Location: South-eastern Mali, Burkina Faso, Africa

Population: 100,000

Language: Dogon (Voltaic)

Neighbouring Peoples: Mossi, Nuna, Nunuma, Winiama, Bwa, Bozo

Dogon village elder

Types of Art: The Dogon are best known for their extensive carving of masks and wooden figurative art. The primary colours used by the Dogon are usually red, black, and white, and popular patterns include spirals and checkerboard motifs, both of which can be traced to their origin stories.

History: Early history is informed by oral traditions, which claim that the Dogon originated from the west bank of the Niger River (10th to 13th centuries). They emigrated west to northern Burkino Faso, where local histories describe them as Kibsi.

Around 1490, they fled a region now known as the northern Mossi kingdom of Yatenga when it was invaded by Mossi cavalry. They ended up in the Bandiagara cliffs region, safe from the approaching horsemen.

Carbon-14 dating techniques used on excavated remains found in the cliffs suggest that there were inhabitants in the region before the arrival in the Dogon, dating back to the 10th century. Those Dogon who did not flee were incorporated into Mossi society and were known as the Nyonyose, or descendants of the first inhabitants.

Dogon granaries for crop storage

Economy: The Dogon grow onions which are exported throughout the Sudan region. They also grow millet and sorghum, which is consumed locally. Like so many agricultural people of Africa, the land and its bounty plays an important part in the religious views of the Dogon.

The Lebe cult is primarily concerned with agricultural renewal, and altars devoted to it have bits of earth incorporated into them to encourage the continued fertility of the land. The most important agricultural rite is the bulu, which immediately precedes the first rains and planting. 

Dogon children

Political Systems: Social stratification among the Dogon involves a complex ordering of individuals based on their position within various social groups defined either by descent or locality. Groupings include clan, village, patria-lineage, and, for men, an age-set or -grade.

Each of these groups is hierarchically ordered based on age and the rules of descent, and all of the group levels interact with one another, so that one who is generally well respected within the family will most likely hold an important position within society.

Religion: Dogon religion is defined primarily through the worshiping of the ancestors and the spirits whom they encountered as they moved across the Western Sudan. The Awa society is responsible for carrying out the rituals, which allow the deceased to leave the world of the living and enter the world of the dead.

Public rites include funerary rites (bago bundo) and the dama ceremony, which marks the end of the mourning period. Awa society members are also responsible for planning the sigui ceremonies, which commence every sixty years to hand on the function of the dead initiates to the new recruits.

All of these rites involve masking traditions and are carried out only by initiated males who have learned the techniques needed to impersonate the super naturals. The leader of the Awa society is the olaburu who is a master of the language of the bush (sigi so). The society is divided in accordance with age-grades, ignoring traditional lineage and hierarchical ordering within the village.

Dogon women spinning thread from raw cotton

Dogon seer preparing a divination ceremony

Dogon village view in Niongono

Credits: All images on this page are photograph by P. Allière and provided by Assou Sagara of SAGA Tours.