Ancient and Traditional Agriculture, Pastoralism, and Agricultural Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Andrew B. SmithAndrew B. SmithDepartment of Archaeology, University of Cape Town
African domesticated animals, with the exception of the donkey, all came from the Near East. Some 8,000 years ago cattle, sheep, and goats came south to the Sahara which was much wetter than today. Pastoralism was an off-shoot of grain agriculture in the Near East, and those herders immigrating brought with them techniques of harvesting wild grains. With increasing aridity as the Saharan environment dried up around 5000 years ago, the herders began to control and manipulate their stands resulting in millet and sorghum domestication in the Sahel Zone, south of the Sahara. Pearl millet expanded to the south and was taken up by Bantu-speaking Iron Age farmers in the savanna areas of West Africa and then spread around the tropical forest into East Africa by 3000 b.p. As the Sahara dried up and the tsetse belts retreated, sheep and cattle also moved south. They expanded into East Africa via a tsetse-free environment of the Ethiopian highlands arriving around 4000 b.p. It took around 1000 years for the pastoralists to adapt to other epizootic diseases rife in this part of the continent before they could expand throughout the grasslands of Kenya and Tanzania. Thus, East Africa was a socially complex place 3000 years ago, with indigenous hunters, herders and farmers. This put pressure on pastoral use of the environment, so using another tsetse-free corridor from Tanzania, through Zambia to the northern Kalahari, then on to the Western Cape, herders moved to southern Africa, arriving 2000b.p. They were followed to the eastern part of South Africa by Bantu-speaking agro-pastoralists 1600 years ago who were able to use the summer rainfall area for their sorghum and millet crops.
Control and manipulation of African indigenous plants of the forest regions probably has a long history from use by hunter-gatherers, but information on this is constrained by archaeological evidence, which is poor in tropical environments due to poor preservation. Evidence for early palm oil domestication has been found in Ghana dated to around 2550b.p. Several African indigenous plants are still widely used, such as yams, but the plant which has spread most widely throughout the world is coffee, originally from Ethiopia. Alien plants, such as maize, potatoes and Asian rice have displaced indigenous plants over much of Africa.