The first East African pastoralists arrived at the shores of Lake Turkana soon after the end of the African Humid Period, about 5,000 years ago. In the preceding millennia of the Holocene, fishing economies characterized East Africa. The domestic animals of the early pastoralists were not indigenous to East Africa, nor did they spread through the region simultaneously. Early pastoralist archaeological sites around Lake Turkana comprise settlements and remarkable monumental cemeteries. The expansion of pastoralists further south through East Africa was a two-stage process, probably because of the challenges posed by the presence of diseases fatal to livestock. First, caprines spread south and appear to have been integrated into existing forager subsistence systems. Then, starting toward the end of the 2nd millennium bce, specialized pastoralism began to be established across central and southern Kenya and into northern Tanzania. While analysis of lipid residues on potsherds has demonstrated that these Pastoral Neolithic (PN) peoples milked their animals, the question of whether agriculture was also practiced remains unresolved. Analyses of ancient DNA have shown there were at least two episodes of demic diffusion associated with the spread and establishment of the PN in East Africa. Considerable diversity is present in the PN, with three distinct cultures generally recognized across East Africa south of Lake Turkana. Moreover, there is even greater diversity observed in the decoration and shapes of ceramics. However, this cultural diversity is not matched by human genetic diversity, at least among the analyzed skeletons from two of the three cultures—the Elmenteitan and the Savanna Pastoral Neolithic.
The West African savannas are a major area of independent plant domestication, with pearl millet, African rice, fonio, several legumes, and vegetable crops originating there. For understanding the origins of West African plant-food-producing traditions, it is useful to have a look at their precursors in the Sahara during the “African humid period” between 10,500 and 4,500 years ago. The Early and Middle Holocene Saharan foragers and pastoralists intensively used wild grasses for food but did not intentionally cultivate. Due to increasing aridity in the late 3rd millennium bce, the pastoralists migrated southward into the savanna zone. In this context pearl millet was domesticated and spread rapidly in West Africa during the 2nd millennium bce. It was first cultivated by agro-pastoral communities, predominantly on a small scale. The 1st millennium bce was a transitional phase: most of the early agricultural societies disappeared, but it was also a time of numerous economic and social innovations. Due to increasing aridity, the floodplains around Lake Chad and the valleys of the rivers Senegal and Niger became accessible to farming populations after 1000 bce. In the 1st millennium ce, agriculture intensified, with mixed cultivation of cereals and legumes and the integration of new African domesticates, such as sorghum, fonio, roselle, and okra. Pearl millet remained the major crop in most areas, while sorghum dominated in northern Cameroon. Imported wheat, date palm, and cotton appeared in the first half of the 2nd millennium ce. The combined exploitation of cultivated cereals, legumes, and wild fruit trees (e.g., shea butter tree) in agroforesty systems eventually resulted in a cultural landscape as it is still visible in West Africa today.
Promoted by necessity, scarcity, and/or abundance, trade is one of the most essential cultural behaviors that promoted contact and exchange of ideas, commodities, and services between individuals and communities and variously transformed African societies of different regions and time periods. Anthropological, historical (including historical linguistics), and archaeological evidence points to the existence, on the one hand, of intra-African trade and, on the other, of external trade between Africa and those outside the continent. Traditionally, however, trade and exchange involving perishable and organic commodities such as grain and cattle have until now been very difficult to identify due to a lack of well-resolved documentation techniques. By comparison, some objects such as metal artifacts, glass beads, ceramics, and porcelain are pyrotechnological products, with a high survival rate that makes their trade and exchange easily visible archaeologically. Given the well-known regional differences across the continent, it is essential to combine multiple sources and techniques, in a multipronged way, to provide a dynamic picture of the mechanics of precolonial African trade and exchange of various time periods and geographies.
Freda Nkirote M'Mbogori
The inception of agriculture in eastern Africa is a major topic of discussion among Africanist archaeologists, although very sparse evidence exists. Questions range from whether domestication was a local invention or whether it was introduced from the Near East, Asia, or elsewhere outside of Africa. These questions have remained unanswered because wild progenitors and models of the spread of African domesticates are yet to be established using undisputable data. The paucity of direct data has therefore necessitated the use of objects of material culture such as pottery, beads, burial cairns, architectural structures, and so on as indicators of pastoralism and cereal farming. In addition to the origins of African domesticates, research in eastern Africa has concerned itself with questions of farming technologies from later archaeological and historical times to the present. The remains of elaborate farming systems with extensive irrigation networks have drawn considerable attention. Though not unchanged, some of these farming systems remain in contemporary use in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
Richard T. Chia and A. Catherine D'Andrea
Recent narratives on the origin of food production in the West African forest zone have replaced earlier diffusion-based models with viewpoints that emphasize the diversity of sources for plants and animals exploited and domesticated in the region. Management of indigenous tree species, including oil palm and incense tree, managed first by indigenous foragers, have the longest history in the area, dating back to over 8,400 before present (bp). After the 4th millennium bp, domesticates such as pearl millet, cowpea, and domestic caprines were introduced from adjacent Sahel and the savanna regions, and populations began to favor oil palm over incense tree. The mechanisms of these introductions are less clear but likely involved both diffusion and/or movements of peoples who became sedentary to varying degrees. Palaeoenvironment is an important factor to consider in tracking the development of food production in the forest zone; however, some combination of natural and human-mediated changes took place, the nature of which was not uniformly distributed.
E. Ann McDougall
The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.” However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire. The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel. Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.