Jan Vansina, a pathfinder in the field of African history and a quiet but enthusiastic leader, author and mentor, died Feb. 8 of lung cancer in Madison at the age of 87.
It was Vansina in the 1950s who successfully created a platform of African history based on truths embedded in oral traditions existing long before European colonizers. His continued research uncovered methods that helped expose not hundreds, but thousands of years of African history.
Described as “daring and original,” the Belgium-born Vansina brought that commitment to UW-Madison in 1960, which he continued long after his official retirement in 1994. The University of Wisconsin Press, in detailing his work about the history of Africa in “landmark” books, said he “literally wrote the book on using ‘Oral Tradition as History.’ ”
His research brought the “unknowable” to people thirsty for knowledge. His meticulous methods motivated generations of historians, and he was honored for lifetime achievements by the American Historical Association.
Until his work, colleagues noted, “African” history focused entirely on the history of European colonizers, not on the history of Africans.
Jansina spent his lifetime changing that, starting (with James Curtin) at UW-Madison the nation’s first program in African history.
Neil Kodesh, director of the African Studies Program at UW, said Vansina “established the methodology for using oral tradition as a legitimate force for writing about the past.”
“Where he was working, there were no documents, people had no ‘history.’ But of course they did, and he demonstrated that history was embedded in stories told over time,” Kodesh said.
Vansina was “warm and energetic, but focused,” said his colleague professor, Florence Bernault. “When you were with him, you felt totally remobilized, yet he was a very private, an old-school scholar, not isolated, but generous with his time.”
She described his research as proving that “old traditions, bodies of legends, were absolutely crucial sources for reconstructing the past.”
Kodesh said Vansina began emphasizing research on African history at a time when longtime colonies were becoming independent and “history was considered an urgent enterprise. These countries were desperately working to write a ‘usable past,’ and the influence of outsiders doing this kind of work was outsized.”
It is a measure of Vansina’s credibility and success in linguistics, anthropology and history that his books have been translated into African languages, Kodesh said.
UW Press, which published eight of Vansina’s books over 50 years, including a biography of his boyhood, noted in a tribute published in 2015 that his legacy goes beyond academia, and includes using the words, names and stories passed down to journalist Alex Haley, author of “Roots,” to help him locate a remote Gambian village and memories of a family named Kinte.
Vansina met his wife, Claudine, while doing research in Rwanda in the 1950s. She and a son, Bruno, survive him. No funeral is planned.