Traditional Akan Social Structures

Historic Akan societies differed by region but tended to share similar political structures. Members of eight matrilineal clans, or abusua, lived together in villages and cities. Descendants of each abusua did not marry members of their own lineage. Each community formed its own state led by a headman and council of elders. This council elected new chieftains, or ahene, from a pool of eligible men. The queen mother of a village shared power with the chief or king. She chose and sponsored the candidate for male leadership. If both the council and the people of the village approved, the new chief took his place on a royal stool, a symbol of his power.

In public, a court linguist spoke and made announcements for this chieftan. Each village existed within a larger political state, or oman. The most powerful village in an oman was led by the omanhene and his own council of elders. Villages communicated over long distances via talking drums, or fontonfrom. These drums mimic the tonal elements of Twi languages, allowing people to transmit a message to anyone in range.

Matrilineal Descent in Akan Societies

Most Akan societies trace their descent matrilineally. This means that, except for a few cases like skilled trades, inheritance passed through the women of a family. Women generally held positions of high status in Akan societies. Queen mothers in particular continue to command respect and influence within their communities. By custom, they oversee issues relating to women, including marriage disputes. Queen mothers possess their own royal stools as an indicator of status. They are not always the mother of the current chieftain, instead elected separately by council. Queen mothers still serve in leadership roles throughout Akan regions. The last Ashanti war against the British, the War of the Golden Stool, was led by Nana Yaa Asantewaa, a queen mother and modern folk hero of Ghana.

The Kingdom of Ashanti and Ashanti Empire

Largest of the Akan states was Ashanti, a kingdom and empire reigning from 1607 to 1902. Its founder, Osei Tutu I, claimed the divine right to rule through a Golden Stool that descended to him from heaven. The Asante people rose in opposition to another Akan kingdom, Denkyira. Osei Tutu I assumed the title of Asantehene, uniting many omanhene beneath him. They conquered from inland Kumasi to the Gold Coast, opening access to rich trading ports. There they did business with a number of colonial powers, most notably the Dutch and the British. A second powerful Akan group, the Fante, retained their independence. While the Ashanti favored alliances with the Dutch, the Fante warred against them with the British.

The Ashanti Empire fell under the control of Britain's Gold Coast colony in 1902. The kingdom became a protectorate for several decades, though it maintained a high degree of self-rule. It survived as the Kingdom of Ashanti in 1957 when Ghana gained its independence. Besides the Asante, many other Akan cultures can be found throughout Southern Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. Modern Akan societies often uphold their social traditions, including the election of chieftains and queen mothers. Their laws and politics for the most part remain subordinate to their larger governments. The Akan, as a large and wealthy cultural group, wield significant influence in regional politics. The current President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, for example, is a lawyer of prominent Akan ancestry.

Further Reading:

Learn More About Akan Culture

Cultural Overview | Geography | History | Daily Life | Society | Economy | Beliefs | 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.

Wilks, Ivor. Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order. Cambridge University Press. 1989.

No Discussions Yet

Discuss Article