To which degree are traditional institutions persistent and how can we explain the variance in continuity? Following up on the literature on the long-term effects on precolonial institutions in Africa, we investigate in how far today’s traditional institutions mirror their precolonial predecessors. We furthermore analyze patterns of institutional change induced by indirect colonial rule and the postcolonial constitutionalization of traditional authorities. To do so, we link new data on traditional institutions in African ethnic groups with Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. We find a robust association between past and present levels of centralization. This persistence originates almost exclusively from former British colonies where indirect rule preserved precolonial institutions to a greater extent than elsewhere. This research contributes to our unerstanding of the development and effects of traditional institutions.