The George Peter Murdock ethnic map of Africa


a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

I became an Africanist for real after a trip I took to Tanzania, in 1985.  However, I probably would not have become an Africanist  has I not  read an article in American Heritage  magazine about the Yoruba of  Nigeria.

It was a shock to me, because it was  a story about a real African culture, and I had been taught (no joke) that the Africans had no culture. You  know how it is in American primary schools:  the Africans were eating nuts  and berries without language or culture or clothes or  religion…. & it was a lie. This was in the 1960’s & 1970’s, when it had been known for a long time that there were hundreds of cultures in Africa.

Why  did teachers teach this? Well, maybe they had been lied to, and maybe the liars know that if you teach the truth about people, it engenders respect for those people.  We couldn’t have white people respecting people of color—now, could we?

As a high school student, with all the mental hassles of being a teenager (and undiagnosed Asperger’s), I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  Train dogs and own a kennel. That was it. However, from looking at college catalogs, I was looking at Black Studies and forestry.  My parents  would have none of that. If they were going to  pay for college, I was to major in education.  I learned to groom dogs and did not go to college….. for 15 more years.

So, that’s how it was until I  took my first trip to Africa (a safari, naturally) in 1984. I returned with a new purpose:  to learn more about Africa to find a way to help Africans!

Well, I learned that what wazungu (white people) do to help Africans doesn’t help that much at all, and really sabotages development.  Google Dambisa Moyo—an African woman it better than I ever could.

In my studies, I discovered the Murdock map.  G.P. Murdock was an early anthropologist.  He  was determined to understand the differences and similarities  about communities…what we call tribes (but when they are white people, they are ethnic groups).  He wrote a book about what he discovered:  Africa:  It’s People and Their Cultural History .  It was published in 1959 by McGraw-Hill, and it is now our of print, but sometimes N.Fagin Books in Chicago gets copies.

In any case, the book is very dry. It is a reference ethnography…and the irony is that the  Murdock’s actual expertise was North America  and Oceana, not
Africa, and he thanks multitudes for help putting it all together.  The book comes with a huge ethnic map, in black line.  It’s actually a cultural artifact, because….in Africa, it’s not like the Middle East, where if you cross a geographic  line…you are dead.    In Africa, if you cross a geographic line, you are ‘one of us’.  Also, in many areas, 2 or more ethnic groups shared the same land…much like Christians, Jews, & Moslems live in cities as neighbors without killing each other.  So, the boundaries of the map are actually fluid…he just  designed it so you can get a ‘longitudinal/latitudinal idea’ of where certain people’s (and practices or languages) could be found.  It’s a jumping off point for discussing Africa.

I had returned from my Peace Corps assignment, was working for a non-profit, and one of the clients was an artist, so I asked her to color in the map (after I had its size manipulated so it would be more manageable), and I thought they’d sell like hotcakes in the Chicago afrocentric stores…but they didn’t. The problem is that our educational system is so bad about teaching Africa—or any geography…that if you don’t know the geopolitical map of Africa—countries whose boundaries were essentially decided after the 1885 meeting to the European colonizers called by the brutal King Leopold of Belgian, who owned Belgian Congo, you don’t recognize this as a map the Africans might have put together had they the means.  It’s just a bunch of squiggles….so…

I have sold the map to universities and libraries, and scholars, but I can’t afford to  keep a website up or keep it listed on E-Bay, as I sell so few.  It has a very niche market, but I still have over  500 copies left, and will continue to sell it at $20 a copy  + postage/handling (keep in mind that mailing tubes are now over $4 each, so $6—7).  You can  respond to this  blog & I’ll generally get right back to you within 48 hours.

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13 Responses to “The George Peter Murdock ethnic map of Africa”

  1. Espresso Expression Says:

    Great insight. Thanks. I have been looking for George Murdock’s ethnic map for some time now – I remember seeing it at the UN store in New York, but never have been able to find it since. Maybe you know where I would be able to find it? Anyway, thanks again.

  2. Alana Strassfield Says:

    I would like to purchase one if there are any still in stock. Thank you

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  8. David J. Fretz Says:

    I am very interested in the Murdock map. I am very interested in the Art of Equatorial West Africa, and the map would be extremely helpful. Do you have any left? Thank you.

  9. Kris Says:

    Hello, Are you still doing these maps and could I get one? I have spent time in Uganda and South Sudan and want a representation of the groups that I have seen.

  10. Steve Walters Says:

    I would love to get a copy of the Murdock map of Africa. I am currently in Abuja Nigeria but will return home (the US) in a few weeks. Please send the details of how to proceed.
    Steve Walters

    • disparateinterests Says:

      I am amazed at the number of people who want this map, but reply with an email that is ‘rejected by server’. When you reply to the posting, please include a valid email address!

  11. Kyle Says:

    Hello. I work at a university and have a faculty member who is very interested in purchasing one of these maps, if still available. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks!

  12. ktaldridgerand Says:

    Hi, I’m genealogist and would like a copy. Kindly inform me accordingly.

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