1 Feb 2000
The Later Stone Age and Origins of Food Production

  1. A rationale for studying African food production and its origins, and how the history of research on this topic affects what we know today.
    1. For many years, later African prehistory was neglected as a research topic, as those studying African Archaeology focused on human evolution and the hominid origins. Research on complex societies and early agriculture tended to concentrate on the Near East and other regions.
    2. In fact Africa has the potential to revolutionize broad theories about agricultural origins that have been built around archaeological data from other regions, because of several peculiarities about how food production came about on the African continent. A few of these:
    1. Food production was invented multiple times on the African continent, and in different places. This is a striking contrast with the Near East, where food prod appeared in 1 small locale and then spread as a system across Europe, the Mid East, and Central Asia.
    2. Some African crop species were domesticated more than once. Ex: Sorghum (savanna complex) and yams (forest margin complex) were probably brought into cultivation in several places along their respective ecological zones that stretch east-west from West Ethiopia/Sudan to Ghana (yams) and Mauritania (Sorghum). Again, this contrasts with places like the Near East (wheat) and Mexico (maize) where a given crop species was probably only domesticated once.
    3. In Africa, use of wild resources continued alongside food production, and even persists today. Archaeological remains from complex societies in West Africa ca 100 B. C. attest to this. People still harvest wild grasses in the Sahel - in fact these grains are highly prized and sold to city dwellers at market. People in Ethiopia still use oily seeds from trees and shrubs that are either wild or tolerated in gardens, to grease their ceramic griddle before baking bread. Many significant African food sources have not been domesticated but still play a major role in subsistence.
    1. Implications of these differences:
    1. They beg the question "Why is Africa different? What circumstances lead to differing patterns of adopting food production in different places?
    2. They also create a situation that
    1. Supplementary implications of historical fact:
    1. The density of archaeologists is probably lower in Africa than any other continent except Antarctica, so that we don
    2. African conditions (warm, wet, acidic soils in forested areas) are often not conducive to preservation of prehistoric plant remains, though of course there are many exceptions to this. Also, root and tube crops such as yams are especially unlikely to preserve.
    3. So our lens for looking at prehistoric African food production is still pretty foggy!
  1. Africa before food production: the Later Stone Age or LSA.
    1. General comments:
    1. Need to know what the precursors were to a phenomenon that you want to understand.
    2. So we
    3. Note: food production is a general term that can mean either farming or herding. Often people talk about the "origins of agriculture" but the origins of pastorialism is just as important.

B. North Africa, 17,000 BP (= before present)

    1. Coastal Mediterranean
    1. Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria 17,000 BP and later; very easy to recognize this "culture" archaeologically due to their pulling out upper incisors (front teeth)
    2. lived in rockshelters
    3. ate coastal resources (fish)
    4. hunted local Barbary sheep, with sustainable hunting pattern of culling young male sheep from the wild herd
    5. seasonal transhumance (migration) based on local resources.
    1. Inland Mediterranean
    1. Same countries but inland, often <100km away from coastal peoples were a different group that did not pull out their teeth. Same time period and later, but these sites difficult to date.
    2. lived on "escargotières," giant heaps of snail shells.
    3. ate these land snails and other "broad spectrum" (gathered) resources
    4. less hunting evidence, but did have ostrich egg shell and make beads etc.
    5. mobile - any given escargotière could only sustain a group of people for a short season.
    1. Riverine Nile
    1. Wadi Kubbaniya, 17,000 BP. Nile Valley in Egypt.
    2. Charred baby feces an excellent source of subsistence data.
    3. Also some grinding stones, shown to have been used to grind up tubers from the sedge "nut-grass" (Cyperus rotundata). Charred fragments of these tubers (ground up a bit) also found in the fecal remains, as well as pre-toasted seeds of Chamomile-tribe plants (Aster family). Other plant remains include seeds from the dom-palm, whose fruit has still been eaten until recently by Kalahari hunter-gatherers (Dobe !Kung).
    4. d. present-day experiments show that harvesting Cyperus and disturbing the ground around it actually spurs more growth than if it were left completely alone. Humans and Cyperus were not dependent on each other fo survival/propagation (which is the basic definition of domestication), but they could be said to be in a coevolutionary relationship of "incipient domestication." Interestingly enough, Cyperus rotundata never was domesticated.
    5. Reconstruction of the seasonality of all the various local resources for WK suggests that it may have been possible (tho not easy) for people to live in the same place all year round.

4. General themes extracted from these site snapshots:

    1. There
    2. Grindstones are present very early on the African continent, as is evidence that in at least one place, year-round occupation of a single place (sedentism) was possible. But mobility is the rule.
    1. The Sahara and the Nile, 9000 BP
    1. Climate: Unlike warm/cold variation in temperate latitudes, climate fluctuations in low latitudes tend to be wet/dry. (Dry conditions usually parallel cold ones farther north.) There was an extremely dry phase in Africa from 15000-11000 BP. This probably made life very tough and also did not favor accumulation of archaeological deposits. So we skip to the next "wet phase" beginning 10,000 BP. At that time, the Sahara was not a desert, but fully habitable, with lakes, etc. (When looking at Muzzolini in the packet note that his climate cycle chart is in years BC, not BP! Otherwise you may get confused.
    2. By 9000 BP we see a large number of sites (at least 20 locations) throughout what is now the Sahara, from the Nile and its eastern tributaries into Ethiopia and Kenya, wet to Mauritania, sites share a number of common traits (see also Muzzolini in you packet). They are
    1. Increased sedentism. Three sites in western Egypt and one in a central saharan massif have stone buildings; some of these are thought to have been houses, others granaries. Unlike sites from 17000 BP, people had settlements permanent to build structures.
    2. Grindstones. Present in small numbers at WK above, grindstones proliferated at sites younger then 9000 BP. Also, they appear to have been used for processing cereals rather than tubers.
    3. Fishing. Bone harpoons date back to 25000 BP in Uganda, but become much moe common at these 9000 BP sites. Also first evidence appears fo net-fishing: ceramic net-weights. Net fishing is qualitatively different from spear-fishing - requires a boat, labor cooperation possibly, yields smaller fishes and is likely to be less seasonal than spear-fishing.
    4. Ceramics. These are invented either in the sudenese nile or in the sahara just before 9300 BP, and appear quite widely very soon thereafter. Ceramic-making technology and decoration styles spread quickly from a single source, but manufacturing was quite local thereafter, studies of clay inclusions etc show. Ceramics were likely used for storage (though baskets and granaries also filled this purpose), possibly for cooking smaller fish (ones that are big enough to spear can be roasted easily; smaller ones caught in a net might not be so easy to roast), and possibly for beer.
    1. Striking things about these sites:
    1. You have sedentary cereal gatherer-fishers with ceramics. But no plant domestication. Fragments of soghum and several of the millets are found at these sites, but they
    2. Elsewhere in the world when people have this type of life, domestication follows it quite rapidly (within 1000 years). In much of the sahara-nile, this kind of life persists for 4000 years, without plant domestication. One must ask why.
    3. One reason is certain kinds of harvesting techniques can tend to favor or disfavor the plants
    4. Traits of the plants themselves also influence the outcome of human-plant interactions: For example, sorghum breeds by wind-borne pollen, exchanging genetic material with individuals far away from settlements. Thus, any effects of deliberate or accidental human selection on sorghum would be difficult to maintain.
    5. Thus we see that aside from steady, continuous interaction between plants and humans specific details of plant reproduction mechanisms and of human techniques for havesting can be crucial in determining whether domestication actually takes place.

III Early food production in Africa: pastoralism.

    1. The earliest organisms domesticated on the African continent were not plants, but cattle!
    2. Previously it was thought that African cattle might have been derived from those domesticated in the near east, but
    1. Mitochondrial DNA studies have recently shown that today
    2. Archaeological research has uncovered probable domestic cattle from some Western Egyptian sites around 8000 BP. Dating and some individual specimens are still being questioned, but the sum of evidence points to cattle being domesticated in West Egypt sometime between 9000 and 7000 BP. Near Eastern cattle were domesticated later and farther north than its goats and sheep, and are unlikely to have reached Egypt in time to have contributed to African cattle domestication.
    3. In the Sahara at this time, 7000 BP the wet, hospitable conditions were deteriorating. Many hunter-gatherer sites in the central Sahara were being abandoned, and it seems people were following the edge of the wetter areas as they moved south. The newly emergent pastoralists, however, were able to exploit the dry grasslands then covering the sahara, and moved into sites that had been left vacant. (Most Saharan sites show a hiatus in occupation followed by cattle herders moving in, but one or two sites in exceptionally well-watered areas show continuous occupation with cattle appearing during this period.
    4. After this period of extreme aridity, climate ameliorated about 5000 BP and both pastoralists and grain gatherer-fishers appear to have maintained their respective lifestyles in their new locales for 2 millenia. Pastoralists were unlikely to domesticate plants given their high mobility.

IV Plant domestication in Africa

  1. About 4000-3500 BP, however, climate worsened again. This time, it seems all populations (including pastoralists) moved south away from the expanding desert to maintain their subsistence pattens, and prehistorians hypothesize a "population pile-up" in most areas of today
  2. This scenario provides a good explanation of why domestication of plants happened in so many different places at once: in each place local people were intensifying use of local resources, in response to conditions that were similar across a broad area. Under this scenario, multiple independent domestications of the same species in different places also makes sense, as people who were geographically distant but had some of the same species reacted in parallel fashion to these conditions.
  3. Thus a number of acgricultural complexes emerged in different fringes of the sahara at about the same time. These are best described in you Harlan reading, but briefly summarized here:
    1. North Ethiopia (arid): tef and finger millet
    2. Southwest Ethiopia (wet): yams and enset
    3. Sudan (arid) Sorghum and pearl millet
    4. West African savanna: other "millets:" Digitaria and Brachiaria
    5. West African forest margins closer to the coast: Tubers, especially yams, palm, cola nuts, etc. Note that Harlan
    6. Far West Africa: African rice.

IV Implications for today: Just as some of Africa

    1. Because of their multiple and localized centers of domestication, African crops are very well adapted to the areas they are grown in today.
    2. Wild resources still persist and are important elements of subsistence and trade.
    3. Because crops like sorghum and yams were probably domesticated multiple times, they boast an enormous genetic diversity in cultivated races.
    1. In terms of green revolution breeding etc, this diversity is a virtually untapped gold mine.
    2. For African people today, this diversity is, or could potentially be, an important hedge against crop failure due to highly specific problems.
    3. Such genetic diversity can often allow multiple uses of different races of a single crop. For example in my village we had four kinds of sorghum: one (white) mainly for bread, two (red, more sour) for beer, and one for chewing for sugar like sugar cane.