Franz Kröger


The Creators of the Komaland Terracottas (Northern Ghana)



Introduction: Historical Significance, Discovery and Scientific Investigations

The discovery of the so-called Komaland terracottas has enriched African art history by adding thousands of small pieces of art and enhanced West African history in general by providing many new insights, although any attempted integration into a known historical context still has a largely hypothetical character.

The corpus of the new figurative terracottas not only enriches the stock of African artwork but evokes some anticipation of a new great culture, which has hitherto only found its expression in predominantly small works of art. The Komaland terracottas of northern Ghana can be regarded as equivalent to those of Nok (Nigeria), Sao (around Lake Chad), Ife (Nigeria), the Akan funeral figures and the Djenné and Bankoni terracottas of the Inland Niger Delta (Mali). Beyond their significance as purely artistic and historical products, the discovery of the Komaland terracottas has had some influence on the self-confidence of northern Ghana’s educated people and on the cultural estimation of and interest in the culture of this part of the country by outsiders. Although the cultural achievements of southern Ghana have been known and valued worldwide for years, and figural pieces of art in wood, gold, bronze and clay were offered on the global art markets, northern Ghana (which had been relatively devoid of artistic products in the above-mentioned materials) could at least attract the attention of a large group of art experts after the discovery and publication of excavated Komaland terracottas.

The circumstances surrounding the terracottas’ original discovery by the natives of Yikpabongo, a small village in the West Mamprusi District of the Northern Region of Ghana, remain obscure. In modern times, Yikpabongo was uninhabited until the 1950s when the first immigrants from the Koma village of Barisi settled there (Kröger and Saibu 2010:76). While some builders were looking for mud as a building material for houses, they dug a pit in which they found the first fired clay figurines and immediately recognized that these were artefacts from an earlier settlement layer; they called them kronkronballi, which can be freely translated as "children from an old time" (Endnote 1). In this culture, the disturbance of ancestral graves or the removing of any of their legacies from the ground must be expiated by sacrifices, and all grave goods must be buried again at the same place. Since the residents of Yikpabongo knew for certain that their own ancestors had not been the creators of the artefacts found in the pit, they threw away damaged or insignificant figurines, took some larger terracottas to their houses or gave them to children as toys.

Art dealers had recognized the terracottas’ commercial value long before the first anthropologists, archaeologists and historians were able to examine the newly discovered objects. In conversations with Malcolm McLeod (then Keeper at the Museum of Mankind, London) and Laurent van Ham (Rotterdam), I learned that a few terracottas from Yikpabongo had already been offered for purchase in Kumasi and Ouagadougou in the 1970s before thousands of them flooded the international art market. In 1982, the lawyer Ben Baluri Saibu contacted the National Museum of Ghana (Accra) about the figurines of his hometown, Yikpabongo, but this information did not result in any archaeological excavations.

My own contribution to the scientific discovery of these objects consisted of the following activities: After being shown two terracotta heads in a pile of stones in Wiaga-Zamsa (Bulsaland, Upper East Region of Ghana) on 1 September 1978, I launched the first publication about the "Komaland terracottas" in 1982 (1620, Plates 1617), although in the publication’s text and pictures they were not named as such. On 3 May 1984, I arranged the first dating of a terracotta figurine at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics (Heidelberg, Germany). The thermoluminescence (TL) analysis yielded an age of 405"135 years, which, for the first time, proved that these figurines had not been created in recent times and were thus of considerable historical significance. After visiting Yikpabongo, I informed the Department of Archaeology at the University of Ghana, Legon, on 16 July 1984 about the finds and the TL analysis. At that time, the head of the department, James Anquandah, had not yet heard anything about these terracottas. By March of 1985, my information resulted in the first excavations in Yikpabongo.

While previously the terracotta figurines could only be appreciated in terms of pure aesthetics, subsequent to the first excavations they became objects suitable for scientific analysis and historical classification. At the same time, the excavations put a stop to the hitherto numerous lootings of the sites. In the period after March of 1985, four grave mounds were recovered under the direction of Anquandah. In addition to 1,827 grinding stones, a stone axe, and iron and copper jewellery, 523 terracotta figurines were retrieved (Anquandah and van Ham 1985:28). A second TL dating was submitted by Anquandah, the results of which (480"80 years) approximately corresponded to the first dating.

For reasons of funding, all excavations in Yikpabongo came to an end after a few years. Only in 2006, more than twenty years after Anquandah’s excavations, did Benjamin Kankpeyeng, the new director of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Ghana, Legon, resume the archaeological research in Yikpabongo and its environment. In recent years, Kankpeyeng has found support from other archaeologists, including Timothy Insoll (University of Manchester), who has participated in the project since 2010, Natalie Swanepoel (University of South Africa, Pretoria), Samuel N. Nkumbaan (University of Ghana, Legon), Jobila Zakari (University of Ghana, Legon) and Malik Saako (director of the Regional Museum, Bolgatanga, Upper East Region of Ghana). After their first academic exams, former students of archaeology were entrusted with independent excavations. In 2008, for example, Jobila Zakari conducted excavations in Tando-Yikora, a Mamprusi village 9 km to the southwest of Yikpabongo.

Kankpeyeng organised archaeological excavations and recovered numerous terracotta figurines, revealing precious new insights into the old Komaland culture. He also proved that the first land occupation in Yikpabongo took place much earlier than had been assumed before. While the previous dates comprised a period between 1,200 and 1,800 AD, ceramic shards obtained from beneath the cultural level of the figurines suggest a human presence within Yikpabongo by the 10th century AD (Kankpeyeng and Nkumbaan 2009:198) and a new radiocarbon analysis dated a piece of charcoal from the site to the 6th century AD (Kankpeyeng, Nkumbaan and Insoll 2011:209).


1. The Inland Niger Delta (Mali)

Given that the material remnants of the old Komaland culture are unique and cannot be regarded as products of a branch of another living or extinct culture of West Africa, research on the physical creators of this ancient culture is needed for historical reasons. Did the artists and artisans belong to an indigenous population? Did they emigrate from another civilization without forgetting their cultural heritage completely? Or were the terracottas the result of a creative urge in a newly emerging culture? Since there are no ancient written sources regarding the old Komaland culture, we cannot answer the above questions without depending largely on comparisons between the Komaland "remnants" and the cultural elements of other peoples and states.

A good starting place would be to compare the terracottas with ceramic products from cultures of approximately analogous epochs, for example, the old Akan terracottas of southern Ghana or those of the Inland Niger Delta in Mali. From the former, the Komaland artefacts probably did not receive any major influence since the Komaland terracottas precede the peak era for the production of Akan funeral figurines. Chronologically, rather the reverse effect would be possible, but is not very likely when stylistic considerations are taken into account. Many artefacts of the Inland Niger Delta, for example the Djenné or Bankoni figurines, were produced simultaneously with the Komaland terracottas and display some similarities with them in their stylistic design and repertoire. These include richly-decorated breast pendants, an abundance of cowries, arm and ankle cuffs as well as horse-and-rider and mother-and-child depictions. The qualities of these artefacts, which were probably made in response to a court culture, also appear in other cultures and are not specific enough to function as pieces of evidence for the Komaland culture being a branch of the Inland Niger Delta culture. Other material elements of the figurines have a more exceptional character and might be better suited for proving cultural contact which possibly took place over the north-south trade routes (Anquandah and van Ham 1985:46; Davis 1988:10; Zakari 2010:15; Kankpeyeng, Swanepoel, Insoll, Nkumbaan, Amartey and Saako 2013:485). These elements include:

• the wide-open mouth (de Grunne 1980:35, 9697)

• the upper arm dagger (Schaedler 1997:43, 57; de Grunne 1980:45, 77, 79, 81, 85)

• a square temple-tattoo (de Grunne 1980:39; Schaedler 1997:49, 54, 56)

• a diamond-shaped tattoo on the belly (de Grunne 1980:133, Bankoni figurines)

• one or two sacrificial bowls in front of a few female characters (de Grunne 1980:x)

Apart from these similarities, there are some significant differences, especially with regard to the long-necked terracotta heads with concave skulls and the nearly infinite diversity of the Janus motif among the Komaland sculptures. Both cultures probably found their own adequate artistic means of expression based on religious beliefs and a hierarchically structured society, although a certain degree of mutual cultural influence along the above-mentioned trade routes cannot be excluded.


2. The Kantonsi of Kpalewogu (Upper West Region of Ghana)

In 1988, David Davis published a short article in Nyame Akuma (Bulletin of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists) where he tentatively connected the Komaland culture with the Kantonsi from "Palwogho or Kpalewogu":

Were the Kantonsi responsible for the cultural and economic links to the Sahel? Was Kpalewogu located in Komaland and were these craftspeople responsible for local production of terracottas? [...] The Kantonsi diaspora from Kpalewogu took place in the mid-17th century. [...] Could this event [...] coincide with the terminal dating of the Komaland material? (1988:10–11)

According to Ivor Wilks (1989:54) the ancient location of Palewogo was located within the bend of the Kulpawn River, some 15 miles or less south of Kundungu and about 50 miles east of Wa (today Upper West Region of Ghana, see Fig. 6). He also mentions an old road from Wa to Nalerigu passing through Palewogo. Today, the Koma village of Wuntubri (founded around 1970) is probably situated on this route (Kröger and Saibu 2010:77–78). Wilks, who does not mention Davis, also believes that Palewogo had some influence on the Komaland culture:

Recent discoveries in the district immediately east of Kundungu, on the north bank of the Kulpawn between Palewogo and Yagaba, are of relevance. [...] Artefacts show many signs of exogenous influences, most notable perhaps in the terracotta sculptures of camels and their riders. [...] It is difficult not to see in such material evidence of the intrusion of the ‘Old Muslims [...] from the Mande country’ into the area, that is, of the early Kantonsi settlers. Thermoluminescent dating of terracottas, however, yields dates of 1505"80 and 1579"135, and it may be that these provide some confirmation of Wala traditions that the movement of the ‘Old Muslims’ into the area east of the Black Volta long preceded that of the Dagomba and Mampurugu (1989:86).

This influence of the Kantonsi on the former residents of the excavation area does not mean that Wilks holds the Kantonsi to be the creators of the terracottas, for in an endnote he comments, "‘Komaland’ represents, of course, the invention of another mythical society" (1989:215). Although it is quite possible that Kantonsi traders frequented Komaland, I also exclude such authorship because, during the heyday of terracotta production, these people whom Wilks calls "Old Muslims" had already accepted the Islamic faith. As it appears from the pictures in my photo collection of more than 4,000 Komaland terracottas, the producers of the largely unclothed figurines demonstrate free treatment of sexual themes: women are depicted with their vaginas wide-open, the genitals of men are mostly uncovered and there are phallic figurines belonging to the repertoire of the artists. All of this would be contrary to the religious and moral ideas of the Islamic Kantonsi. This does not rule out that some similarities between the two cultures may have come about by, for example, commercial contact. According to Zakari (2010:70), Kankpeyeng, in his unpublished PhD dissertation (2003), mentions some correlations between Kpaliworgu (Palewogo) and Komaland pottery. As concerns the question of the cultural creators of the Komaland terracottas, the suggestions of the archaeologists Anquandah, Kankpeyeng and Insoll as well as my own hypothesis, prompted by Klaus Schneider and Madeleine Père (2004), appear to be more likely.


3. The Bulsa (Upper East Region of Ghana)

Agbandem, an elder of the Bulsa village of Wiaga-Tandem-Zamsa who had shown me two terracotta heads in an earth shrine consisting of a pile of stones  was probably the first to associate the makers of the later-named Komaland terracottas with the autochthonic Bulsa (cf. Kröger 1982:17 and 1988:133). To support his statement, the elder referred to the headdress on one terracotta head and interpreted it as a calabash helmet studded with cowries, an accoutrement still worn by the Bulsa today. Agbandem even claimed that the two figurines were representations of the original ancestors of all indigenous Bulsa.

Along with the aforementioned calabash helmets, other items like knobbed ceramic pots, jewellery and amulets (for example crescent chest pendants, foot and arm bangles with round cross sections and metal leg cuffs) represent the most significant corresponding cultural parallels between the Bulsa and Komaland objects.

While in his first publications Anquandah does not tackle the question of cultural authorship, his publication in 1998 represents a detailed enumeration of material elements as they appear in Komaland and Bulsa culture. He even uses Bulsa names for objects of material culture found on the excavated figurines, for example:

julung: triangle-shaped cloth worn as underwear (1998:45)

chiik: crescent pendant (1998:63)

lig-pieli: cowrie (1998:160, 169)

zuk chin: calabash helmet (1998:163164)

goa zuk chin: calabash helmet (1998:43)

nientik: double spiral amulet which is worn on a waist string in Anquandah's drawing as well as by Bulsa children of today (1998:44, Fig. 4.1)

bang(sa): different types of bracelets (1998:43–44): nying bang (metal bracelet), kampiung (stone bracelet), sigain (ivory bracelet), poali (leather bracelet), jinka (straw bracelet; more common: jek) and chakesa (metal leg cuffs)

Some of Anquandah's explanations may be called into question. In numerous interpretations of non-anthropomorphic terracotta objects, he tries to demonstrate that a certain object occurs or occurred in both the Bulsa as well as in the old Komaland culture. Criticism may be primarily directed to the fact that, in this case, isolated material elements of Komaland terracottas are chosen as starting points for interpretations. It would be more appropriate, in my opinion, to consider these phenomena as part of a long series of examples of one type, including all variations that have occurred. In Anquandah's book, for example, the photos of four objects that both Kankpeyeng, Insoll and I would refer to as double cones or bi-cones, are depicted (1998:150, Fig. 7.24). Anquandah refutes the interpretation of other archaeologists who call the objects bellows and instead designates them as double bells (1998:159). Admittedly, some of the double cones show a certain resemblance to the iron double bells of the Bulsa and many other ethnic groups of Africa. However, considering the extent of the variations in the form of the double cones, some of the specimens do not evoke any association with double bells. In addition, the objects depicted with their sacrificial bowls (the open parts of the bells) and the conical lower parts (which were probably stuck into the ground or a mud-shrine) seem rather to fit into the category of other terracottas (i.e. single cones, heads or bodies with conical lower parts), which can be interpreted as small shrines or "sacrificial bowls" that may have been part of larger shrines.
The situation is similar with other interpretations that are expected to demonstrate a relationship of terracotta elements with the Bulsa material culture. On page 169 (Fig. 9.7) of the above-mentioned publication, eight different "amulet necklace motifs" are depicted, including one which Anquandah calls a "star" (chingmarik). Not only does the object resemble a five-pointed star to some extent, but it also coincides with the occurrence of star amulets worn as necklaces among the Bulsa today. These factors favour Anquandah’s interpretation. However, if we consider the shape within the full repertoire of Komaland terracottas, numerous variations of this type have no resemblance to a star. In Fig. 9.7 of Anquandah’s text, for example, the design shown below the above-mentioned amulet represents the same basic elements, but in fact has hardly any resemblance to a star. Rather, it strongly resembles the forms shown on the same page that are referred to as "moons" (chiik).

More substantial arguments supporting the suggestion that the Bulsa are culturally related to the creators of the terracottas can be derived from the metal artefacts excavated in Yikpabongo by Anquandah. All types mentioned here are still worn or used today:

Bang-gbin: a twisted iron bangle with loops

Bangmieni: a twisted bronze bangle

Poning: an iron knife or razor

Ni-felin: an iron finger-ring

Nientik: a small iron amulet with two spirals

Chiik: a moon-shaped iron amulet worn as a necklace pendant (Anquandah 1998:4243)

4. The Lobi (Burkina Faso)

Fig. 1. Anthropomorphic coned Komaland figurines

The most common type of Komaland terracotta consists of a head with a long conical neck or body (Fig. 1),  which makes it possible to plant these figurines into the ground or into a mud-shrine. If we look for similar phenomena in the vicinity of the excavation area, there is a corresponding type of figurine in the present Lobi culture; it is made of wood and without the cavity in the skull (depicted in Meyer 1981:35, Fig. 59). Again, several other elements of the material culture of the Komaland terracottas are found, almost as expected, among the Lobi. Both cultures possess Janus representations, which nonetheless do not resemble each other very much. It is the same with images of anthropomorphic one-footed figurines, of which Meyer depicts a Lobi metal pendant (1981:169, Fig. 232). Calabash helmets, disc and moon-shaped chest pendants, leg cuffs and twisted iron bangles belong to the repertoire of both cultures but also to that of many other West African societies. As will be demonstrated in the following chapter about the Gan, a particular type of leg amulet occurs on some Komaland  figurines and a similar type of amulet is still worn by Lobi women of today (cf. Fig. 2).

Kankpeyeng and Nkumbaan believe that the closest ethnographically analogous culture to that of the Komaland terracottas may be the Lobi of Northern Ghana (2008:99). In their publication from 2009, they mention the Bulsa in their considerations when they write that, "some contemporary societies in northern Ghana, such as the Lobi and Bulsa, also possess similar artefacts as figurines" (2009:200).

A detailed comparison of other relevant elements of the Lobi and Komaland material cultures using, for example, the works of Henri Labouret (1931), Piet Meyer (1981) and Klaus Schneider (1990) is still pending.

Although the great geographical distance between Komaland and the Lobi tribal territory in Burkina Faso is an argument against Lobi authorship of the terracottas, this objection is mitigated by their migratory history. Schneider comments that they once lived in what is now Northern Ghana, and probably towards the end of the 18th century they migrated from there to Burkina Faso (1990:27S28). According to Père, there is evidence that the Lobi passed over the Mulun River (Black Volta) ten generations ago, and she calculates the date of the first crossing, based on supposing the length of one generation to be about 30 years, as occurring during the late 17th century.


5. The Gan or Kaaba (Burkina Faso)

Schneider, who published about and conducted field research among the Lobi of Burkina Faso, informed me by letter that the Gan material culture is similar to that of the Lobi, but their migratory background makes a connection to the Komaland culture more probable. The Gan, an ethnic group of about 6,000 members, live in the southwest of the Republic of Burkina Faso in the province of Poni. For about 400–500 years, Opiré has been the capital of their kingdom.

Using a rich amount of data, especially with regard to the society, history, religion and art of the Gan, Père (2004) assumes a relationship between the Gan of Burkina Faso and the creators of the Komaland terracottas. Her first method of collecting data consisted of showing photos from the work of Anquandah and van Ham (1985) as well as from a Swiss art gallery to a traditional sculptor of Gan figurines. Reflecting on their style, this informant related some of the Komaland figurines to Gan sculptures and other figurines to those of the Dagara, Lobi and Sisala (Père 2004:191). After these rather unsatisfactory results, Père changed her research method and looked for other evidence of bio-historical or archaeological relations to the Komaland culture (Père 2004:192). Specifically, she focused on the Gan religion’s symbolic objects, which take the form of anthropomorphic representations manifested either through freestanding figurines or as applied to metal trinkets. She asked ritual specialists about which Gan cult items and sculptures the specialists could relate to the photos of Komaland figurines (Père 2004:205, Plate V; 208, Plate VIII and X; 215, Plate XII). This method chosen by the researcher, however, must be viewed critically. In Plate V, for example, the photos of selected Gan and Komaland figurines show a certain resemblance to one another. However, the Komaland statuettes represent Janus figurines (though this is difficult to see in the photos), and so, therefore, they differ in one important regard to the depicted Gan figurine and, as such, are not suited for the comparison. Plate XIII depicts a Komaland Janus and a one-legged figurine. According to the interpretation of Père’s informants, this means that the initiation of a diviner has not yet been completed. In order to apply this interpretation to the Komaland culture, some preconditions must be assumed, namely the existence of diviners, their initiation and a divinatory technique which uses symbolic figurines.

In my own attempts to establish a correlation between the two cultures, I will try to compare the detailed descriptions of Gan religion, art and history, as well as the photos in the works of Père, Bognolo and Maine Durieu (2005) with my own Komaland photo collection. I admit that the criticism levelled at Père’s methods may also, to a certain degree, apply to my own method of comparing elements of Komaland figurines to those of other living or extinct cultures, because a photo can show a terracotta figurine from only one perspective.

5.1 Material Culture

A comparison of Komaland material culture with articles of ritual or secular use from the Gan reveals many parallels. However, the presence of these objects is not restricted to the two cultures concerned here, thus diminishing their value as relevant correlations. Ring or disc-shaped pendants, often with their centres being marked by a cowrie or a cylindrical or conical application, occur very frequently among the Komaland terracottas. While cowries are not found in the corresponding metal pendants of the Gan, there are a few published photos of Gan objects showing applications or knobs that are very similar to those of Komaland ring-pendants. Brazen leg cuffs were formerly used in many West African societies, for example, among the Bulsa, Lobi, Bobo, Senufo, Kasena and others. Remarkably there is a figurine in Bognolo’s book (2010:129, Fig. 124) which looks as if the cuff consists of several rings, one upon the other, and it is this form that can also be found on several Komaland figurines, especially on the legs of horse-riders (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Leg cuffs of the Gan (left) and from Komaland (right); Left drawing: based on a photo in Bognolo 2010:129, Fig. 124

Almost all musical instruments (e.g. conical, cylindrical and hourglass drums as well as gourd rattles) represented as independent instruments or with anthropomorphic Komaland figurines are found among the contemporary Gan as well as in many other West African ethnic groups. While most of the previously-mentioned objects have little value in establishing a close affinity between the two cultures concerned, this does not apply to a particular type of leg amulet worn only by Lobi and Gan women and which consists of an approximately 30-centimetre-long (wavy or straight) band of iron or bronze (Endnote 2), which is fastened to the leg with two cords or straps below the knee and around the ankle (Fig. 3). According to Bognolo (2010:110), this amulet protects the wearer against the guinea worm disease, which they believe is caused by a supernatural being. Bognolo, referring to the Gan (2010:110), and Fisher, referring to the Lobi (1988:128), depict serpentine iron amulets whereas four Komaland terracottas in my collection of photos sport straight ones. The straight type, similar to the one worn by the Komaland terracottas, is probably always cast in bronze among the Gan and has the head of its serpentine shape positioned near the ankle (Bognolo 2010:110).

Fig. 3. Leg amulets of the Gan (left) and from Komaland (others)

5.2 Anthropomorphic Figurines

Often, anthropomorphic figurines of two cultures provide clearer and more convincing arguments for their cultural affinity when they exhibit features that are rare or absent altogether in other ethnic groups of West Africa. However, in this regard a comparison between the Komaland culture and other cultures concerning body postures is not very productive. A sitting position with hands on the knees seems, in the cultures concerned here and in many other cultures, adequate for the presentation of a dignitary. But there are several differences between the very large termite-clay figurines of the royal Gan family and the small fired figurines of the Komaland culture. Specifically, the arms of the former are straight and usually the ancestor is depicted sitting directly on the floor (Père 2004:221) while the latter are often depicted with their arms angled and sitting on a round or square stool.

After the discoveries in Yikpabongo and their first evaluations, an anthropomorphic type of figurine with a hollow, bowl-like skull (Fig. 1) attracted the attention of many Ghanaian and foreign experts. Inside the cavity there is a round and deep hole or slit surrounded by a thin rim, which was previously interpreted as tongue, cowrie or female genital organ. Such representations of long-necked heads with hollow skulls are believed to be unique to West Africa. Père, however, tried to compare them with corresponding types of Gan figurines possessing an anthropomorphic head with a hollow skull, often with a tongue but without a trunk and limbs (Père 2004:202).

From Gan informants she received the following explanation: Spirits have, by nature, an immense knowledge about all things, but they cannot convey this knowledge to human beings because they are unable to speak. The spirit finds a mediator in the kperéé gbeeyé, an extraordinary being, who, as he is not a spirit, can speak to certain initiated human people. Both the spirit and the kperéé gbeeyé, whom Père calls a «petit genie», lose their knowledge completely after they have passed it on. For this reason, they are represented with hollow skulls (2004:202). Unfortunately, Père only includes photos of Komaland figurines with hollowed skulls and not of the corresponding Gan figurines (Père 2004:205, Plate IV).

5.3 Janus Figurines

Anthropomorphic Janus figurines (in both the sense of figurines with one head and two faces or one body and multiple heads) occur in West Africa among several ethnic groups including the Lobi, Ibo, Igbo, Ikoi/Ekoi, Yoruba, Idoma, Dogon and Ashanti and can also be found among the old Nok terracottas. In the old Komaland culture, nearly all possible janiform variations were realized, including one head with two faces, one head with four faces, and two, three or four heads with two faces each. The Gan also have anthropomorphic, multi-headed figurines, which resemble the corresponding Komaland types in many respects. In one of Père’s illustrations, two heads grow out of a simple, broad body (2004:208, Plate XI). While each head of such a type always has two faces in the Komaland culture, this is obviously not the case in Père’s illustration of the Gan figurine. In any case, the anthropomorphic Janus representations of the Gan apparently do not display as manifold variations as the Komaland terracottas. Nevertheless, there is an adequate correlation between the numerous playfully arranged Komaland head types and the Gan artistic products, although the janiform Gan representations do not appear in anthropomorphic but rather in zoomorphic structures. To be precise, these sculptures exhibit multiplicities and combinations of python heads. Snakes with two, three, five or up to as many as 14 heads rank among the most impressive artistic creations of the Gan. The development of anthropomorphism in the janiform representations produced by their "kindred", the creators of the Komaland figurines, is not quite as extraordinary as it first appears because, for the Gan, the python is a symbol of a supernatural entity (Bognolo 2010:43). During this possible development of anthropomorphic Janus figurines of Komaland, it may have been that the triangular shape of the serpent's head had not been abandoned entirely (Fig. 4). Thus, the triangular head shape of these figurines, hitherto an enigma to all experts, finds some solid interpretation.

Fig. 4. Janiform heads: Snake heads of the Gan (left) and anthropomorphic heads from Komaland (others);

Left drawing (Gan) based on a photo in Bognolo 2010:136, Fig. 138


The very imaginative so-called ceramic discs, masterpieces of the Komaland culture in displaying the Janus motif, bear a striking resemblance to the zoomorphic bronze disks of the Gan (Fig. 5). While in my photo collection the maximum number of faces in a Komaland ceramic disk amounts to nine, Durieu (2005:44) published the photo of a bronze pendant with 13 snake heads arranged in a circular pattern, and in Bognolo’s book, there is a picture of a snake with 14 heads, also arranged in a circle (2010:136). Comparing these art objects of the two cultures, there is clearly a stronger anthropomorphism and a greater degree of abstraction and stylization in Komaland disks. At first glance, a viewer of the tart-like ceramic disc (Fig. 5, right) will perhaps not even recognize their janiform character, for the nine mouths together have only nine eyes and nine ear-holes (between the pairs of nose-holes), meaning that each complete face has to share eyes and ear-holes with the two neighbouring faces.

Fig. 5. Janus motifs in circular arrangements: Bronze snake amulet of the Gan (left) and Komaland ceramic disk (right)


5.4 Skull Cult

The most revealing correlation between the two cultures is probably not to be found in the material objects but in an important element of their death cults. In 2007 and 2010, Kankpeyeng and his team discovered a human skull detached from its torso during their excavations in Yikpabongo:

In January 2007, a single skull was recovered [...] without traces of any other human skeletal remains. The skull seems to have been placed facing the ground. In January 2010, a second skull was encountered on a different stone circle mound (YK 10-3) with the teeth removed and placed east of the skull and the jaw to the South. The long bones were placed beneath the jaw. This has been radiocarbon dated to Cal AD 1010 to 1170 (Kankpeyeng 2011:210).

Although this date is well ahead of the majority of previous dates attained by TL analyses, the new dating does not necessarily refer to the age of the settlement, as will be shown below.

Kankpeyeng's general assumptions about the possible origin of this kind of death cult can be applied to the Gan in particular:

The burial of the skull alone without any other or traces of remains or parts of the body is an unusual occurrence today in northern Ghana; but may be a ritual activity of a group not living in northern Ghana today or an abandoned tradition for several reasons, including migrations. Also, parallel ritual activities by some groups within West Africa may provide clues as to its meaning (2008:100).

It is most important for the argument here that this ritual practice was also performed previously by the Gan. According to sources in ethnographic literature, both the heads of deceased kings and of albinos were separated from the trunk. The skulls of albinos, beheaded specifically for this purpose on a golden stool, were used as a "cushion" or headrest for the deceased king (Bognolo 2019:58). According to Bognolo, albinos were considered to be water spirits and their sacrifice continued until the 10th Gan king, Ìkhumè-Sisa, an albino himself, forbid the slaughtering and substituted it with the sacrifice of a donkey (2010:58). The function of the skull cannot be restricted to providing a kind of headrest for the deceased king. Rather, he should also benefit from the slain albino’s kh sa (fluide vital, Bognolo 2010:68).

In her attempt to provide solid information on the skull cult of the Gan, Père received different versions of this ritual since the separation of the skull from the body of a deceased king was a secret act performed by only a few people. According to one version, the removal of the head was performed on the night before the burial after all the assistants had been dismissed. The head was placed on a vessel in which all the released blood and other liquid from the head was collected. According to a second version, the deceased king was buried in the grave of his predecessor, whose bones were removed and whose head was separated from the trunk on this occasion (Père 2004:214).

The skull cult also played a role in the relationship of the Gan to other ethnic groups. There was a bilateral treaty between the society of the Kʋlãgo-Lorhõ and the Gan regarding the removal of skulls. This agreement banned the decapitation of a member of the other group for sacrifices and funeral rites (Père 2004:48). Whether the Gan exchanged skulls with other ethnic groups to provide headrests for deceased kings could not be concluded from the sources available. There existed, however, a reciprocal "courtesy custom" between the Ashanti and Brong in which human heads were exchanged as "cushions" upon the death of one of their kings (Père 2004:46).

This custom may have an impact on the scientific analysis of archaeologically excavated skulls. Their age could, for example, be older than the surrounding settlements, and DNA analyses of samples taken from skulls would possibly not provide any biological information about the inhabitants of the settlement. Even if the skulls found in Yikpabongo belonged to people of the Komaland culture, they might be older than their graves because the Gan, travelling from the south of Ghana, took along certain "symbols" (Père 2004:246), which Bognolo (2010:71) interprets as ancestral skulls ("Or, tout porte à croire que ces «symboles» n’étaient autres que les crânes des ancêtres de la famille royale que les Gan auraient secrètement emportés dans leur fuite").

5.5 History

As indicated above, even a strong convergence of individual elements between two cultures would be meaningless if there had not at least been the possibility of the ancestors or relatives of the modern ethnic group having lived in the settlement area of the other culture. With this premise, the Gan or any of their subgroups remain possible creators of the Komaland culture, although today they live about 200 km away from Yikpabongo. In reconstructing their migration to their present settlement area in Burkina Faso, we have, at present, only oral histories, recorded and analysed mainly by Bognolo and Père.

The oldest traditions concerning the Gan go back to a time when they lived in the south of present-day Ghana. Père was told that they originally lived in Mãkpono (modern Kpone?), which is 200 km east of Accra (2004:42). After a dispute between their king and the head of the royal matriclans, the followers of the latter left their residence. According to Père’s migration report, the Gan moved to northern Ghana where they lived in several towns and villages (see Fig. 6). From their residences at Larabanga near Damongo (Northern Region of Ghana), they left for Wa (Upper West Region) and stayed there for about 20 years. Because of an over-population in this town, they went to Takyiman (Techiman, Brong Ahafo Region) where some of their descendants are still living today. After about five years they moved from Takyiman to Buole (Bole) and again they left some of their people behind before they returned to Wa. Here an intermarriage between Gan women and Wa men took place. Moreover, the facial and abdominal scarifications and also some mourning rites of the two groups are similar (Père 2004: 43).

Fig. 6. Migratory history of the Gan

(according to Père 2004 and Bognolo 2010)


Père was also informed that the Gan had lived for some time together with the Mossi in Gambaga (Northern Region) and that possibly even the name Gambaga was derived from the ethnonym "Gan". After an armed conflict, the Mossi moved to the north and the Gan to the south (Père 2004:48).

Bognolo continued Père’s attempts to highlight the migration routes of the Gan before they reached the southwest of Burkina Faso (see Fig. 6). According to Bognolo (2010:31), this group, perhaps coming from Techiman in the Brong Ahafo Region, moved to Sampa on the border of Ghana and Ivory Coast and from there to Gotogo and Soko, both in Ivory Coast. The next stage of the Gan ancestors’ movement was to Bouna, Ivory Coast, where they divided up into three groups which migrated to three different areas: one to Téhni, Ivory Coast and the others to their current tribal area, from where some groups spread to other settlements. None of the different migration reports mentions the Gan staying in the location of the Komaland culture. Still, a long-term presence in this area cannot be ruled out, especially with Gambaga only 125 km to the east of Yikpabongo, Wa 111 km to the west and Larabanga 116 km to the south.

For the Gan, who, according to Pére (2004:42), were always in search of gold deposits on their travels, the location of the Komaland culture, with its three gold mines in modern times, might have been quite attractive for settlements. Although the archaeologists have not yet found any gold items during the excavations in Yikpabongo, Anquandah reports that "one Yikpabongo sculpture was found embedded in gold dust" (1986:12).

As long as we have no absolute dates (i.e. dates based on C14 or TL analyses), a reliable chronology of the above migrations remains unrealized. In anthropological literature we are only rarely able to assign absolute dates to historical circumstances. According to Maurice Delafosse (1912:317), the Gan left the area around Bandoukou in the 13th century (see also Père 2004:37). They reached Gaoua, today a Lobi town in Burkina Faso, around 1290 (Durieu 2005:11). Père tries to obtain absolute dates from her genealogical lists of Lobi ancestors by estimating that one generation lasted 30 years. As mentioned above, in her analysis the Lobi crossed the Muhun River (Black Volta) on the way to their present settlement area in the late 17th century while the royal family of the Gan arrived about 200 years earlier at the end of the 15th century (2004:45). Paley and Hébert (1962:417) attempt to obtain absolute dates by attributing a certain number of years to the reigns of the 28 Gan kings. If a 10-year-reign is assumed, the first king would have arrived in 1680; for a fifteen-year-reign it would have been 1540. In the end, the authors fix the arrival of the Gan kings to the middle of the 16th century. Bognolo (2010:25) comments on the ruins of the old royal palace of Opiré by saying that it was built for Kado, the first Gan queen, about 400 years ago.

Although today we can only speculate about when the Gan groups reached certain stages of their migration, from a purely chronological point of view, they cannot be excluded as being the creators of the Komaland terracotta culture, which, according to recent datings, began in the 10th century or even earlier (see above). This means, however, that the Gan or one of their sub-groups had lived in the present Komaland before they reached the Gan tribal area in Burkina Faso.

5.6 Language

Linguistic investigations of the modern Gan language which aim to provide evidence that its morphemes originated from southern Ghanaian Kwa-languages (e.g. Ga or Akan) might help us to prove and localize the original home of the Gan. This was attempted by Gudrun Miehe (1996:6982). One result of her linguistic analysis is that Kaasa, the language of the Kaaba/Gan, holds a special position within the Gur languages (1996:80). Her second insight concerning the relation of Kaasa to the Kwa languages of southern Ghana is equally clear. None of the linguistic characteristics of Kaasa discussed in her study indicate an origin in the domain of the Kwa-languages.

However, I cannot agree with Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler (1997:124) who sums up Miehe’s investigation by declaring that she can clearly refute a descent of the Gan from the south of Ghana. Often it has happened in northern Ghanaian history that small groups who migrated into a different area gave up their own language and adopted that of the indigenous population, as, for example, happened with the Mamprusi conquerors among the autochthonous Bulsa. Changing the language of Gan is also assumed by Paley and Hébert (1962:415) as well as Père (2004:47).


The many correlations of cultural elements between the present-day Gan and the Komaland culture make us believe that at least close links (e.g. the exchange of cultural goods) between the two cultures existed. Clear evidence that the Gan were the creators of the Komaland terracottas can, however, not yet be provided without any doubt. Also, there are several cultural elements found on the terracotta figurines which have not (or only inadequately) been documented for the present Gan:

• The upper arm daggers as they are found on the Komaland and Inland Niger Delta terracottas (Endnote 3)

• Representations of horsemen: Père claims that the Gan used horses in their travels and every Gan king had to be in possession of a horse, but representations in clay or metal are not known to me. A "crocodile rider", however, which is illustrated in Père`s book, resembles the Komaland "horse riders" to a great degree (2004:527, Fig. 261).

• Anthropomorphic terracotta cones: No clear evidence has been furnished that the Gan produced or produce these figurines with a conical base as they occur in the Komaland and the Lobi cultures (see also Père 2004:205).

Various additional influences may have been exerted on the Komaland culture at any time. These include: the Inland Niger Delta culture by way of former trade routes, the Bulsa on whose present territory Komaland terracottas were found and the Lobi in Burkina Faso. Possibly, there may even have been some impact from Kpalewogu, the neighbouring town, although it is difficult to find Islamic features on the terracottas.

With respect to the physical creators of the Komaland culture, it is most probable that, because of the striking similarities pointed out in this paper, the Gan played this role.



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1. In Konni, the language of the Koma, kuring means "to be old"; balli (Singular bua) means "children (Kröger and Saibu 2010: 418).

2. Although the alloy of the Gan objects contains more than just copper and tin (cf. Durieu 2005: 17), I follow Père, Bognolo, Durieu and others in calling it "bronze".

3. A distribution map of arm-daggers can be found in Lagercrantz 1937:426 for West Africa and Lagercrantz 1950:213 for Africa.