Biological exchange, diet and health in African prehistory
As researchers examine the impact of trade and migration on early societies, increasing attention is being paid to how African history has been influenced by the introduction of non-African crops and animals. Strikingly, in the wet forest belt of Central Africa introduced crops represent the entire suite of staples associated with the region. Despite the central importance of these crops to life in much of Africa, relatively little is known about their origin. Multidisciplinary research has begun to explain how crops and animals spread to, and from Africa.
However, the appearance of a number of resources particularly bananas, yams and taro remains poorly understood despite these becoming major components of local agricultural systems. Unfortunately, tubers, corms and fruits leave scant macrobotanical remains and hence these crops are unlikely to be detected with conventional approaches. An alternative way to examine use of these crops is to assess if particles of these foods are entrapped and preserved in dental calculus (mineralised dental plaque) adhering to human or non-human teeth. The project involves extracting starch grains and phytoliths from teeth recovered from African excavations to detect dietary staples and allow us to generate a time transect of dietary change in the African tropics.
Crowther, A., Lucas, L., Helm, R., Horton, M., Shipton, C., Wright, H.T., Walshaw, S., Pawlowicz, M., Radimilahy, C., Douka, K., Picornell-Gelabert, L., Fuller, D. & Boivin, N. 2016. Ancient crops provide first archaeological signature of the westward Austronesian expansion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(24): 6635-6640.