The Mino, Women Warriors of the Kingdom of Dahomey
The Kingdom of Dahomey was a small but powerful realm in East Africa located in what is now the present day country of Benin. A very militaristic society, the Dahomey became a regional power by conquering the many tribes and cities that neighbored it on the Atlantic coast. One of the reasons for Dahomey’s great successes was a well organized and professional standing army, something rare among the disorganized tribes and peoples of Africa. One of the most interesting curiosities of the Dahomey Army was an elite corps of soldiers called the Mino, who were considered the best of the best among the Dahomey.
What made the Mino so unique was that it was a unit made entirely of women. Known as the “Dahomey Amazons” to Europeans, the Mino recruited unmarried women who were often virgins. They were trained to be tough, disciplined, and fearless. Often they were unstoppable, and even well equipped European forces such as the French suffered terrible defeats at their hands. Being captured by the Mino was most unfortunate, as Mino women tended to decapitate captured enemies. According to the account of Jean Bayol, a French officer who visited Dahomey,
“I watched as a teenage recruit, a girl named Nanisca who had not yet killed anyone, was tested. Brought before a young prisoner who sat bound in a basket, she walked jauntily up to him, swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk… She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.”
Along with their ferocity and skill, the Mino were also successful because they were equipped with the best weaponry in all of Africa. This included firearms, often acquired from Europeans by trading captured prisoners to European slavers. Along with clubs, knives, machetes and spears the typical Mino warrior was armed with a flintlock musket. By the late 19th century the Dahomey had even managed to acquire a number of Winchester repeating rifles with ammunition. At the height of their power, the Mino numbered 4,000 - 6,000 women, about 1/3rd of the Dahomey Army.
In 1890 the Dahomey picked a fight with an enemy they could not conquer; France. The French declared war after the Dahomey attacked a city that was the protectorate of the French. They decapitated the French governor of the city and forced his wife to roll her husbands severed head in a French flag. At first the Mino won several victories against the French, who were unprepared to fire on women or stand up to their ferocity. According to accounts from the Battle of Kotonou, at one point a Mino warrior who had been deprived of her weapon killed a man by biting him on the throat. Despite such ferocity French superiority of arms took its toll, as the French were well armed with modern repeating rifles, machine guns, and cannon. By 1894 the French had defeated and conquered the Kingdom of Dahomey, turning it into a puppet state called the Republic of Dahomey, later renamed Benin. The Mino were the last Dahomey to surrender, being reduced to only 50 women out of an original 4,000. Interestingly, most of the last Mino warriors emigrated to the United States, where they were hired by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The last Mino warrior was identified as a very elderly woman living in Benin named Nawi, who died in 1978 aged over 100.
By Stephanie Pappas, Live Science Contributor | August 11, 2014 07:35am ET
The rulers of ancient Egypt lived in glorious opulence, decorating themselves with gold and perfumes and taking their treasures with them to the grave.
But how could such a hierarchical, despotic system arise from egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies? The reasons were part technological and part geographical: In a world where agriculture was on the rise and the desert was all-encompassing, the cost of getting out from under the thumb of the pharaoh would have been too high.
“There was basically nowhere else to go,” said study author Simon Powers, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolution at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. “That cost of leaving could basically lock individuals into despotism.”
The plain of Nag el-Hamdulab, desert site of a series of rock carvings that seem to show Egypt’s first pharaoh.
From egalitarianism to hierarchy
Ancient Egypt is just one example of a society that transitioned from equality to hierarchy. During the Neolithic Period, often referred to as the Stone Age — which began about 10,000 years ago — agriculture began to replace hunting and gathering as the principal means for obtaining food. At the same time, societies in which everyone had been more or less equal began to schism into classes, with clear leaders emerging. In many cases, these leaders held absolute power.
Many researchers have theorized that agriculture allowed people to hoard food and resources, and that with this power, they could induce others to follow them. But no one had ever convincingly explained how the transition from no leaders to leaders could have occurred, Powers told Live Science. If everyone in hunter-gatherer societies was more or less equal in strength or resources to start, why would they allow an individual to dominate in the first place?
Site 7 at Nag el-Hamdurab is the most elaborate carving, showing a white-crowned king travelling with a flotilla of five boats.
To find out, Powers created a computer model filled with individuals who had their own preferences for egalitarianism or hierarchy. In the model, as in life, the more resources an individual possessed, the more offspring they could have. In the simulations, populations would sometimes gain a voluntary leader — though the next generation down the line could choose to break off from that leader, at a cost of some resources. (Leaders’ children did not defect, given that they stood to inherit their parents’ wealth.)
The simulations revealed that voluntary leadership arises when leaders give enough benefits to their followers at the outset, Powers said. If leaders give their people an advantage in producing food, the people will follow them, he added.
From leaders to despots
But leadership turns to despotism when two factors arise. The first is the growth of population density and size, which follows naturally from an organized, agricultural society.
“It basically becomes hard for individuals to stop following the leader,” Powers said. “As the density of the population grows, there is less free land available.”
This leads to the second factor: a feedback loop. With the benefits of leadership, subjects get more resources and thus are able to have more children. These children increase the population size and density, leading to even less free land and fewer opportunities to leave.
However, if the cost of leaving the group is low — perhaps because there’s a friendly city nearby to join, or open land an easy journey away — despotism can’t arise. People simply leave when a leader becomes too powerful. When the cost is high — either because of geographical barriers, such as Egypt’s desert, or practical ones, such as the need to access to irrigation — people have to put up with more abuse of power from their leaders.
“In hunter-gatherer groups, if an individual tries to behave in a despotic way, then the rest of the group simply gets up in the middle of the night and walks away, but with agriculture that was much less feasible,” Powers said.
The findings can explain differences in hierarchy across the Stone Age world. For example, Peru was the site of multiple early states, which evolved in long, fertile agricultural valleys. To leave one of these valleys, people would have had to cross the mountains — a dangerous and difficult undertaking, Powers said.
In contrast, the Amazon basin remained more egalitarian even after the advent of agriculture, likely because it was easier to move around and find suitable land.
Some of these Stone Age rules still remain today. In democratic societies, Powers said, it’s easier to kick out a leader, so leaders rarely achieve despotism. In nondemocratic societies, however, leaders can behave in more autocratic ways without fear of losing their perch.
Powers and his adviser Laurent Lehmann, also of the University of Lausanne, reported their findings Aug. 5 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The next step, Powers said, is to scale up the model.
“I want to look at what drove the creation of large-scale states from despotic groups,” he said.