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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


African patterns of early food production contrast with those in other parts of the globe in interesting ways. In Africa, domestic animals were present several thousand years before domestic plants, and the earliest food producers were mobile cattle herders. In other regions of the world, plants were domesticated first, animals were domesticated later, among settled, village-based communities (Grigson, 2000; Smith, 1998; see also Hole, 1996), and nomadic pastoralism emerged still later, as a specialized strategy complementing settled agriculture (Bar-Yosef and Khazanov, 1992). African cattle and some African cereals were domesticated in high-risk arid and semiarid environments, settings not consistent with current emphases on domestication in relatively resource-rich environments (Harris, 1996a; Price and Gebauer, 1995; Smith, 1998).

The desire to schedule consumption of resources can lead people to manipulate plants and animals, and may have prompted domestication of African cattle amid low and variable rainfall in the Sahara during the early Holocene. Herding did not develop in predictably abundant areas such as the Nile Valley, or in predictably harsh environments such as the late Pleistocene Sahara. Rather, it developed in marginal environments where predictable access to resources was important, and where mobile animals were less vulnerable than plants to localized, short-term droughts. Prerequisites for labor investment in herding included delayed-return strategies of hunting and gathering, and concepts of ownership.

Discussion Cattle before Crops. Sahara Desert

As pastoralism spread across the Sahara and subsequent desiccation prompted herders to move south, adoption of food production was patchy despite the overall success of herding. This is largely due to spatial variation in the relative predictability of herding versus hunting and gathering. Difficult terrain impeded the spread of stock into some areas; elsewhere, cattle diseases made pastoralism a risky endeavor. Where herding became established, mobile use of the landscape by small pastoral populations left many local resources intact. Thus, in areas where wild resources were predictable, local groups could continue to hunt and gather well after the arrival of domesticates. Herding is more difficult to adopt than cultivation, especially among immediate-return hunter-gatherers, because of ownership and scheduling issues. All of these factors led to a distinctively African pattern of slow, patchy spread of food production. Other Old World agricultural complexes often competed more directly with local hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies, so that food production was adopted broadly along a rapidly moving frontier.

The development of herding before mixed agriculture started Africans on a distinctive path of subsistence intensification. Mobility lightened selective pressure on local plant populations; harvesting practices and plant biology may also have delayed morphological change. Prolonged, intensive use of wild plants across the African continent led to a noncentric pattern of late domestication, and continued use of wild plants by foodproducing societies. In many early farming societies outside Africa, a complex of crops such as cereals, pulses, and livestock often spread as a package from a point-origin (Harlan, 1971; Harris, 1996b), and the importance of local wild resources diminished sharply once the suite of domesticates was established.

Early mobile, animal-intensive food production may have had important consequences for subsequent trajectories of social change in Africa. Pastoral groups require communal access to distant water sources and pastures and are often associated with social structures such as age sets that promote wide ranging relationships (Spear, 1993). Many of the traits of early African herders are also those thought to be important to the development of relatively egalitarian societies over the long term: communal access to pastures, low population densities, and high mobility (Salzman, 1999 and CA comment). Although livestock-based inequalities of wealth are known to exist, they may be more difficult to create and maintain than agriculturally based inequalities (Little, 1999; Salzman, 1999; Schneider, 1979; but see Fratkin, 1999). Flexible camp groups and the importance of decision making by individual herd owners also tend to diffuse political authority (McCabe, 1999; Tavakolian, 1999).

Some African patterns, such as the use of small-seeded crops, patchy adoption of food production, and continuation of hunter-gatherer societies, resemble those of eastern North America (Fritz, 1990; Smith, 1992b; Watson, 1989) more than those of western Asia (Bar-Yosef, 1998; Harris, 1996a). Others, such as domestication of animals before plants, may be similar to Andean patterns (Browman, 1989; see also Wheeler, 1984; Wing, 1986). African data also reinforce some commonalities noted for many loci of domestication. Arid conditions following the end of the Pleistocene are often thought to have catalyzed subsistence change (Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen, 1989; Harris, 1996b; McCorriston and Hole, 1991; Moore and Hillman, 1992; Piperno and Pearsall, 1998). Finally, the African data support Harris’ contention that pristine domestication processes are rare, and require unusual combinations of biological and cultural circumstances (Harris, 1996c). We argue that concerns about predictable availability of resources, rather than increased yield, catalyzed domestication in Africa, and suggest that renewed attention to predictability may contribute to understanding the circumstances that led to domestication in other regions of the world.