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.
Richard T. Chia and A. Catherine D'Andrea
Paul Lane and Anna Shoemaker
Agricultural practices on the African continent are exceptionally diverse and have deep histories spanning at least eight millennia. Over time, farmers and herders have independently domesticated different food crops and a more limited range of animals, and have effectively modified numerous ecological niches to better suit their needs. They have also adopted “exotic” species from other parts of the globe, nurturing these to produce new cross-breeds and varieties better adapted to African conditions. Evidence for the origins of these different approaches to food production and their subsequent entanglement is attested by diverse sources. These include archaeological remains, bio- and geo-archaeological signatures, genetic data, historical linguistics, and processes of landscape domestication.
Mary E. Prendergast
Humans have foraged across diverse eastern African landscapes for millions of years. In the 21st century, few eastern Africans rely exclusively on foraging, but there are groups for whom this strategy remains central to daily life. Drawing analogies between present and past lifeways is one approach to understanding ancient foragers, but multiple lines of evidence are needed to appreciate past variation. Ethnohistories, historical linguistics, and genetics are also potential sources of information on past foragers. However, most data come from the archaeological record, key to investigating the diversity of ancient foragers in terms of technology, subsistence, mobility, social organization, and cultural expression. The spread of herding and farming in eastern Africa over the past five millennia had a definitive impact upon foraging lifeways. Ethnographic, archaeological, and ethnohistoric evidence enables development and testing of hypotheses for past forager–food producer interactions. Some evidence suggests that past social groups (or individuals in them) may have shifted among foraging and food-producing strategies on a situational basis. Other data indicate that foragers may have joined herding and farming communities, and vice versa. Eastern African foragers have played an underappreciated role in large-scale social, economic, and political systems. Beginning in the late Pleistocene (some 130,000 years ago), prehistoric obsidian exchange networks extended over hundreds of kilometers. Early in the Common Era (nearly 2,000 years ago), foragers were involved in Indian Ocean economic spheres that extended to western and southern Asia. The precolonial and colonial ivory and slave trades in the 16th through 19th centuries exploited and impacted foraging communities. Settler colonialism in the 20th century had devastating impacts on foragers and their access to ancestral lands. More recent threats to forager livelihoods include economic “development” and environmental destruction. The future of the foraging lifeway is in peril, and the 21st-century state plays a key role in determining if it will continue.