Jan Vansina

Jan Vansina
Born (1929-09-14) 14 September 1929
Antwerp, Belgium
Doctoral students David Newbury

Jan Vansina (born 14 September 1929) is a Belgian historian and anthropologist specializing in Africa. He is the foremost authority on the history of the peoples of Central Africa. He was a major innovator and historical methodology dealing with oral history and African sources, as many books, articles and reviews, and in his training of generations of graduate students University Wisconsin, he "Set the pace in African historical studies from the 1950s into the 1990s."[1]


Vansina was first trained as a medievalist and ethnographer but became known as one of the most prominent Africanist scholars. In his work, he focuses on the history of African societies prior to European contact, and is widely regarded as the foremost authority on the history of the peoples of Central Africa. He has published widely on the subject, including a landmark text on the factual interpretation oral history. On Vansina, historian David Beach writes, "In 1985, Jan Vansina's Oral Tradition as History provided a worldwide theoretical framework on oral tradition that rendered nearly all of its predecessors obsolete." [2]

Vansina obtained his doctorate in history from the Catholic University of Leuven in 1957. He is a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Vansina assisted Alex Haley (the author of the 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family) in deciphering several African words that had been handed down from Haley's ancestors, determining that they were of Mandinka origin.



  1. Joseph C. Miller, "Vansina, Jan," in Kelly Boyd. ed. (999). Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, vol 2. Taylor & Francis. pp. 1252–53.
  2. Beach, David (1998). "Cognitive Archaeology and Imaginary History at Great Zimbabwe". Current Anthropology. 39: 47. doi:10.1086/204698.

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