation from other of the Koalib-Moro language family all indicate an even greater time span.22

But what does this mean? It could be 500 years; 2000 years… we don’t know.

The Tira have an idea of where they came from, but their place of origin is still within the Nuba Mountains, and the time frame is also rather limited:

According to their traditions, the Tira people […] came originally from a place called Rila, said to have been situated between Sheibun and Kadugli […]. They left for unknown reasons to settle on Tomboro hill, in the Moro massif. This tradition is corroborated by the Moro, who still remember that Tomboro […] was inhabited by Tira […] at the time when the Moro first settled in that region. Driven from Tombore by the Arabs, the Tira migrated east, a few groups to Tira Lomon, the rest to Tira el Akhdar. This final migration too place only three generations ago […]. When the fathers and grandfathers of the present generation arrived in Tira they found there already three Tira clans living, speaking the language of the immigrants and possessing an identical culture.23

In connection with Tira, it might be nice to include a story told by S. C. Dunn. Having researched gold washing practices in the Nuba Mountains, he writes that gold could be found mainly in Tira Mandi, with some small deposits in Dungur and Atoro. He also went to Sheibun, which was universally believed to be a place where gold was found…

[At Jebel Shwai] Sheikh Naser, his son and several elders […] described to me roughly the position of the pits at Sheibun […]. An old Nuba who knew and had worked at Sheibun was provided as a guide; and I departed for Sheibun. During six hours of climbing around the group of little hills […] I had been led to a little hole on the hill side where some fine white clay had been extracted, to an old rain water pond, to the sites of the old villages and to some mounds of mountain debris. I then said that in my opinion there was not and never had been either gold or gold-washing at Sheibun; and the policemen with me said that was exactly what the Shawabna had told them privately the day before yesterday. [No one told me, because they] thought I would be angry.24

Sheibun did turn out to be the main market where the gold from Tira Mandi was sold though.

The Moro also have only a limited awareness of their history:

The ancient home of the Moro people was on Lebu hill, in the western massif [of the Moro area]. Growing too numerous, the tribe [split: one] group remained in Lebu; the second moved to the northern edge of the massif […]; the third migrated to [Umm Dorein]. At that time the eastern massif was still uninhabited. Three or four generations ago the Moro began to settle there […]. This migration […] was prompted by the pressure of population and the search for new land, better protected from the Arab raiders.25

The Koalib have a tradition that says that:

the northern Koalib lived originally in Kortala, side by side with [a tribe called] Nyemu. Arab (?) pressure drove the Nyemu to Jebel Dair, and some of the Koalib to their present habitat.26

In his 2003 Land Study, Simon Harragin writes:

There is historical evidence that the Koalib were once resident on the plains much further west than their current position (Sagar, 1922: 138).27 Together with the Nyimang, the Koalib occupied the area around Dilling before Ghulfan and Kadaru drove a wedge between them. […] However, the historical claim mainly relies on oral history.28

II. Katla, which holds both Katla and Tima, is spoken in the hills southwest of Dilling. I didn’t find any sources related to their origin.

III. Rashad can be divided into three languages: Tegali, spoken in the Tegali hills, the Rashad hills and the town of Rashad; Tagoi, spoken in Tagoi, Moreb and Tumale, and Tingal, also in the Tegali Hills.

The Nuba of the Tegali kingdom are basically the only ones to have a documented history that goes back beyond the 19th century. It doesn’t provide any clues however, to their origins. The founding stories of the kingdom speak of a ‘wise stranger’ coming to Tegali and starting a dynasty – a common theme in Sudanese traditions29 . I will gladly get back to the kingdom in the next chapter.

IV. Talodi is a group of languages mainly found in the southern part of the Mountains. It can be divided into Lafofa on the central Eliri range and some adjacent hills, and a large Talodi proper group that can be broken down into four groups: Talodi is spoken in Talodi town and on Jebel Talodi; Eliri on the southern Eliri range; Masakin, with Dagik and Ngile as two separate languages, is spoken in the Masakin hills; in Buram, Reikha and Daloka, and finally Tocho, branched into Acherun, Limun and Tocho.

The first Nuba people to hit the coffee tables in an impressive book by Leni Riefenstahl, were the Masakin Qisar, as she calls them. Reifenstahl stayed with the Masakin on several occasions, for weeks or months, but she doesn’t seem to have inquired after their origin. To her, they were ‘Menschen wie von einem anderen Stern’: people that might just as well have come from another planet. And of course, in a sense, that is true. We don’t know where the Masakin came from, just as we don’t know where the other Nuba from the Talodi group originated.

5. Nyimang, Temein and Kadugli
These three language groups are unique, like the Kordofanian languages, in the fact that they are only spoken in the Nuba Mountains. Judging from the large internal linguistic diversity within each group, the Nyimang, Temein and Kadugli speaking tribes might well have been in the Mountains for more than 2000 years.30 They seem to have come to the Nuba Mountains in tough times, with a lot of people on the move, losing touch with one another. In the words of Thellwal and Schadeberg:

All three groups have a reasonably compact distribution within the NubaMountains: Kadugli along the southwestern edge, Temein to the West, and Nyimang to the north. This suggests outside origins and immigration from these respective directions. Assuming that equal internal diversity corresponds to some roughly consistent time depth we may argue that at this particular time in history conditions prevailed in the Nuba Mountains which resulted in population scattering and reduced inter-group communication. As it is more likely that such conditions originated outside the refuge area we may further speculate that migration to the Nuba Mountains and diversification occurred in close historical union.31

There is not an awful much to tell about the origins of each individual group, but let’s have a look at them anyway:

I. Nyimang is spoken by the people living on the seven hills of Nyimang: Salara, Tendiya, Kurmeti, Nitil, Fassu, Kelara and Kakara. It is also spoken by the people in the Mandal Hills and at Sobei, and by the more distantly related Afitti in Jebel Dair. The Nyimang call themselves Ama – ‘People’ – or ama mede kolat: people of the seven hills. Little is known about their origin, but S. F. Nadel reports that:

the tribe [migrated] from a country ‘in the west’, ‘beyond Tima and Abu Ginuk’, whose name is given as Kugya.32

With R. C. Stevenson this becomes Kwuja or Kwija, which could be Kubja in the El Odaiya area. According to Stevenson the Nyimang:

say that they settled first in the eastern hills of the Nyimang range – Nitil, Kurmiti and Fassu – which they found unoccupied, and only later pushed westwards to Tendia and Salara. [At Salara] they claim to have found the Kunit (one of the Hill Nubian groups) there and to have driven them north after a severe struggle.33

The way the Hill Nubian tribes surround the Nyimang makes this scenario rather improbable. Stevenson remarks that it’s more likely that the Nyimang occupied a larger territory – stretching at least as far as Dilling, until the Hill Nubians arrived.

II. Temein is spoken in the Temein hills (north of Julud); the related Keiga  and Teisei are found in Keiga Jirru (west of Debri) and Teisei um-Danab (north-east of Kadugli) respectively. There is nothing to tell about the origin of the Temein, except that:

the people of Keiga Jirru claim to have migrated from Temein in the ‘distant past’, and this is supported by Temein tradition which relates that the people of both Keiga Jirru and Teisei-Umm-Danab migrated during a time of famine.34

III. Kadugli as a collective name is not really covering the large range of related languages that are grouped together here. Usually Kadugli is mentioned together with Katcha and Miri; they are so closely related that they could be considered dialects rather than separate languages. There are a number of Nuba languages put together with Kadugli-Miri-Katcha as ‘unclassified’ Nilo-Saharan languages: Tulishi, Kanga, Keiga, Korongo and Tumtum. They are clearly related to each other and to Kadugli-miri-Katcha, but the exact affiliation hasn’t been determined. R. C. Stevenson calls them the Kadugli-Krongo group:

[‘the area covered by the group is very widespread; running along the south-west, its limits are Tullishi in the west and Kurondi in the south-east.] The most important hill ranges are Miri, Kadugli and Krongo, after two of which the group has been named.’ 35

In recent publications the group is referred to as the Kadu languages; I will use this term for convenience. The languages from north-west to south-east:

Tulishi is spoken around Jebel Tulishi, Lagawa, Kamdang and Dar El Kabira.
Keiga at Jebel Demik (north of Miri): Ambong, Lubung and Tumuro
Miri in Miri Bara, Miri Guwa, Luba etc.; all lie west of Kadugli.
Kadugli is spoken in Kadugli and the in villages surrounding the town.
Katcha is spoken in villages of Katcha, Tuna, Kafina, Dabakaya (Donga), Belanya, and Farouq, a short distance south of Kadugli and southeast of the Miri Hills.
Kanga in Abu Sinun, Chiroro-Kursi, Kanga, Kufa-Lima, Krongo Abdalla
Korongo towards the south in Tabanya, Toroji, Dar and Angolo; in Damaguto, Dimadragu and Dimodongo, and in Fama, Teis and Kua.
Tumtum on Jebel Eliri: Karondi, Talassa and Tumtum

There is not much to tell about the origins of the people speaking one of the Kadu languages: no one knows where they came from. The linguistic and cultural affiliation among the different tribes is clear though. G. Baumann, who spent 18 months among the Miri people, doing research, says:

The Miri form part of a larger cultural and linguistic unit known as the Kadugli-Krongo group. […] My own travels in the Kadugli-Krongo region produced a recurring impression of a common cultural heritage that encompassed not only linguistic affinity, but institutions, customs, verbal concepts, and sensitivities shared across boundaries. It is true that each of the Kadugli-Krongo communities has gone its own, different way in the processes of change over recent decades. [But] recent diversification has not as yet been able to obscure or supersede the shared cultural heritage of the neighbouring groups.36

Relationships between the communities are usually recognised by the people themselves, and some myths of origin exist, but only for movements within the Nuba Mountains. S. F. Nadel recorded for example that the people of Korongo:

claim close cultural and linguistic affinity with [...] Tumtum on Jebel Talodi, Dere on Jebel Illiri, and three small hill groups in the west: Tesh, Fama and Shatt Safiya. [...] I have checked its truth in Talodi, Tesh and Fama. But the people of Shatt, as I discovered, have a different language and culture and are altogether of a different ethnic stock. The Korongo attribute this community of culture to the common origin of the today widely scattered groups. According to Korongo tradition, Jebel Tabuli, a large, now uninhabited, hill massif east of Korongo, was the ancient home of these different groups.37

Another example can be given for the people of Tulishi:

The Tullishi people assert, with the rigidity of a dogma, that they have ‘always’ lived in their hills, unaffected by immigrations. […] The Tullishi people are fully aware of [the] affinity with Kamdang and Truj, but have no traditions of origin or past migrations which might attempt to explain this tribal kinship. They have such traditions with regard to the people of Miri (as also of Jebel Damik and Keiga), with whom they claim a common, or closely similar, language, and common clans. [They lived closely together once, but they split up after a dispute.] The Miri people, we may add, share the tradition of the ancient kinship of the two tribes.38

This is confirmed by G. Baumann, who writes:

The mythical link with Tulishi is quite universally recalled […]. Formerly, the Tulishi people lived here on top of a hill called Igyol. [They did something wrong] so they migrated to present home. 39

And that’s it as far as these the Nyimang, the Temein and the Kadugli language speaking Nuba are concerned.

6. Hill Nubian
As discussed at length above, the Hill Nubian speaking tribes came to the Mountains from the North, probably before 1400 AD. The different languages are classified as follows:

Ghulfan and Kadaru are grouped together. Ghulfan is spoken in Ghulfan Kurgul and Ghulfan Morung; Kadaru in the hill communities of Kadaru, Kururu, Kafir, Kurtala, Dabatna and Kuldaji.
Dilling is spoken in the town and the surrounding villages
Dair, in the western and southern parts of Jebel Dair
Karko in the Karko Hills and Dulman; maybe also Abu Jinik and Tabaq.
Wali in the Wali Hills

Thelwall and Schadeberg can’t say more as to why or when exactly the Hill Nubians migrated south:

Whether this occurred due to pressure from Arab nomads as Arkell40 proposes, or whether an earlier date should be assumed is not clear. The relative closeness of the Hi1l Nubian dialects to each other does not suggest the presence of isolated Nubian communities in these hills for several millennia.41  

It was probably a gradual process. R. C. Stevenson writes:

Nubian speech was brought to the northern Nuba Mountains by tribal movements accelerated by the Arab influx during the past few centuries. In Rüppell’s time (mid 1820s) it was still spoken on the plains south of El Obeid.42

The most detailed account of how some of the Hill Nubians came to the Nuba Mountains is given by S. F. Nadel:

The Warke, or Dilling people, have preserved very clear traditions of their origin and past history. Originally, these traditions state, the tribe was living at Abdel Baka in the Ghadayat, under the ‘Sultans’ of that Kingdom, The Ghadayat are said to have been of Fung origin, and ethnically related to the Warke. Later Arab attacks forced the latter to emigrate. They moved first to Boti (now known as Sungikai) , then to Shirma, or Jebel Tukuma (ten miles east of Dilling), and finally to Dilling. The Ghadayat, in their old home, are said to have become ‘like Arabs’, while the Warke ‘became Nuba’. The ancient link, however, survived in the political sphere; the Dilling people remained tributary to the Sultans of Abdel Baka and still recognize, symbolically, their suzerainty […] The genealogy of Dilling chiefs mentions ten who already resided in Dilling. Their relationship is not remembered, but we may assume that their reign embraces a period of no less, and probably more, than 100 years.
The Dilling know of their close cultural and linguistic links with Kaduru and Ghulfan [...]. The most widely accepted tradition is this: that the people of Kaduru have lived together with the Warke in the Ghadayat, but later separated; that the Ghulfan groups are of Fung origin, but unknown home; and that a small, isolated group, akin to Dilling in language and culture, and living today on Jebel Tabak in Western Kordofan, had shared with the Warke their old home on Jebel Takuna, but afterwards migrated to its present habitat.43

7. The Daju speaking tribes
The Daju speaking tribes came to the Nuba Mountains from the west, from a Daju Kingdom that we know conveniently little about. The Kingdom was based, as early perhaps as 1200 AD, in Jebel Marra, a rain-fed mountain range in an otherwise arid country. The Daju controlled the area between southern Jebel Marra and the western edges of the Nuba Mountains. They were displaced by the Tunjur at the end of the fourteenth century, and left no records besides a list of kings that ends with King Kasi Furogé. The Daju were scattered by the Tunjur and we find them back in some isolated pockets across a wide area of Chad and Sudan, in the regions of Kordofan, Darfur, and Wadai.

Linguistically things don’t seem to be too complicated: following R.C. Stevenson44 we differentiate between Eastern and Western Daju.
The Eastern Daju speakers all live in the Nuba Mountains. They are the Shatt in the Shatt Hills south-west of Kadugli (Shatt Damam, Shatt Safaia and Shat Tebeldia), and Liguri and Soburi in the hills north-east of the city.
The Western Daju are more scattered. In Chad we find the Mongo in Dar Daju and the Sila in Dar Sila. In Sudan the Nyala around Nyala in Darfur; the Beigo (extinct) in southern Darfur; and the Njalgulgule in southern Sudan on the Sopo River. Also belonging to the Western Daju are the Daju living near Lagawa. and that brings us back to the Nuba Mountains.

Looking at the linguistic data, Robin Thelwall is convinced that the Eastern Daju languages separated from the others long ago, perhaps as much as 2000 years. The Shatt and Liguri have been in the Mountains much longer than the Lagawa, and because of the considerable linguistic distance between the Shatt and the Liguri, it is likely that their migration into the Nuba Mountains predates not only the Lagawa, but also the Nubian arrival in this area45 .

So linguistically it seems clear. Historically it’s a bit hazy though. There is no doubt that 250 years ago there were two people, Daju and Shatt, living in the area of Muglad west of the Nuba Mountains. K. D. D. Henderson, one of the first British district commissioners of Western Kordofan District, says the Daju and Shatt arrived there from Darfur around 1710.46 According to Ian Cunnison they were driven away by the Messyria:

When [the Messeria Homr] reached where they are now, they found two pagan tribes: the Shatt and Daju in Muglad [Deinga]. Homr therefore drove the two tribes out of the area. Shatt escaped further south where they met the Ngok Dinka and were further driven west [...]. The Daju escaped [east] and settled among the Nuba.47

Henderson says the Messeria Baggara came to Muglad around the decade of 1765-1775,48 so we have a pretty exact indication of when the Daju came to Lagawa. But what about the Shatt? They went south until they met the Ngok Dinka and were driven west?
Please, don’t let the name confuse you: these are not the Shatt in the Nuba Hills. The Ethnologue: Languages of the World explains:

'Caning' is their own name for themselves. 'Shatt' is applied by Arabic speakers to inhabitants of the Kordofan Hills. It means 'dispersed', 'scattered', and is applied to various groups. Distinct from Shatt (Thuri) in the Lwo group, or the Shatt dialect of Mundu.49

The last two groups are living in South Sudan, so that makes sense. It doesn’t explain however why Watkiss Lloyd, the first Governor of Kordofan, would report:

The natives of [Shat el Safia, and Shat el Damman] say they formerly occupied the whole of Dar Homr, and this is confirmed by the Homr Arabs, who say there is still a small settlement of the same tribe at a place they call Shat, a few miles over our border.50

We must assume that he just listened to the wrong natives. And what to make of the reconstruction of the Daju and Shatt migration that R.C. Stevenson distilled from K.D.D. Henderson’s data? In his account, the Daju and the Shatt were migrating east together, reaching Muglad around 1710 and moving sort of leisurely towards the area west of Lagawa in the following decennia. From there some of them continued to Liguri and Soburi while others (the Shatt) settled south of Kadugli.51 Stevenson was a distinguished linguist; but somehow he didn’t realise that the differences between the Daju and the Shatt were too big for them to have come to the Nuba Mountains together.

And this, for now, brings me to the end of the investigation into the origins of the Nuba. The results can’t be called glorious, can they? (But the struggle is heroic.) In the next chapter we will focus on more substantial stories of the period before the Mahdiya.

History, part II
History, part III


1. Interviewed by N. op ‘t Ende; London, February 12 and 13, 2001
2. A.C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, pp. 3.
3. A.H. Keane already dismissed it in 1885: Ethnology of Egyptian Sudan; The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 14 (1885), pp. 101.
4. A. J. Arkell: A History of the Sudan to A.D. 1821, 1955.
5. S.F. Nadel: The Nuba, an anthropological study of the hill tribes in Kordofan, 1947, pp. 2.
6. Claudius Ptolemy: Geography IV, ch.7. The strangest thing is that he locates the Nubae east of the Nile while the European maps invariably put Nubia to the west of the river.
7. Strabo: Geographica, book XVII;54
8. Strabo: Geographica, book XVII;2
9. Procopius: History of the Wars, c. 550 CE: Book I;19
10. Abbreviated text  of the Ezana inscription
11. D. A. Welsby: The Medieval Kingdoms of Nubia, 2002.
12. A. H. Keane for example: opus cit.
13. R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984
14. Slave soldiers of the Ayyubid rulers who rose to high esteem and then rid themselves of their masters, founding the Mameluk Empire that dominated the Middle East for two centuries.
15. J. H. Greenberg: The Languages of Africa, 1963; Int. journal of American linguistics, 29, 1, part 2.
16. R. Herzog: Die Nubier, I957.
17. R. Thelwall: Nuba Languages and History: Who is related to who in and outside of the Nuba Mountains and did they come from anywhere else?; Nuba Vision, Volume 1, Issue 3, February 2002.
18. S.F. Nadel: The Nuba, an anthropological study of the hill tribes in Kordofan, 1947, pp. 4-5.
19. R. Thelwall, private correspondence.
20. R. Thelwall and T. C. Schadeberg: The Linguistic Settlement of the Nuba Mountains; Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 5 (1983) 219-231
21. R. Thelwall: Nuba Languages and History […]; Nuba Vision, Volume 1, Issue 3, February 2002.
22.J. C. Faris: Nuba Personal Art, 1972, pp. 14.
23. S.F. Nadel: The Nuba, an anthropological study of the hill tribes in Kordofan, 1947, pp. 176-177.
24. S. C. Dunn: Native Gold Washings in the Nuba Mountains Province; Sudan Notes and Records, VoL IV. No. 3, October 1921, pp. 143-144.
25. S.F. Nadel: The Nuba, an anthropological study of the hill tribes in Kordofan, 1947, pp. 178
26. Idem, pp. 358.
27. J. W. Sagar: Notes on the History, Religion and Customs of the Nuba; Sudan Notes and records 5 (1922), pp. 137 - 156.
28. S. Harragin: Nuba Mountains Land and Natural Resources Study; Part I – Land Study, 2003.
29. J. J. Ewald: Experience and Speculation: History and Founding Stories in the Kingdom of Tagali, 1780- 1935; the International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol 18, No. 2 (1985), pp.265-287.
30. R. Thelwall: Nuba Languages and History […]; Nuba Vision, Volume 1, Issue 3, February 2002.
31. R. Thelwall and T. C. Schadeberg: The Linguistic Settlement of the Nuba Mountains; Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 5 (1983) 219-231
32. S.F. Nadel: The Nuba, an anthropological study of the hill tribes in Kordofan, 1947, pp. 362.
33. R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, pp. 85.
34. Idem, pp. 122.
35. R. C. Stevenson: A Survey of the Phonetics and Grammatical Structure of the Nuba Mountains Languages, with Particular Reference to Otoro, Katcha and Nyimang; Africa und Übersee 40 (1956), pp. 103.
36. G. Baumann: National Integration and Local Integrity, the Miri of the Nuba Mountains in the Sudan, 1987, pp. 22-24.
37. S.F. Nadel: The Nuba, an anthropological study of the hill tribes in Kordofan, 1947, pp. 368.
38. Idem, pp. 319.
39. G. Baumann: opus cit., pp. 140
40. A. J. Arkell: A History of the Sudan from the Earliest Times to 1821, 1955.
41. R. Thelwall and T. C. Schadeberg: The Linguistic Settlement of the Nuba Mountains; Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 5 (1983), pp. 219-231
42. R. C. Stevenson: Linguistic Research in the Nuba Mountains; Sudan Notes and Records 45 (1963), pp. 79-102.
43. S. F. Nadel: the Nuba, an anthropological study of the Hill Tribes in Kordofan, 1947.
44. R. C. Stevenson: A survey of the phonetics and grammatical structure of the Nuba Mountains languages, with particular reference to Otoro, Katcha and Nyimang; Afrika und Übersee 40, 1956-7
45. R. Thelwall: Nuba Languages and History […]; Nuba Vision, Volume 1, Issue 3, February 2002.
46. K. D. D. Henderson: The Migration of the Messiria into South West Kordofan; Sudan Notes & Records 22/1, 1939
47. I. Cunnison: The Baggara Arabs: Power and Lineage in the Sudanese Nomadic Tribe, 1966
48. Idem, pp. 54
49. Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com/.
50. Watkiss Lloyd: Notes on Kordofan Province; The Geographical Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Mar. 1910) pp. 249 - 267
51. R. C. Stevenson: The Nuba People of Kordofan Province, 1984, pp. 35-37

Written by Nanne op 't Ende.

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