In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources and Narrative Accounts
  • North Africa and Sahara
  • West and Tropical Africa
  • East Africa
  • Southern Africa
  • Hunters to Food Producers
  • African Plant Domestication
  • Metallurgy
  • Religion
  • Rock Art
  • Languages

African Studies Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism
Andrew B. Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0115


Before the advent of food production, individual hunting populations in Africa were small and spatially separated over long periods of time. Food producers, both pastoralists and farmers, began movements across the continent that transformed African societies and ultimately led to complex political groupings, usually with hunters as the lowest rung in the social hierarchy. This was due to their ability to feed larger populations, as well as to control land and store surplus food. Many African hunters were egalitarian, immediate-return foragers who tended not to store food. Early farming and pastoralism, or food production, in Africa can be separated into several categories: animals, grains, and tropical plants, all of which prevailed in different places and at different times. Animal domestication is the earliest recorded, but is highly disputed. Large cattle bones found in Egypt dated to the 10th millennium BP are deemed to be domestic on the basis that they could not have survived without human intervention and were found associated with pottery. The alternative view is that the timing is such that these cattle were wild, and that domestic cattle that arrived in the 8th millennium BP were derived from different Levantine stock. The waters are further muddied by the genetics of African cattle suggesting an independent strain, but this also has its critics. With the general drying of the Sahara around 5000 BP, herders and their cattle and small stock moved south with the tsetse belts into West and East Africa, and by 2000 BP had reached Southern Africa. The question of hunters becoming food producers without apprenticeship is debated, as is the concept of a Stone Age pastoral or agricultural “Neolithic” in Africa. Although winter rainfall crops, such as wheat and barley, were used in Dynastic Egypt, domestication of grain outside the Nile Valley was considerably later than that of animals, only occurring in the Sahel c. 3800 BP, although wild grains most probably had been collected by herders long before this. The beginnings of tropical plant domestication are more difficult to see, as preservation has made the plant residues hard to find. These plants include yams, rice, and oil-bearing trees. Often, environmental change, such as forest clearing, has to be used as a proxy for farming activities in tropical zones. In addition, the development of iron technology is closely correlated with the spread of farming societies in sub-Saharan Africa after 3000 BP. The history of food production in Africa lags somewhat behind the research done in the Near East and Europe, but genomic work on modern Africans has started in parallel with advanced linguistic work. Ancient DNA will be the next technological input now that the problems of contamination have been successfully addressed.

General Overviews

There are several good overviews of early food production in Africa that demonstrate the breadth of expertise and theoretical argument that has been brought to bear. Africa was probably never really isolated from the rest of the world, as contacts with Europe (across the Straits of Gibraltar), Southwest Asia (the Levant), Arabia, and the Indian Ocean in its wider sense probably all contributed ideas and commodities. However, while Africans developed their own local polities, economies, and technology using raw materials readily at hand, such as metals and indigenous plants and animals, outside influences probably played a lesser part. In the early 1980s, questions of the transition to food production in Africa were being asked that incorporated not only archaeology, but also what was happening among modern hunters. Clark and Brandt 1984 was an attempt to bring various players together to find answers in the debate. Shaw, et al. 1993 widened the discussion, particularly from the perspective of farmers and increasing political complexity. Driving the publication of Blench and MacDonald 2000 was the then recent DNA on cattle breeds that indicated a distinct African strain, and a perceived need to integrate ethnographic and linguistic evidence for early African livestock. Gifford-Gonzalez 2000 describes the difficulties of herders who had to deal with epizootic diseases when colonizing new areas of Africa. Jousse and Lesur 2011 updates much of the recent work on herding in Africa from an archaeozoological perspective.

  • Blench, Roger M., and Kevin C. MacDonald, eds. The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics, and Ethnography. London: UCL Press, 2000.

    An edited volume of papers presented at a meeting held at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London in 1995. This is a useful compilation covering the whole continent.

  • Clark, J. Desmond, and Steven A. Brandt, eds. From Hunters to Farmers: The Causes and Consequences of Food Production in Africa. Papers presented at the 77th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Los Angeles, 17 November 1978. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

    The thirty chapters by specialists in the field are ordered by region in Africa: North, West, East, and Southern, with additional chapters on the question of hunters becoming food producers.

  • Gifford-Gonzalez, Diane. “Animal Disease Challenges to the Emergence of Pastoralism in Sub-Saharan Africa.” African Archaeological Review 17.3 (2000): 95–139.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1006601020217

    A survey of diseases affecting domestic livestock in Africa and their potential as inhibitors to the initial spread of pastoralism. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Jousse, Hélène, and Joséphine Lesur, eds. People and Animals in Holocene Africa: Recent Advances in Archaeozoology. Papers presented at the 11th International Conference of the International Council for Archaeozoology, Paris, 23–28 August 2010. Reports in African Archaeology 2. Frankfurt: Africa Magna Verlag, 2011.

    Papers presented at the 11th International Conference of the International Council for Archaeology (ICAZ), Paris 2010, in two sections. The first part deals with herding in Africa and the second with African faunal diversity.

  • Shaw, Thurston, Paul Sinclair, Bassey Andah, and Alex Okpoko, eds. The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals, and Towns. London: Routledge, 1993.

    A guide dealing mostly with food production and metallurgy in Africa. South Africa was intentionally ignored. Chapters 8–18 (pp. 139–357) are on farming and plant use, chapters 19–20 (pp. 358–385) on pastoralism.

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