Although limited, archaeology and oral traditions reveal a record of human habitation in the territorial entity now known as Liberia that can be traced to antiquity. While precise dates cannot be given, there is some evidence that the area may have been occupied during the Sangoan period of the Stone Age. These earliest settlers are presumed to have been hunters and gatherers with some possible rudimentary forms of root horticulture. They probably were a part of the large Niger-Congo speaking people that populates much of West Africa to this day, and the earliest group in the Liberian area probably spoke a form of what today is classified as the Mel languages, represented here by the Kissi and Gola.
In the eastern section of Liberia, the area inhabited by Kruan-speaking peoples (Dei, Kuwaa [Belle], Bassa, Wee [Kran], Kru, Grebo), there is evidence of a general westward-south westward movement of these peoples and of their linguistic and ethnic similarities to peoples in the western Cote d'Ivoire. In addition, we know that a branch of these people, the Dei, reached as far as the mouth of the Mano River, on Liberia's western boundary, prior to 1500. In a like manner, linguistic evidence demonstrates the westward spread of the Kuwaa (Belle) just to the interior of the Dei.
The third major population, which settled in Liberia after the Mel and Kruan speakers, was the Mande-speaking peoples, who seem to have moved out of the western savannah and into the forest region. Within Liberia there are three branches of the Mande-language family. The Ma (Mano) and Dan (Gio), speakers of the Southern subdivision of Mande, were probably the earliest groups to penetrate and settle in the forest region. The second Mande-speaking group to enter this region was the southwestern subdivision of Mande speakers represented today by the Kpelle, Loma, Bandi and Mende. The third group of Mande speakers is the Vai, a part of the northern Mande subdivision. Their migration may be dated to about 1500 when they reached the coast in the area of the Mano River. The cultivation of grains, particularly rice, has been brought by migrations of Mande-speaking people from the savannah region. It is possible that this latter group also brought the techniques of spinning and weaving, as well as the ability to work metal, particularly to smelt iron.
A major nexus for articulation of various ethnic groups and polities was the secret societies found throughout the northwest region. These societies, responsible for training youths in various artisan and other pursuits, were organized into male lodges, known generally as poro, and female societies, called sande. In addition to their educational role, the societies mediated between various polities during times of conflict and controlled the supply of iron money. The dominance of specialists in these societies is reflected in the use of the same word, zo or zoo, for both high officials of the male societies and for highly qualified artisans.
Indigenous institutions, like the chieftaincy and poro, were severely strained by several centuries of slave trading. The common people (especially in the interior) were as victimized by the trade as their rulers (particularly on the coast) were dependent on it for the guns and jewelry that ensured their prestige. In the 19th century, the slave trade would decline both because it became economically untenable and was opposed by a growing abolitionist movement in Europe and the United States. After Britain abolished the Slave trade in 1807, efforts by the Royal Navy to drive slavers from other more frequented markets merely increased the traffic on this coast. However, opposition to the slave trade in the early 19th century provided the basis for a consensus between repatriates and those indigenous Africans who had been victimized by the trade.
Reprinted from Historical Dictionary of Liberia: 2nd Edition By D. Elwood Dunn, Amos J. Beyan & Carl Patrick Burrowes. Scarecrow Press, 2001.Used by Permission