The Akan are a major ethnic and linguistic group of West Africa.
The majority of Akan peoples reside along the southern portions of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. This equatorial region is known for its wet, warm climate and thick tropical rainforests. Sandy beaches lead into a narrow strip of coastal plains. Farther north, the country transitions into lush forests and plateaus. These give way to drier savannahs and plains. The region is home to abundant lakes and rivers, including the largest artificial lake in the world, Lake Volta.
Major Population Centers: Accra and Kumasi
Total Population: Approximately 12,925,000 in Ghana and 7,013,650 in Cote d’Ivoire
Learn more about Akan Geography
The Akan are a diverse ethnic group of West Africa. Their ancestors are thought to have settled in the region around the 11th or 12th century CE. These groups likely migrated in waves from the older Ghana Empire. They founded trading kingdoms such as Bono and Denkyira and diversified into a number of smaller cultures. As Akan peoples moved toward southern coasts, they came into contact with European traders, who were eager to gain access to the area’s rich gold deposits. This fostered complex economic relationships that soon expanded into the Atlantic slave trade.
Two of the most prominent Akan groups at this time were the Fante and Asante, who sided with different European powers in the colonial era. The Ashanti Empire in particular waged several wars against the British Empire. In 1902, a final defeat brought the majority of Akan states under British colonial rule as the Gold Coast. They regained independence in 1957 through the nation of Ghana and in 1960 in Cote d’Ivoire. The Kingdom of Ashanti has survived to the present day as a political and social force within Ghana.
Historically, the average Akan family lived as farmers, fishermen, or merchants. Their staple crops included yams, plantains, cassava, sweet potato, and later corn. Starchy tubers were processed into a dough known as fufu, which is still widely consumed today. In addition, eggs, fish, chili peppers, and game all played an important role in Akan diets. Families often lived together in multiple buildings surrounding a central courtyard. Their most famous article of clothing is kente cloth, once reserved for members of the nobility. The fabric is made by weaving silk threads into a square pattern, once a task reserved for men. Today, kente is still worn on special occasions, but Western-style apparel is more common.
Learn more about Akan Daily Life
Traditional Akan societies organized through matrilineal groups, or abusua, tracing their line to a common female ancestor. Members of each group lived together in villages, towns, and cities. In most cases, they were represented by a headman, sponsored by powerful queen mothers and elected by a council of elders. These leaders controlled more or less territory, ranging from local chieftains to the heads of wealthy kingdoms. Their standard symbols of power are royal stools, golden sandals, and court linguists to speak for them in public. The Ashanti Empire is the best known of the Akan states, founded by Osei Tutu I in 1607. Asante people are now prominent in the politics of Ghana, but many other Akan cultures and communities still practice their customs today.
Major Languages: Akan languages, most notably Fante and Twi, as well as English and French
Since its foundation, the Akan region has acted as an economic hub of Africa. Alluvial gold deposits formed the basis of a trade network specializing in slaves and cash crops such as kola nuts. Over time, the importance of slavery faded. Other crops like palm oil and cocoa grew more important to the region’s economy instead. These patterns have persisted to the present day. The Ashanti regions of Ghana are among its richest, and mining remains a vital industry. Modern Ghana is home to a relatively stable economy, though it continues to struggle with issues of wealth inequality and access to opportunity among its citizens.
Major Industries: Mining, oil, palm oil, cocoa, and other forms of agriculture
Learn more about the Akan Economy
The traditional faith of the Akan cultures has survived to the present day. Its worshippers recognize a pantheon of deities, or abosom. These gods are the children of Nyame, the supreme sky deity, and his wife, the earth goddess Asase Yaa. Perhaps the best known of the abosom is Anansi, a trickster spider who also features in American folk stories. Ancestor worship is another central aspect of the Akan faith. Today, the Akan people of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire may practice their older faith, Christianity, Islam, or a mix known as syncretism.
Religious Demographics of Ghana:
None 5.2% (2010 est.)
Arts & Music
The Akan states are known for their skill in metalworking, textiles, pottery, storytelling, and music. Trades like smithing, weaving, and ceramics were passed down within specific families, who were trained in both the practical and spiritual elements of their industries. Smiths produced gold ornaments and brass weights. Weavers worked with silk kente cloth and adinkra patterns. Ceramics tended to be created by women, who sculpted ornate funerary heads to commemorate deceased ancestors.
Music and storytelling were more common arts, particularly the spider stories of Anansi. One type of drum, the talking drum, was not used for entertainment. Instead, it mimicked the tonal elements of the Twi language to communicate over long distances. Modern Akan artists may continue these traditions or explore contemporary genres and styles.
Learn more about Akan Arts & Music
Manoukian, Madeline. Akan and Ga-Adangme Peoples. Vol 1. Routledge. 2017.
McCaskie, T.C. State and Society in Pre-colonial Asante. Cambridge University Press. 2002.
Opokuwaa, Nana Akua Kyerewaa. Akan Protocol: Remembering the Traditions of Our Ancestors. Authors Choice Press. 2005.
“The World Factbook: Cote d’Ivoire.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 20 June 2018, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/iv.html.
“The World Factbook: Ghana.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 8 June 2018, www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gh.html.
Wilks, Ivor. Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order. Cambridge University Press. 1989.
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