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date: 18 October 2019

Ancient and Traditional Agriculture, Pastoralism, and Agricultural Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The study of the origins and development of traditional food producing societies in Africa requires a close look at the source of wild progenitors and influences upon aboriginal hunting societies. These influences shaped the direction of adaptive strategies, producing grain agriculturalists, forest agriculturalists, and pastoralists across the different biomes of the continent. How, and if, hunters became pastoralist is still a topic widely discussed in East and southern Africa. Are African cattle an indigenous domesticate?

While African agricultural societies have been well-studied by anthropologists, the origins of their domesticates is much more difficult to ascertain than in pastoralist societies, due to the difficulty of finding food crops in the archaeological record, compared with the bones of domesticated animals, particularly in the tropical environments where organic remains disappear very quickly.

Pastoral societies in Africa, however, were a major driving force for later grain production. Wild grasses were harvested by transhumant nomads, and only with shifting climatic conditions that led to increased sedentarization were farming societies developed around the domestication of indigenous grains, such as sorghum and pearl millet.

In the tropical regions of Africa domestication of a number of indigenous plants, such as yams, oil palm, African rice, and others took place. These are unique to Africa, but the process of control and domestication is poorly understood. This is compounded by the introduction of alien domesticates, such as maize, manioc, and bananas, which have become widespread across the biome. On the other hand, African domesticates, like sorghum, migrated to the Indian subcontinent and constitute a major food resource there. The changing food requirements across the developed world are looking at the Ethiopian grain teff, which is gluten-free and nutrient rich, and without the Ethiopian coffee plant Starbucks would not exist.