In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Agricultural History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Overviews of Peasant Agriculture in the Colonial Period
  • Positioning African Agricultural History
  • Sources and Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Crops
  • Archaeobotany Conferences
  • Asian Crops
  • American Crops
  • Tools
  • Field Systems
  • Irrigation and Flood Retreat
  • Western Africa, General
  • Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad
  • Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea
  • The Rice Coast
  • Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria
  • Cameroon
  • Mandara Mountains
  • Ethiopia
  • Konso-Burji
  • Eastern Africa General
  • Baringo (Kenya)
  • Marakwet and Pokot (Kenya)
  • Great Lakes
  • Sudan
  • Tanzania
  • Engaruka
  • Congo, Angola, Zambia
  • Madagascar
  • Southern Africa (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa)
  • Bokoni

African Studies Agricultural History
Mats Widgren
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0229


This overview of literature on the agricultural history of sub-Saharan Africa focuses on works that contribute to our understanding of changes in farming systems, crops, and tools. The time period considered here is after the introduction of farming and before colonialism, thus roughly corresponding to 500 to 1900 CE. Agrarian change during this period remains very little studied in comparison with other continents. Many works on African history take their point of departure in a timeless description of precolonial agriculture. Agriculture is then often described on the basis of late 19th- and early-20th-century ethnographic observations, and it is common to assume that little had changed since the introduction of farming. The few works that carry the title “Agrarian history of” or “Agricultural history of” different regions in Africa are, in contrast to similar works covering countries and regions in, for example, Europe and Asia, mainly short papers or pamphlets that focus on either colonial development or sketch a program toward a precolonial agricultural history. The precolonial agricultural history of sub-Saharan Africa is a true interdisciplinary endeavor, and the ideal researcher would have to master Arabic and Portuguese texts, agronomy, palaeobotany, archaeology, linguistics, and oral history. It is to a large extent on the cutting edge between two or more of these specialties that interesting new results have emerged. Works that give a significant empirical contribution to the understanding of agriculture in the period and region under study are included in this article.

General Overviews

No single work can give a full continent-wide overview of African agricultural history. Sutton 1989 marks the opening of a new phase in the research. For the most recent archaeological contributions to an agricultural history of Africa, see Mitchell and Lane 2013 and Lane and Shoemaker 2017. Widgren 2017 focuses on the intensification of agriculture in a sub-Saharan perspective.

  • Lane, Paul, and Anna Shoemaker. “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Precolonial Sub-Saharan African Farming and Herding Communities.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Edited by Thomas Spear. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.013.70

    This encyclopedia chapter gives a commendable overview of recent archaeological contributions to the agricultural history of Africa.

  • McCann, James C. Green Land, Brown Land, Black Land: An Environmental History of Africa, 1800–1990. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1999.

    This overview of African environmental history also summarizes the historical development of agricultural landscapes in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Lesotho.

  • Mitchell, Peter, and Paul J. Lane, eds. The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Recent overview of African archaeology. Several chapters give an overview of the most recent archaeological research on crops, agricultural systems, and farming communities.

  • Sutton, J. E. G., ed. Special Issue: History of African Agricultural Technology and Field Systems. Azania: Journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa 24.1 (1989).

    This special issue constitutes an important landmark in African agrarian history. Sutton’s own papers and his preface give a good picture of the status of research during this period. Several other papers summarize and point the way forward to important research in the field.

  • Tourte, René. Histoire de la recherche agricole en Afrique tropicale francophone. Rome: Organisation des Nations Unies pour l’Alimentation et l’Agriculture, 2005.

    This overview of African agricultural history is written by an agronomist with an interest in history, not by an historian. It has a regional focus on West Africa and contains an overview of crops cultivated there before the Columbian exchange, to a large extent based on Arab sources.

  • Widgren, Mats. “Agricultural Intensification in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1500–1800.” In Economic Development and Environmental History in the Anthropocene: Perspectives on Asia and Africa. Edited by Gareth Austin, 51–67. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

    Summarizes cases of agricultural intensification in different regions of Africa. Intensification occurred in the period 1500 to 1800 in all climatic regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

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