The Sao Civilization was an ancient culture located in Central Africa, in an area which is today partly owned by the countries of Cameroon and Chad. They settled along the Chari River, which is located to the south of Lake Chad. The modern Kotoko people, an ethnic group located in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, claim ethnic descent from the ancient Sao. According to their tradition, the Sao were a race of giants that used to inhabit the area to the south of Lake Chad, between the northern regions of both Nigeria and Cameroon.
The term ‘Sao’ was likely to have first been introduced into the written sources during the 16th century AD. In his two chronicles (both of which were written in Arabic), The Book of the Bornu Wars and The Book of the Kanem Wars , the grand Imam of the Bornu Empire, Ahmad Ibn Furtu, described the military expeditions of his king, Idris Alooma. Those populations that were conquered and vanquished by Idris Alooma were generally referred to as the ‘Sao’, the ‘others’ who were did not speak the Kanuri language (a Nilo-Saharan language). These settlers, who were possibly the first settlers of the region, spoke one or another Chadic language, derived from the evolution of the Central Chadic language sub-family.
The works of Ibn Furtu also provide some information about the way that the Sao were organized. Apart from evidence suggesting they were structured into patrilineal clans, it is said that the Sao were organized into ranked and centralized societies, thus indicating a hierarchy. These polities were either called chiefdoms or kingdoms, depending on the circumstances.
In addition, the Sao were recorded to have dwelt in small towns that were protected by moats and earthen ramparts, thus suggesting that they may have functioned as city-states. When Idris Alooma conducted his military campaigns, the towns of the Sao that were closest to the Bornu heartland were conquered and absorbed into the Bornu state. Those on the outer-periphery, however, were more difficult to rule directly, and a different strategy was employed. Instead of conquering these towns, they were coerced into a tributary status, and a representative of the Bornu state appointed in residence to oversee the local government. Therefore another explanation for the decline of the Sao may be through assimilation.
Link to original article titled "Lost in the Mists of Time: The Ancient Sao Civilization in Central Africa."
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