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Fiona Marshall & Elisabeth Hildebrand
Cattle Before Crops: The Beginnings of Food Production in Africa

Journal of World Prehistory, Vol. 16, No. 2, June 2002,  pp. 99-143

Cattle and Plant domestication. Introduction

Introduction. Cattle and Plant domesticationIt is generally agreed that pathways to food production have varied greatly from place to place around the world (reviews in Cowan andWatson, 1992; Diamond, 1997; Gebauer and Price, 1992; Harris, 1996a; Harris and Hillman, 1989; Piperno and Pearsall, 1998; Price and Gebauer, 1995; Smith, 1998). Agriculture appears to have arisen recently (<10,000 years ago) and rarely, in only a few independent transitions (Harris, 1996b; Smith, 1998). The profound, long-lasting effects of agriculture on human societies include higher population densities and more urban-based, stratified social systems. Today’s global distribution of wealth and political power may reflect variation in the characteristics and timing of early food production (Diamond, 1997), but the precise nature of, and reasons for, this variation are not yet well understood.

Some of the most intensively studied regions where indigenous food producing economies developed include Southwest Asia, Mesoamerica, and Eastern North America. Recent syntheses drawing on data from some of these areas emphasize post-Pleistocene climatic change, the domestication of plants before animals, and the role of settled hunter-gatherers in the development of early food production (Bar-Yosef, 1998; Harris, 1996b,c; Price and Gebauer, 1995; but see Piperno and Pearsall, 1998). They also note that domestication occurred in well-watered places with relatively abundant resources, rather than in marginal settings (Price and Gebauer, 1995; Smith, 1998). For some regions, scholars point to centers from which entire crop complexes spread through colonization (Harris, 1996b,c). Elsewhere, more attention is given to diffusion and the involvement of local hunter-gatherers in the spread of food production (Price and Gebauer, 1995).

Africa is less well known than the regions from which most syntheses have been drawn, but research published in the last decade has clarified African data on early food production (Blench and MacDonald, 2000; van der Veen, 1999). Rather than fitting into broad patterns known from other parts of the world, pathways to food production in Africa are distinctive. New genetic data support archaeological hypotheses of early Holocene domestication of cattle in northeast Africa.The earliest African food producers were mobile herders, not sedentary farmers. Herding developed in marginal areas, and then spread patchily across the Sahara and to the south as climatic conditions deteriorated. Although complex strategies for plant use developed early in Africa (c. 17,000 BP), plant domestication was late (after 4000 BP), and occurred in many different environments.

To date, no models have addressed the multiple pathways to food production in the African continent. In this paper, we examine reasons for three of the most distinctive African themes: early domestication of cattle in northeast Africa, patchy spread of food production, and late domestication of African plants. We argue that a desire for increased predictability had a significant influence on all three of these African patterns. In the following section, we develop an ethnoarchaeologically based model that links the need for predictability in daily food supply to specific contexts in which domestication is likely. A better understanding of distinct African patterns and a new examination of the importance of short-term predictability as a motivator for domestication may contribute to understanding factors influencing subsistence intensification and variation in trajectories toward food production in other regions of the world.