Dan mask


The first inhabitants of the region which is now known as Liberia may have been Pygmies, or people of small size, referred to in Liberia as ‘Jinna’. No recorded history can prove their existence, but they still play an important role in the oral history and the religious life of some of Liberia’s tribes. When the Golas, who are supposed to be the oldest of the Liberian tribes, travelled from the interior of Central Africa to this West African region they reportedly met these small-sized peoples,who were bushmen and who ‘dwelt in caves and the hollows of large trees, and lived on fruits and roots of wild trees,’ according to Liberian historian Abayomi Karnga.  

A second group of peoples is reported to have arrived in the region about 6,000 B.C. Though their origin is not very clear they most likely came from the Western Sudan. These newly arrived people defeated the Golas and other tribes such as the Kissi, and established an empire under the leadership of King Kumba, after whom they were called. The Kumbas comprised distinct groups which developed into different tribes after the death of their leader: the Kpelle, the Loma, the Gbande, the Mende, and the Mano, all belonging to the same linguistic group. They were chiefly agriculturalists but also developed arts such as pottery, weaving, and basket making. Their blacksmiths were able to make spears, arrow-heads, hoes, knives, rings and iron rods. These iron rods were used as a medium of exchange.

The third group of peoples who arrived and settled in the region which is now known as Liberia migrated to this part of West Africa quite recently. They were the Kru, Bassa, Dei, Mamba, and Grebo tribes. They came from what is now the Republic of Ivory Coast. Population pressure – due to the mass-emigration of tribes from the Western Sudan where the mediaeval empires had declined after their conquest by the Moroccan army – had resulted in tribal wars. The Kru arrived in the early sixteenth century. They came by sea, as did – later – a part of the Grebo. These Grebo who took the sea-route were later called ‘seaside Greboes’ in order to distinguish them from their kinsmen who decided to travel by land, the safer way. Those who braved the dangerous waves still feel superior to these so-called ‘bush’-Greboes. All the peoples of this group belong to the same linguistic group.

The last group of tribes to arrive from ‘over land’ was the Mandingo-group, comprising the Vai and the Mandingo tribes. The Vai also migrated to the West African central region in the sixteenth century and had probably the same motivation as the tribes of the third group. They crossed the western part of the actual republic of Liberia, clashed with the Gola whom they subsequently defeated, and – later – moved to the coast where they settled. The Vai form the first tribe of this region which was moslem, unlike the tribes previously mentioned which were all animists. It was one of the few tribes of Black Africa who developed its own script.

About the seventeenth century the Mandingos began to arrive in Liberia. They were moslems too. They too originated from the Western Sudan. They left this region after the Empire of Mali – of which they formed a part – was considerably reduced by the Emperor of Gao, Askia Mohammed, in the sixteenth century.

In the beginning of the 19th century, groups of freed slaves and mulattoes from the United States of America emigrated to the west coast of Africa. The colonists proudly called themselves ‘Americo-Liberians’. In reality, however, they did not form a homogeneous group. Generally, the colonists/immigrants can be divided into three groups. Firstly, there were the freed slaves and/or their descendents from the U.S.A.. Secondly, there also was a group of freed slaves and/or their descendents from the Caribbean Islands (West Indies). Thirdly, there was the group of recaptured Africans intercepted from slave vessels by the U.S. Navy after the abolishment of the slave trade (1806) . The Americans landed them, first, in their colony of Liberia, later, after 1847, in the Republic of Liberia (like the British did in Freetown, established in 1787, and the French in Libreville, founded in 1849).

The people belonging to this third group especially became known in Liberia as ‘Congo-people’ as many originated from Central Africa, particularly the Congo River Basin. These immigrants were, contrary to those from the New World, not culturally uprooted. They had been torn away from their natural and social environment but had never been exposed to non-African cultures before arriving in Liberia.

Kissi money


From: ‘The Open Door Policy of Liberia – An Economic History of Modern Liberia’ by Fred van der Kraaij (Bremen, 1983, 2 volumes); pp.1-2 and p.15.

Note: The spelling of the names of the approximately 26 Liberian tribes frequently differ. Some of the alternatives used: Bandi or Gbande (Gbandi), Dan (Gio), De or Dey (Dei), Gbopo, Gedebo or Gruvo (Grebo), Gissi or Kisi (Kissi), Kpesso or Kpwesi (Kpelle), Krou or Kruman (Kru), Maa, Ma or Mah (Mano), Malinke (Mandingo), and Medi (Mende). 29 languages have been listed as living languages.