The Temne are one of the two main ethno-linguistic groups in Sierra Leone, occupying a large swathe of the west and centre of the country. Their language belongs to the Mel cluster of West Atlantic class-based languages that includes Baga, Limba, Bullom, Gola and Kisi. According to Temne traditions they came originally from Futa Jallon, a mountain escarpment in what is today the Republic of Guinea, but they had already broken through to the Atlantic coast around the Sierra Leone River by the 15th century when Portuguese ships first made landfall there; and it seems likely that the Sapi-Portuguese ivories (q.v.) were carved for the Portuguese by Temne or Bullom artists. Temne and Bullom society at that date seems to have been organised into more or less independent small chiefdoms. Around the middle of the 16th century these chiefdoms were overwhelmed by raiding parties from the east whom the Portuguese called 'Mane' (probably groups set in motion by the break up of the Mali empire). Linguistic and other evidence has tended to discredit the view that this so-called 'Mane invasion' involved a major migration of population into the coastal area and suggests that it entailed only a change in the ruling elite. Within a generation, moreover, the new rulers seem to have been absorbed into Temne society. Although the effects on the Temne of this particular incursion seem, therefore, to have been relatively short-lived, it is likely that it was only one in a series of such events originating in the interior whereby Temne society has come to have many cultural features in common with the Manding societies of the Sudan. The extent to which what are now thought of as indigenous Temne institutions, such as ra-Gbenle (q.v.), or Temne chiefship with its distinctive features and ceremonies, might be Manding in their origin or be a response to contact with Manding incomers is one of the more controversial questions in Sierra Leone history.
- [There is no single work that covers the history of the Temne as a whole. Paul Hair makes a number of suggestive remarks about the 16th century Temne in the notes and commentaries that accompany his translations of 16th and 17th century Portuguese texts but they are not drawn together in a connected narrative. Other researchers (Songo-Davies, Dorjahn, Ijagbemi, Lenga-Kroma) content themselves with describing the historical origins of individual Temne chiefdoms. This may of course say something about the Temne themselves: that they are not a homogeneous people so much as a number of culturally overlapping but largely autonomous rural communities.]
- J.A.Songo-Davies, 'Origin of the Masimera Chiefdom in the northern province', Sierra Leone Studies, 1928, XIII,
- V.R.Dorjahn, 'A brief history of the Temne of Yoni', Sierra Leone Studies, 1960,
- A.E.Ijagbemi, 'Oral tradition and the emergence of Temne chiefdoms', Africana Research Bulletin, 1977, VII, 2, 3-35.
- J.S.Lenga-Kroma, A History of the Southern Temne in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century (Edinburgh University Ph.D. Thesis 1978.