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Mound Makers and Brass Casters from the Akuapem Ridge, Eastern Ghana

Question of Identity in the Archaeological Record
Brempong Osei-Tutu
p. 55-64


Les recherches menées dans les collines de l’Akwapem (Eastern Region), au Ghana, ont permis la mise au jour plusieurs dépôts d’ordures datant du XIVe au XVIIe siècles. La présence dans ces monticules d’abondantes scories, d’outils en fer, et d’objets en cuivre et en laiton atteste de l’existence d’activités métallurgiques et du développement des activités industrielles dans cette région. La production de laiton, attestée par la présence de nombreux creusets et moules, a une importance toute particulière, mais les chercheurs sont divisés quant à l’identité du groupe social associé à cette activité. Cet article souligne qu’il est pour ainsi dire impossible d’associer cette industrie avec un quelconque groupe sociolinguistique et suggère qu’il nous faut prendre en compte la probable coexistence dans les collines de l’Akwapem de groupes aux identités aussi variées que fugaces.

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Figure 1 : Rubbish mounds in Akwapim

Background to the area

1The Akuapem ridge is located some fifty kilometers inland of Accra (see fig. 1, p.56). Ranging from 350 to 500 meters above sea level, the ridge forms part of what is called the Togo-Atakora range, which extends through the Volta Region of Ghana into the Republic of Togo and beyond. The predominant ethnic composition in the area comprises the Hill Guans and Akans (the major sociolinguistic group in Ghana) of mainly Akwamu and Akyem origins. The Hill Guans (subdivided into Okere/Kyerepong and Larteh) form part of the southernmost cluster of the Guan population in Ghana (Stewart 1972:82). Other Guan subgroups can be found in various parts of Ghana stretching from the coastal belt to the northern areas.

2Both the Guan language cluster and Akan belong to the Volta-Comoe language family but they became separated to become two different languages in the distant past. The two languages are, therefore, not currently mutually intelligible. However, the Hill Guans understand Akan. Indeed, Akuapem Twi (one form of Akan) is their lingua franca. The Hill Guans and Akans differ in other respects. For example, whereas the Akan have a matrilineal system of inheritance, the Guans retain their patrilineal system of inheritance.

The mound makers and the associated material remains

3While Shaw associates the Hill-Guans with, at least, the lower part of the rubbish mound he excavated he also concluded that the Akwamu were responsible for the upper part (post 1600) of the mound. Shaw’s reasoning is largely based on the presence of a number of ivory objects and terracotta heads or clay sculptures which he associated with the Akan. The upper part of his mound also coincides with a period of more imports. Shaw claims to have observed a change in some of the pottery as well as other artifacts such as bone combs around the time of the first smoking pipes. He calls this “ a marked change” (Shaw 1961:87). Authors such as Ivor Wilks (1964:401) and Kwamena-Poh (1973) have quoted this seventeenth century Akwamu factor to emphasize Akan presence among the Hill Guans at the time.

4While also associating the present-day Hill Guans with the mounds and their associated archaeological remains, John Sutton (1981) disagrees with Shaw’s conclusion that there was a marked change in the material culture at Dawu. Sutton does not see any change in the pottery. He argues that pottery from all the levels appears virtually homogenous. The similarity in the pottery can, however, be attributed to the fact that the social groups on the Akuapem ridge continued to obtain their pottery from the Eastern Accra Plains. Present-day Akuapem people still obtain their pottery from this source. Sutton contends that even if there was any change at all it must have been relatively gradual rather than revolutionary. Findings from my excavation of the two mounds are consistent with Sutton’s position. This view does not, however, strengthen or weaken the suggestion that Akan influences were beginning to bear on this area, either through an actual Akwamu presence or through more subtle processes.

5In assessing the finds from his excavation, Shaw (1961:87, 1962:31) observes that, “clearly these early Guan inhabitants were craftsmen in brass of very high order”. Contrary to Shaw’s conclusion, Tim Garrard (1980) contends that there is no evidence of high standards in the brass working industry. He also faults Shaw for associating the Guans with the industry. He argues that while the archaeological data attest to brass casters with the ability to produce lost-wax castings of various kinds and perhaps also hammered work, the finds do not exhibit any great artistic ability. Garrard posits that decoration, where present at all, is simple and rudimentary comprising impressed dots and undistinguished linear designs. He argues that this is a far cry from the fine works achieved by Akan brass casters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

6Garrard further disagrees with Shaw’s assertion that there was a cultural change attributable to Akwamu influence. According to Garrard, there is no evidence for this as on the contrary Ozanne points out that the style of the earlier bone combs at Dawu is the same as that of the combs excavated from the Akwamu capital of Nyanawase whereas the style of the later Dawu combs is different (Ozanne 1962:120). Garrard suggests that the earliest settlers may well have been people of Akwamu descent following the gold trade and who were later joined or perhaps ousted by a Guan-speaking group who subsequently abandoned the area as a result of Akwamu campaigns about 1680-1681 (Garrard 1980:104-145).

7Garrard uses ethnographic evidence to buttress his view. He emphasizes that throughout his research in Ghana he has never known the Guan-speaking groups to be traditional brass workers and that there appears to be no evidence that the Guan-speaking groups have worked brass in recent times. He argues that if they ever did so one might expect that they learnt such skills from the neighbouring Akan (perhaps the Akwamu).

8He suggests that the evidence of finer work in the earliest period, with its characteristic Akan designs, would tend to support the evidence of the bone combs, namely that Akwamu influence was stronger in the early period but subsequently declined. He speculates that the first brass workers at Dawu were perhaps Akan whose fine work was superseded in later times by that of the less skilled Guan-speakers.

9By crediting the Guans with the making of the Dawu mound and its cultural contents Shaw assumed that they were the first people to settle in the area and that they probably lived there in isolation until they came into contact with the Akwamu around the seventeenth century. Shaw did not consider the possibility of an earlier Akwamu presence in the area.

10Garrard bases his disputation of Shaw’s assertion that the Guans were responsible for the brass working industry at Dawu on the fact no Guan groups known to him have been observed to be brass casters. Yet finds from Shaw’s excavation attest to a booming brass working industry at Dawu from the mid-sixteenth century. This evidence renders Garrard’s views static and structural functionalist because the fact that the Guan-speaking groups known to him are not brass casters today does not necessarily mean that their ancestors could never have been brass casters in the past.

11There are two basic problems regarding this debate. One is the assumption that the brass industry at Dawu can be linked to a specific social group on the Akuapem ridge. The second relates to the failure to appreciate the co-existence of different social groups. Related to this is the presumed late arrival of the Akwamu in the area, whereas the evidence for brass working starts right from the beginning of the Dawu mound.

12Scholars who have tried to relate the brass industry to either the Akan or the Hill Guans create the impression that this linkage is not problematic. On the contrary archaeologists have become increasingly sceptical about attempts to correlate material culture with specific social groups because there are so many uncertainties about such an approach. For example, similar material culture may not necessarily indicate that those who produced it were the same people, and conversely, changes in material culture may not necessarily indicate changes in ethnic composition (Jones 1997: Jones and Graves-Brown 1996). Further, a distinctive material culture may represent the activities of a vast variety of social groupings and subgroups.

13For these reasons, I suggest that in examining the potential authors of the Akuapem mounds and their cultural contents, we ought to consider the possibility of the co-existence of the Hill Guans, Akwamu and other sociolinguistic groups. It also means taking the presence of the Akwamu further back than the seventeenth century than has usually been the case.

Evidence for possible Akwamu presence on the Akuapem ridge prior to the 17th century

14Sutton (1979:5) suggests that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represent the critical period during which Akan prestige and identity became effectively established in Akuapem and outside it at the expense of Guan. The Akan ethnic groups of Akwamu and Akyem were mainly responsible for the Akanization of the Guan community. Akwamu initial presence on the ridge may have been one of peaceful infiltration, as there is no evidence to suggest a violent intrusion (Wilks 1964:401). By 1600 Akwamu had expanded extensively in southern Ghana. Traders were probably the earliest Akwamu elements on the Akuapem ridge to establish themselves on new trade routes leading inland from the various European ports of call between Accra and the Volta River. The Akuapem area lay along an important trade route that linked the Accra Coast with the Akan interior (Ozanne 1962:66). These early Akwamu elements on the Akuapem ridge may have become wealthy and socially powerful through trade and other activities.

15Subsequently, when Akwamu embarked upon its expansionist policy from about 1677 it may very likely have stationed its representatives in areas of its influence to watch over its interests. The Akans in general were noted for this pragmatic approach. Wilks (1971:367) sums up Akwamu presence in Akuapem as follows:

Akwamu expansion fell into two distinct phases, the transition from one to the other being in 1677. In the earlier phase it appears to have been slow and uncoordinated, a matter perhaps of infiltration rather than conquest. Groups spread along the Akuapem scarp, and into the densely forested region to its north establishing settlements among the Guan and southern Akan people of the area over whom, by their greater organizational resources, they gradually gained ascendancy. By contrast, the later post-1677 phase was one of concerted military campaigns, which made the Akwamu presence, felt westwards across the Volta to the frontiers of Dahomey/Benin.

16This process of Akanization could have made it possible for the immigrants to gain customary and political rights such as stool succession. The king of Akuapem (twi, Akuapemhene), for example, is of Akyem (Abuakwa) origin while the chiefs (twi, Ahenease) of Aburi (twi, Aburihene) and Larte (twi, Lartehene) originated from Akwamu. Kwamena-Poh (1973:55) suggests that the selection of Aburi, Larteh and Adukrom as the seats of the central division (twi, Adonten), the left wing (twi, Benkum) and the right wing (Twi, Nifa) respectively of the Akuapem State was based on the existence of earlier stools in these areas. Hill Guan traditions indicate that the Akan immigrants introduced the present political system of chieftaincy on the Akuapem ridge.

Linguistic Evidence

17The infusion of Akan immigrants into the Hill Guan community no doubt impacted the linguistic landscape in the area. Stewart (1966) as well as other scholars (e.g. Sutton 1979 ; Wilks 1964) note that the language unity of the earlier Guan population in Akuapem broke up three to four centuries ago thereby launching the various Hill Guan dialects on their separate histories. Some have strongly suggested that it was the arrival of the Akan-speaking settlers in the early seventeenth century that precipitated this change. With the benefit of oral traditions Eric Ayisi (1965) asserts that the change was accomplished through force. His perspective is reinforced by Kropp-Dakubu (1982:248) who notes that :

Linguistic change may come about through conquest, when a state-forming group imposes its language on the population already present, even though its numbers may be smaller. But it seems that such an event must be accompanied by strong social and economic motivation for change, and perhaps a high degree of inter-marriage, since in some places the chief’s court is conducted in a different language from that of the people’s everyday life. The change may come about peacefully, when the linguistic community is assimilated into another that is expanding economically and perhaps politically.

18There is still in present-day Akuapem a gradual drift from Guan to Akan/Twi. The change is reflected in the many Twi words in the Hill Guan dialects. This observation has prompted scholars such as James Anquandah to predict that the Guan cluster of languages may be completely taken over by Akan. However, the evidence from the Akuapem ridge gives a more complex picture. While some of the Hill Guan towns remain Guan-speaking, Tutu, Obosomase, Mampong and Mamfe (all to the south of Akropong and believed to be Guan-speaking in the past) have lost any trace of the Guan dialect. The only common Guan characteristic that has been retained by these towns presently is their patrilineal system of inheritance. On the other hand, the Hill Guan dialects have shown some resiliency partly because its speakers take delight in their ability to speak it fluently (Kropp-Dakubu 1977).

Evidence from Oral Traditions

19To explain the linguistic transformation through force alone is to, however, oversimplify a more complex situation. We have to appreciate the peculiar circumstances in the Akuapem area and its surroundings that may have precipitated and made possible the linguistic change. Hill Guan traditions suggest that some of the towns, which were involved in a complete linguistic change, were not composed wholly of Guan-speaking people. The community in Akuapem was likely made up of a conglomeration of various groups in which both Guan-speakers, as probably the predominant group, and Twi-speakers were involved. Indeed, this is the situation in present-day Kyerepong and Larteh.

20The Hill Guans probably made a conscious attempt to integrate the immigrants into the existing quarters (suburbs) or by creating separate quarters for those who arrived in large numbers. For example, Larteh has separate quarters for people of Asante origin as well as other social groups (Brokensha 1966). Abiriw has separate quarters for people of Akwamu and Akyem descent respectively. Hill Guan traditions confirm the integration of these groups into their community. Kropp-Dakubu (1977) has observed that there is some evidence of ethnic assimilation to Hill Guan. Once this was done a fictional link soon replaced the original one. As it is the case in keeping with Akan attitudes, reminders of origin were prohibited. I argue for an earlier presence of Akwamu immigrants from just about the time the mounds began to accumulate in the mid-sixteenth century. This position does not flaw Sutton’s (1979) contention that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the critical period the Akans effectively established themselves in Akuapem and beyond at the expense of Guan.

21Perhaps it was this conglomeration of Guan and Twi-speaking people, which precipitated the Akanization of the Akuapem towns referred to previously. Kwamena-Poh (1973 :10-11) suggests that the nearness of the Guan-speaking people to the center of Akwamu proper also probably made this possible. He sees the coming of the Akyem immigrants in the mid- seventeenth century as the process that completed the change by the end of the eighteenth century.

22Some of the Hill Guans, who escaped the process of complete Akanization of their language three to four centuries ago, probably as a result of their relative isolation from the former Guan-speaking towns and therefore more separated from Akwamu proper, gradually accepted many Twi words in their vocabulary. Kropp-Dakubu (1977) notes Akuapem adoption of Asante innovations, which presumably followed the conquest of the Akuapem by Akyem in the eighteenth century. Mamfe, in particular, became separated from her Guan-speaking neighbors of Abiriw and Abotakyi, hemmed in by the Twi-speaking areas of Akropong and Amanokrom. Indeed, the names of all the Kyerepong towns, except probably Abiriw, sound Akan. Incidentally, Abiriw is the southernmost Kyerepong town and the only one that has merged with the Akan town of Akropong. Yet Abiriw has been able to maintain its Guan identity to some extent.

Concluding remarks

23The contentious issue in this paper regards the social group responsible for the sixteenth and seventeenth century brass casting on the Akuapem ridge. Shaw favours the Guans but Garrard credits the Akwamu with the industry. The issue brings into perspective one of the fundamental problems faced by archaeologists in trying to correlate material remains in the past with present-day ethnic or social groups (Childe 1951:49 ; Daniel 1962:132-135 ; Shennan 1994). Despite the centrality of this problem to archaeological pursuit, archaeologists have yet to develop viable theoretical and methodological approaches to the issue. On the Akuapem ridge the problem of trying to link the Akan or the Guan with the brass industry remains unresolved. One approach to the problem is to consider the co-existence of different social groups. Oral traditions as well as general historical and linguistic evidence suggest such a heterogeneous community on the Akuapem ridge in the past. This community included people of Akwamu descent.

24Pre-seventeenth century Akwamu presence in Akuapem may explain why what Kwamena-Poh (1973) refers to as “modified Akwamu Twi” became the lingua franca of the Hill Guans and the standard language (kurom kasa) of the other social groups. Even the Akyem immigrants, whom one would have expected to speak either the Asante or Akyem version of Twi, do speak Akuapem Twi up to this day. Not even the defeat of Akwamu by the combined forces of the Hill Guans and Akyem in the late seventeenth century, coupled with Akyem control over the area, could further change the linguistic situation.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1 : Rubbish mounds in Akwapim
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Brempong Osei-Tutu, « Mound Makers and Brass Casters from the Akuapem Ridge, Eastern Ghana », Journal des africanistes, 75-2 | 2005, 55-64.

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Brempong Osei-Tutu, « Mound Makers and Brass Casters from the Akuapem Ridge, Eastern Ghana », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 75-2 | 2005, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2008, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL :

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Brempong Osei-Tutu

Department of Archaeology, University of Ghana, Ghana.

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