Collection Description

Culture Name


Culture Description

The Somali of the Horn of Africa speak the Somali language and live primarily in Somalia. Somalis also live in southern Djibouti, eastern Ethiopia, and northeastern Kenya. Animal husbandry (primarily camel herding) is traditionally the major subsistence activity, and the only one in large parts of northern and central Somalia. In the south, nomadic pastoralism is often mixed with rain-fed agriculture. The Somali system of patrilineal descent embraces the whole country in a genealogical grid and claims ultimate descent from the Qurayshitic lineage of the prophet Mohammed. Smaller patrilineal units play an important role in social and political life and feuding and armed conflicts over grazing and water rights are not uncommon.


Select the Culture Summary link above for a longer description of the culture.


Africa --Eastern Africa






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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in this eHRAF collection and are referenced by author, date of publication, and eHRAF document number.

The Somali file consists of 32 documents, 10 of which are translations from the original Italian, two from French, and one from German. They cover a time span from the 1600s to about the mid 1980s. The majority of these works concentrate on the nomadic Somali of the Djibouti region of southeastern Ethiopia in what is known (in 1996) as the Somali Democratic Republic, composed of the former protectorate of British Somaliland, the former Italian UN Trusteeship for Somali, and the French territory of the Afars and the Issas. Most of the significant literature on the Somali people has been written by British and Italian authors. The French interest in this region is relatively minor. Among modern writers, I. M. Lewis, a British social anthropologist who did most of his fieldwork in the 1950s, has made important contributions in the theoretical analysis of Somali institutions. His comprehensive works, comprising nine separate documents in this file (see Lewis 1955, 1958, 1959, 1955-1956, 1959, 1957, 1961, 1963, 1962, nos. 1-3, 7, 12, 14, 18, 29, 31), provide an excellent overview of Somali culture and society. In addition to Lewis, Enrico Cerulli's ethnographic works on the Somali comprise another major portion of this file (twelve documents). These are Cerulli 1919-1921, 1923-1925, 1957, 1957, 1959, 1959, 1959, 1959, 1959, 1964, 1964, 1964, nos. 4, 10, and 19-28. Cerulli, one of the foremost Italian experts on the Somali, did most of his fieldwork in the area in the first half of the twentieth century. A summary of some of the the ethnographic topics discussed in his works relate to general ethnography, social and political organization, tribal composition, religion, law, recreational pursuits, astronomy, astrology, and weather lore. In 1995-1996 two additional documents were added to the Somali file. The first of these, Helander 1988, no. 32, is a detailed study of the Hubeer clan of the Ooflaawe region of southern Somalia. The second work, Cassanelli 1982, no. 33, is a historical study dealing with the reconstructive and interpretive analysis of Somali history during the three centuries preceding 1900 -- the pre-colonial period.

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in this file, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

This culture summary is from the article, "Somalis," by Bernhard Helander in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 9. 1995. John Middleton and Amal Rassam, eds. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co. The synopsis and indexing notes were prepared by John Beierle, August 1996.

Overview by

John Beierle

AKILS -- elected heads of lineages - - category 613

AQIYAAR -- the decision-making body of a clan -- categories 692, 614

AW (AAW) -- the leader of the young men's groups or BARBAAR -- categories 571, 554

BARBAAR -- a group of young men with a leader called AW ("father") -- categories 571, 554

BEELS -- subdistricts -- category 634

BILIS -- nobles -- category 565

BOON -- commoners -- category 565 (sometimes with 563)

BURJI -- knowledge of individual character and capacity -- category 828

CAQLI -- beliefs about intelligence, reason, knowledge -- category 828

clan-family -- category 619

Dia-paying group -- category 613 (with 675 & 628 for some specific references)

GEED -- medical trees -- categories 278, 824

GILIB -- a subdivision of the RER (probably equivalent to the Dia-paying group -- category 613

GOB -- men whose authority is limited to a subsection of a clan (i.e., a lineage) -- categories 614, 613, 554, 692

legislative council -- category 646

NABADDOON -- clan leaders -- categories 614, 554

patron/client relationships -- between low caste groups and Somali -- categories 564, 571

QUADI (CADI) -- category 692

RER -- groups of families claiming descent from common ancestors -- category 613

SAB -- bondsmen -- category 564

SAMADOON -- lineage leaders -- categories 613, 554

SHARAF -- honor -- category 577

SHEIKH -- categories 622, 792

sultans (UGAAS) -- heads of clans -- categories 643, 614

TARIIQUA religious orders -- category 795

TARIIQUA communities -- category 794

TOL -- the tribe (all gentes claiming descent from some common ancestor); patrilineal clanship -- category 614

tutelage -- categories 429, 602

UGAAS -- see sultans

VAUNT -- category 186

WADAAD -- holy man -- category 792

Indexing Notes by

John Beierle

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