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date: 06 December 2023

Early Food Production in the Congo Basinlocked

Early Food Production in the Congo Basinlocked

  • Dirk H. SeidenstickerDirk H. SeidenstickerDepartment of Archaeology, Ghent University
  •  and Katharina V. M. JungnickelKatharina V. M. JungnickelDepartment of Archaeology, Ghent University


The introduction of food production into a specific region is among the most influential transitions in human history. It is frequently connected to other changes such as sedentism and population growth. Though most communities living in the Congo Basin today follow a relatively sedentary lifestyle with a slash-and-burn agri- or horticulture, hunting and fishing still contribute in large part to their subsistence. The lifestyle of historic forager communities and their sedentary neighbours changed significantly through colonialism. When and how food production started in the region is essentially not solved yet.

Studies suggest that the introduction of food production dates back to the 1st millennium bce. However, empirical data are sparsely available, and Central African research is still marked significantly by its lack of physical evidence. Postcolonial archaeological research started earlier in other parts of Central Africa, while the Congo Basin saw large-scale, systematic research on its prehistory from the late 1970s. Investigations focused predominantly on the chrono-typological sequences, as ceramics are an easily encountered find category in the region. Archaeobotanical samples often underwent no further scrutiny or are still awaiting processing. Political instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1990s and 2000s halted research in the Congo Basin. The western parts of Central Africa are among the better-researched areas. However, even there, only limited evidence of early food production has been uncovered. For a more concise picture, one should nonetheless discuss these two bodies of evidence in conjunction.

The available evidence suggests that during the 1st millennium bce, pearl millet, originating from West Africa, was used in southern Cameroon and the Congo Basin, but presumably not in quantities that constituted a staple crop. The evidence for the use of cooking bananas is incomplete. Archaeobotanical remains are dominated by charred oil palm or wild Canarium, both equally unsuited as a staple food. Thus, the composition of the subsistence base and the reliance on food production of the ceramic-producing communities living in the Congo Basin during the 1st millennium bce and the 1st millennium ce remain uncertain.


  • Archaeology
  • Central Africa

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