Rethinking The Origins of Agriculture in Eastern Africa

May 25, 2020

Diverse forms of plant agriculture emerged across Africa through the Holocene, contributing to origins of urbanism, social complexity, and the development of major African states. Over the last c. 2000 years, populations across sub-Saharan Africa increasingly relied on access to domesticated grains to ensure community level food security.  Indigenous African domesticates including sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), finger millet (Eleusine coracana) and pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) continued to be vital crops across the continent before European colonialism due to their resilience to aridity and climatic unpredictability.

Colonial and post-colonial policies and integration into global markers shifted focus away from indigenous resilient crops and toward non-local foods like maize, wheat, and cash crops like soy and tobacco. These threats to local food sovereignty contribute to growing rates of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa, and increase risks posed by climate change. While many communities and scientists recognize the value of African crops in confronting these economic and environmental challenges, we still know little about the origins of agricultural lifeways in many regions.

This project is a collaborative effort between the National Museums of Kenya, Department of Archaeology at MPI:SHH, interdisciplinary scientists, and farming communities to systematically investigate the spread of domesticated plants and farming lifeways in eastern Africa through ambitious archaeological fieldwork, ethnobotany, and application of innovative laboratory analyses. Specifically, the team is testing existing hypotheses that domesticated crops were introduced together as part of a major demographic spread of Bantu-speaking Iron age groups.

Initial stages of the project are focused on the southern flanks of Mt. Elgon in Busia County, western Kenya. From 2018-2020, joint NMK-MPI:SHH excavations have been underway at the site of Kakapel Rockshelter, a stratified rock-art site with evidence for continuous occupations from the early Holocene to the colonial era.

Kakapel Rockshelter archaeological site

Kakapel and the surrounding region is the perfect place to begin searching for the earliest farmers in eastern Africa. We know that the first florescence of farming lifeways in the region is associated with the "Urewe" culture. Urewe pottery is distinctly directed with linear incised and paneled motifs, and it is appears along with evidence for iron production and use, and the first domesticated crops in the region. The Urewe phenomenon is thought to mark the arrival of Bantu speaking populations from western Africa into the region. These pioneering farmers brought some crops (like pearl millet) with them from western Africa, however when they reached the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa around 2500 years ago they came into contact with other domesticated plants like sorghum and finger millet. They would have encountered new peoples too, particularly the "Kansyore" fisher foragers and the diverse mobile herders who lived around Lake Victoria. Culture and crop contacts helped propel Urewe producing peoples throughout the Lake Victoria Basin over the next several hundred years.

Early “Urewe” pottery associated the spread of farming in eastern Africa
Current models for the spread of farming across Africa (from Crowther et al. 2018)

While we know that the Urewe were likely farmers, there has been little solid evidence for what they grew or how they grew it.  A notable exception is the study published by Giblin and Fuller (2011), reporting pearl and finger millets and sorghum in Rwanda between 1600-1400 years ago. This is an important data point, but we know the Urewe was around much earlier- so when did farming really begin? Another question is “how did agriculture develop later?”. Later Iron Age societies with different traditions, and associated with diverse linguistic communities, continued to farm sorghum, finger millet, and pearl millet across eastern Africa, but did they maintain pre-existing land-use strategies, or develop new ones? How did these strategies shape the state of pre-colonial food security for agricultural communities?

Excavations at Kakapel Rockshelter and surrounding localities are beginning to provide initial answers. This is due to a program of large-scale flotation during excavations, allowing recovery of small remains of charred plant material. It is one of the first systematic flotation efforts carried out in the interior of eastern Africa, and combined with the excellent preservation of organic material at the site allows for unique insights into the development of agriculture in the region. So far, evidence of finger millet, sorghum, and a wide range of wild foods have been recovered. Findings suggest a greater role of local agency and experimentation, instead of a single “migration” of farmers.

Combining studies of the plant remains, abundant animal bones, stone and iron tools, pottery, and human remains, is allowing team members to develop comprehensive models for how food systems and conditions of food security changed for communities living at Kakapel through the Holocene. Partnership with local Teso farming communities extends these models into the ethno-historic present. As we learn more about the origins of farming and deepen the history of indigenous African crops, it is increasingly clear that community-scale decision making in foodways and crop choice have been vital in the past, and likely will be just as important for climatic resilience into the future.

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