Nuer, a Nilotic people living around Lake No in the S Sudan. Their economy and social life generally revolve around cattle, which are grazed on the plains during the dry season and in the hills during the wet season. During the dry season, the Nuer also fish, hunt, and gather wild plant foods. At their initiation, boys receive six horizontal cuts in the forehead and are given cattle; thereafter they belong to an age grade, with whom they will advance into various positions within the clan over the period of their lives. Descent is patrilineal, and when a man marries he receives more cattle from his father (see marriage and kinship). There is no centralized political authority, but rather a number of autonomous village communities. Spiritual leaders, known as leopard skin chiefs, are employed in the mediation of disputes. E. E. Evans Pritchard's ethnography (1940) is the standard work on the Nuer.
The Nuer are a confederation of tribes located in Southern Sudan and western Ethiopia. Collectively, the Nuer form one of the largest ethnic groups in East Africa. They are a pastoral people who rely on cattle products for almost every aspect of their daily lives.


They are one of the very few African groups that successfully fended off colonial powers in the early 1900s. Nuer warriors were noted as some of the most skilled in East Africa, and wielded weapons made of finely crafted iron. Since the Nuer were so successful at fending off European powers, they spent much of their time interacting with bordering groups like those of the Dinka and Anuaks. The Nuer, being very well organized, were often able to conduct cattle raids against the Dinka, a tribe larger in population. Their traditional political organization, presented to the outside world through the ethnographic work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard, has become a classic example of an indigenous heterarchical political structure without a single leader or leader group.

The nature of relations among these various southern tribes were greatly affected in the nineteenth century by the intrusion of Ottomans, Arabs, and eventually the British. Some ethnic groups made their accommodation with the intruders and others did not, in effect pitting one southern ethnic group against another in the context of foreign rule. For example, some sections of the Dinka were more accommodating to British rule than were the Nuer. The Dinka treated the resisting Nuer as hostile, and hostility developed between the two groups as a result of their differing relationships to the British.


Cattle have historically been of the highest symbolic, religious and economic value among the Nuer. Cattle are particularly important in their role as bridewealth, where they are given by a husband's lineage to his wife's lineage. It is this exchange of cattle which ensures that the children will be considered to belong to the husband's lineage and to his line of descent. The classical Nuer institution of ghost marriage, in which a man can "father" children after his death, is based on this ability of cattle exchanges to define relations of kinship and descent. In their turn, cattle given over to the wife's patrilineage enable the male children of that patrilineage to marry, and thereby ensure the continuity of her patrilineage.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard studied the Nuer and made very detailed accounts of his interactions. He also describes Nuer cosmology and religion in his books.

In the 1990s, Sharon Hutchinson returned to Nuerland to update Evans-Pritchard's account. She found that the Nuer had placed strict limits on the convertibility of money and cattle in order to preserve the special status of cattle as objects of bridewealth exchange and as mediators to the divine. She also found that as a result of endemic warfare with the Sudanese state, guns had acquired much of the symbolic and ritual importance previously held by cattle.

The tribe speak the Nuer language, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan language phylum.

The Nuer receive facial markings (called gaar) as part of their initiation into adulthood. The pattern of Nuer scarification varies within specific subgroups. The most common initiation pattern among males consists of six parallel horizontal lines which are cut across the forehead with a razor, often with a dip in the lines above the nose. Dotted patterns are also common (especially among the Bul Nuer and among females).

Typical foods eaten by the Nuer tribe include beef, goat, cow's milk, mangos, and sorghum in one of three forms: "kop" finely ground, handled until balled and boiled, "wal wal" ground, lightly balled and boiled to a solid porridge, and injera a large, pancake-like unrisen bread.

Because of the civil wars in Southern Sudan over the past 50 years, many Nuer have emigrated to Kenya and elsewhere. Approximately 25,000 Nuer were resettled in the United States as refugees since the early 1990s, with many Nuer now residing in Nebraska, Minnesota, Sag Harbor, NY, Iowa, South Dakota, Tennessee, Georgia and many other states, and some of them living in Canada, mostly in Toronto, Kitchener, Edmonton, and Calgary. There are currently (2008) over 20,000 Southern Sudanese in Australia, perhaps a third of these Nuer.

Nuer politicians

The Nuer leaders in the South are Dr. Riek Machar (Vice President), General Paulino Matip Nhial (Deputy Commander in Chief of the SPLA), General Peter Gadet , Mr. John Luk (Sports Minister), Mr. Taban Deng Gai (Governor of Unity State), Dr. Joseph Wejang (Minister of Health), Mr. Gatluak Deng (Governor of Upper Nile State), Mr. Dak Duop Bichok (Former Governor Upper Nile State), General Chuol Gak Yier Chiol Geng (SPLA General, General Gathoth Mai (SPLA General), General Chayot Nyang, Mr. Kun Puoch (Director for the SSRRC), Gordon Koang Chol (SPDF Commander), Tang Wal (SPLA Colonel), and Engineer Daniel Koat Mathews, Col. Bol Gatkuoth (SSDF Representative), the newly-appointed SPLA Major General Mr. Mat Wur (southern Sudan senator).

Other historical and prominent Nuer politicians who were once in the government of Sudan were Philip Pedak Lieth, Mr.Both Diu Nyuot, Mr. Moses Chol Juach, Mr. Joshua Dei Wal, Mr. Ret Chol Joak, Mr. Thomas Tongyiik Tut, General Elijah Hon Top, Mr. Gang Chol Joak, Mr. Pal Gaach, Colonel William Nyuon Bany and Major Samuel Gai Tut, General Chuol Deng Luth, Mr. Chol Chotper, General Kulang Puot Wieu. The people of Nasir of The Upper Nile State, people of Bentiu of The Unity State, people of Akobo, Waat, Pangaak, Ayod of Jongulei State all speak the Nuer language. They constitute the tribe called Nuer of South Sudan

Naming conventions

  • "Nya" (nee ya) meaning "daughter of", is the standard prefix used for female names. "Gat" meaning "son of", is a common prefix for male names.
  • Children are commonly given names to mark historical events ("Domaac" meaning "bullet", or "Mac" meaning "gun" given to a child born during times of war).
  • "Nhial" means "rain", and is a common name for males.
  • Many Nuer have been exposed to missionaries and carry a Christian first name. Their second name is a given name and always in Nuer. The father's given name follows the child's given name, which is then followed by the grandfather's name, and so on. Many Nuer can easily recount ten generations of paternal lineage because they carry those names themselves.
  • When a Nuer comes to the Western world, which wants a first and last name, it is their custom to give their name as their first name followed by their father's name as a their middle name and their grandfather's name as their last name.

See also

External links

Books and Other Resources

See works of Evans-Pritchard.

More recent publications related to the Nuer include:

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