Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Saharo-Sahelian Peoples and the Beginnings of Crop Cultivation

Excerpted from The Civilations of Africa:  A History to 1800, "Chapter 3:  Culture and Technology in Africa, 8500-3500 BCE" by Christopher Ehret, 2002.

The Saharo-Sahelian Peoples and the Beginnings of Crop Cultivation

"Sometime between 8000 and 7000 BCE, the Saharo-Sahelian descendants of the Northern Sudanian people set in motion an economic shift of even greater social and cultural impact:  they began the first deliberate cultivation of at least  some of the grains - sorghum may have been one - that they previously had gathered as wild.  The timing of this development may have something to do with the still further increase in rainfall at this particular period.  More rainfall meant more areas of the Sahara in which sorghum could be successfully grown and so would have made grain cultivation seem a less chancy venture than it would have been before. (Our knowledge of the next several thousand years of pre-Kunama history is virtually nil, so the remaining discussion focuses on the Saharo-Sahelians, who in any case seem to have been the major innovating group of peoples.)

"The keeping of cattle had previously added considerably to the meat resources of the Northern Sudanic lands, otherwise poorly endowed with large mammals.  But with cultivation the Saharo-Sahelians created a set of subsistence practices that gave them the potential, over the long run of history, to expand their food supply many times over and to support a growing population.  We can call the set of crops and the cultivating practices pioneered by the Saharo-Sahelians "Sudanic seed agriculture" or just "Sudanic agriculture."  The term "seed" is included to bring attention to the fact that the key crops of this agriculture were all propagated from seed.  We sometimes also call the combined livestock-raising and cultivating practices of these peoples the Sudanic "agripastoral" tradition.  Progressively over the period between 7000 and 5000 BCE, the Saharo-Sahelians and their descendants brought under cultivation new crops in addition to sorghum, domesticating more of the indigenous wild food plants of the region - first, before 6000 BCE, a variety of gourds and calabashes including the edible gourd, and then, by perhaps 5000 BCE, cotton, pearl millet, and watermelons."

Related Posts:

The onset of food production among Proto-Northern Sudanic speakers (Link)
Origins of Nilo-Saharan and Cushitic Speakers (Link)

1 comment:

  1. Per a fairly comprehensive recent citations of authorities I cite in a later section of a post here, there is quite a bit of dispute regarding the timing of sorghum domestication, although the authorities more ore less universally agree that it has African origins and have some degree of consensus on where in Africa this happens. Most authorities argue that the date cited by Ehret represents early evidence of wild sorghum gathering and put domestication and farming of sorghum several thousand years later (the second oldest suggested date is ca. 4500 BCE and the oldest is 6000 BCE). Locations are mostly in Upper Egypt, the greater Nile basin, or the Chad basin, with some outlier (and older source) West African upper Niger Basin suggestions. No one suggests a locus in the Congo basin or points South from there, in the Indian Ocean basin, or in the Mediterranean basin excluding the Nile basin.

    Erhert's date (per authorities in the same post) for Pearl Millet domestication is also on the old side: Fuller (2007) suggests 3200 BCE to 2700 BCE for Pearl Millet at a place in the vicinity of the Sahel from the Chad basin to points West. A few people suggest that Pearl Millet was domesticated in NW India from wild pearl millet transported there from Africa and then reintroduced to Africa from India, but that is a minority view.


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