When you look up world history as it is currently taught, the narrative is often misleading when it comes to development of agriculture. While certain crops were domesticated in the Near East and Asia between 10,000 BCE and 3,000 BCE – such as wheat and barley in the Near East, and Oryza sativa (Asian rice) – the climate and environment of Africa meant that these developments had minimal impact on the development of agriculture in Africa as a whole.
|The ‘Near East’ is an archaeological and geographic grouping covering the Arabian Peninsula, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Palestinian territories, and Syria. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of United Nations also included Afghanistan. Ironically, in both genetic and linguistic studies Egypt is considered a part of Africa, but due to Egypt’s cultural achievements and Western civilisation marking its own home work Egypt and Afghanistan can be considered a part of European civilisation by Euro-centrists.|
From 337,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE
Any evidence of agriculture before the 4th millennium BCE in the area now called the Sahara Desert is likely to be buried beneath the desert. Agriculture in regions around the Sahara desert was only possible among those societies due to at least three strategies: mining fossil water, in the case of the Garamantes; locating near the Mediterranean Sea in the case of Mauretania, Numidia, Carthage, Cyrenica or other North African civilisations; or proximity to rivers in the case of Ancient Egypt and the Oromo of Ethiopia and Kenya.
Africa has a multitude of climates and environments from the Mediterranean climate on the coast line of North Africa, to the Sahara Desert heading down in latitude, to the 96 volcanic mountains and rift valley of East Africa, to the savanna climates of the Sahel, and the various forests of West and Central Africa. Even more astonishing, the current diversity of environments isn’t a reflection of the past climates and environments. At one point over 6,000 years ago the Sahara Desert is believed to have been a fertile ecological system.
7,000 years ago (c. 5,000 BCE) Lake Chad used to be an in-land sea called Lake Mega-Chad by scientists. At that time Lake Mega-Chad spanned 1 million square kilometres, a size larger than the Caspian Sea today. It supported societies that left a material culture today called the Sudanic Aquatic Tradition(1) who were innovators in fishing, urbanisation (by pre-3000 BCE standards), pottery dating back to 6,000 BCE, plant gathering and boating.
The shrinking of Lake Mega-Chad, desiccation of the Sahara, environmental changes and climate change had consequences for ancient Africans ancestors, where they relocated to, and what they were able to develop, which we will later cover.
We find therefore that Africans experimented with plant and animal domestication independently. In some cases Africans developed calendars that enabled them to pick the best time to plant crops and maximise harvests in the local areas that each society occupied. Examples include the 365-day calendar and the Luba calendar.
The saying “History is written by the victors” is very applicable because the achievements of Africans in developing hunter-gatherer strategies during 340,000 years b.p. to 50,000 years b.p., modern human behaviour and developing over 2,000 crops has been down played. In this article we look at a sample of the many plant varieties Africans domesticated or edible foods Africans identified, and explain what value these plants contributed to human knowledge.
Before leaping into that, we also should highlight that the period from the beginning of transatlantic slavery until the 1950 was not a normal period in African history. Many civilian Africans developed a vigilant and fearful attitude to international and trans-African trade. With the heightened risk of slave raids by either Europeans slave traders in the Western and Central Africa, Arab slave traders in East Africa or slave-based African kingdoms using guns and gun powder bought from Europe and the Ottomans to supply slaves, many civilian Africans switched to subsistence farming and foraging as hunter-gathers from a sedentary life, foregoing long term planning. (See the hunter-gather myth)
An example of the survival strategy is a saying in Yoruba, a western African language, about the residents of the city of Ibadan:
“Ko si omo Ibadan ti ko ni oko. Ti ija ba be, won o sa lo, pada si oko”
It means “There is no resident of the city of Ibadan that does not have a farm or home village in the forest. When violent conflicts start, they escape, and head back to their obscure villages.” Trading and life in populated areas were therefore conducted with a disaster plan that if surprise attacks happened at any point in time, residents would flee by all free roads and unused routes leading into town.
European travellers without an understanding of proverbs and African survival strategies would have been ignorant of the differences in thinking and activities during peace times, times of instability and war times. Writing about a continent under yearly attack on all sides was not the “logical” time to identify its technological advances.
The constant state-backed war against Africans by Royal Chartered and Joint-Stock Companies, whether direct or indirect, from the 16th century onwards (that enriched Europe) dismantled the fabric of many African societies: eliminating heads of state, weakening political systems, reshaping priorities, reshaping the goods and services produced by societies and reducing specialisation as internally displaced persons had to move down the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to focussing first on finding food, safe locations, rebuilding healthcare knowledge, building temporary homes instead of expensive permanent dwellings and having more children.
Before the transatlantic slave trade, the attempt by Jihadists to conquer Africa resulted in another source of instability from North Africa. Where Muslim states in the North Africa either differed in their interpretation of Islam with other Muslim kingdoms or viewed other states as infidels, starting a war and creating additional slaves from captives was seen as acceptable. Although we may apply modern morality to past blocks of time, it doesn’t mean that our current thinking would have been moral to historical actors and historical aggressors.
Read more about African History from 340,000 BCE to 1800 AD.
Sorghum, also known as great millet or milo, is the 5th most important and cultivated cereal crop in the world after wheat, rice, maize and barley. The name “sorghum” is derived from Italian word “sorgo”, which is a modification from Latin “Syricum (granum)” which means “grain of Syria”. It has a variety of uses from human consumption, to animal feed to even ethanol production. It is grown extensively in the warmer areas of the world, mainly Africa and southern and western Asia. It has long been the staple food of millions of people in these areas owing to its high protein content (9%), the genius of pre-historic Africans and its ability to grow in very harsh conditions. It was first cultivated around 9500 BCE to 7,000 years BCE in the eastern Sudan near the Atbara and Gash rivers. From there it rapidly spread across the eastern African coastline and towards the western Asian coastline through ancient traders. Since this was before rice had become cultivated, sorghum soon became the staple food for a lot of ancient kingdoms.
Read more about Sorghum.
Cotton (Gossypium spp.) is one of the earliest and most important domesticated non-food crops in the Old and New Worlds. The term cotton originated from the Arabic word al-qutn, which turned into algodón in Spanish and finally became cotton in English. Cotton is a soft fluffy staple fiber that grows in a protective case known as a boll. The key ingredient of the plant is the fibre which is almost pure cellulose. Cotton accounts for 40% of the raw materials used in the global textile industry producing T-shirts, towels, robes, underwear, bed sheets just to name a few. Moreover, it is used in more than 25 other industries such as manufacturing fishnets, tents, coffee filters, archive paper, book-binding, cotton seed oil and many others. Its vital importance in the field of industry and life in general gave it the nickname “White Gold”.
About 7,000 years ago cotton was first domesticated in the Old World in the sixth millennium BC. The cultivation of G. arboreum began in India and Pakistan and the species, G. herbaceum was first cultivated in Arabia. However, specialists agreed that the wild ancestor of G. herbaceum was from Africa, while the ancestor of G. arboreum is either from East Africa or India, since these were the locations where the most ancient archaeobotanical evidence of cotton cultivation has been found.
Read more about Cotton.
Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for an enormous part of the world’s population, especially in Africa and Asia. Its agricultural production takes third place worldwide (741.5 million tonnes), after sugarcane (1.9 billion tonnes) and maize (1.0 billion tonnes) according to statistics conducted in 2014. However, among the three, rice is solely consumed by humans, which makes it nutritionally, the most important grain. It provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans worldwide.
The grain rice is a seed of either of two species Oryza glaberrima (African rice) or Oryza sativa (Asian rice). African rice has been cultivated for at least 3500 years after being domesticated between 3,500 BC and 1,500 BC by the Mande people. Between 1500 and 800 BC, African rice spread from its original centre in the Niger River delta and extended to Senegal. Alas, with the Asian species being introduced to East Africa early in the late 19th century, the cultivation of African rice started to decline and so the number of African rice varieties started to decline as well. At the time however, African rice was preferred for its taste. Farmers would grow African rice for their own consumption, and they grew Asian rice to sell.
Read more about Rice.
Yam is the common name for the starchy vegetable root tubers of the Dioscorea genus family, the tubers are of different shapes and sizes, weigh up to over 130 pounds and can grow up to a length of 5 feet, they have a rough skin that varies in colour ranging from light pink to dark brown. The leaves of mature yams have different colours too like purple, pink, yellow or even white. The White yam (Dioscorea rotundata) and the Yellow yam (Dioscorea cayenensis) accounts for 90% of all the yams produced from West Africa, they are considered indigenous and are of the most significance to the region. An exception, however, is Cote d’Ivoire where the water yam (Dioscorea alata) accounts for a bulk of their total yam production, about 70%.
The agricultural cultivation of yam has been practiced in West Africa as early as 5000BC (2). Its domestication arose in the forest-savannah region of the eastern part of West Africa, particularly the present-day south-eastern Nigeria home of the Igbo people. The Igbo people are reputed to have the most advanced yam culture and sophistication in the world.
Read more about the tuber Yam.
Coca Cola is the most recognizable beverage brand in the world. Pepsi Co (a short form of Pepsi Cola) is the second most recognizable beverage brand in the world. Both Coke and Pepsi brands have their origins in soft drink recipes based on Kola nuts (the “Cola” in Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola). Although Western public memory usually stops at crediting pharmacist John Pemberton for inventing Coke in 1886 and crediting pharmacist Caleb Bradham for inventing Pepsi, the inspiration for Coke and Pepsi lies in the domestication of the Kola nut by ancient West Africans and the domestication of Coca in northern Peru around 5,000 BC (~7,000 years ago). Kola nut was and still is a fruit with sacred and social significance to West Africans. A fair re-telling of the story of Coke and Pepsi should not leave out the role of Africa in developing the Cola element.
Kola nut is a wonder fruit that has its origin as the tropical rainforest region of Africa, and it belongs to the Cola nitida and Cola family. They are extracted from the evergreen kola tree [also referred to as cola]. These nuts are super rich in caffeine, and they are linked with several health benefits.
Read more about the Kola nut.
Africa also developed agricultural practices to exploit at least 2,000 other types of edible foods that pre-date the influence of Europeans or Arabians. Although the achievements of all civilisations are a benefit to humanity, we only draw attention to Africa’s achievements to raise awareness that these achievements add diversity to humanity’s food supply and make our species more resilient and ready for unforeseen shocks to most popular foods eaten around the word.
- J E G Sutton The Aquatic Civilisation of Middle Africa, Vol 15 (issue 4), pp. 527-546 Published October 1974. Published Online January 2009. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021853700013864
- J. Alexander, D.G. Coursey. The domestication of the yams Published 1969.