Farming in Eastern Africa: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives
Abstract and Keywords
The inception of agriculture in eastern Africa is a major topic of discussion among Africanist archaeologists, although very sparse evidence exists. Questions range from whether domestication was a local invention or whether it was introduced from the Near East, Asia, or elsewhere outside of Africa. These questions have remained unanswered because wild progenitors and models of spread of African domesticates are yet to be established using undisputable data. The paucity of direct data, therefore, has necessitated the use of objects of material culture such as pottery, beads, burial cairns, architectural structures, etc., as indicators of pastoral and cereal farming communities in antiquity. In addition to the origins of African domesticates, research in eastern Africa has concerned itself with questions of farming technologies from later archaeological and historical times to the present. The remains of elaborate farming systems with extensive irrigation networks have drawn considerable attention. Though not unchanged, some of these farming systems remain in contemporary use in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.
Just like anywhere else in the world, the inception of farming in eastern Africa was more than a technological and economic event—it was a social event that transformed relations, ideologies, and modes of life.
To some extent, the origins of food production in Africa are less well known than those regions from which the most popular syntheses are often drawn (the Near East, China, Mesoamerica etc.), but research from the last couple of decades has now significantly clarified our understanding of early food production in the region.1 Nevertheless, data on the domestication of plants in eastern Africa have remained scarce, largely because archaeologists have struggled to recover plant remains due to the logistical challenges of undertaking floatation and other recovery methods in remote areas with poor access to water or electricity, and in some cases due to problems of preservation.2 In addition, archaeologists in eastern Africa have been more preoccupied with questions of human origins and development of early tool kits. To this end, the region has produced some of the most diverse and complete range of hominins, as well as the oldest stone tools in the world. Given this focus Africa was generally excluded from discussions relating to the origins of agriculture until the 1970s.3 As a result, only more recently has evidence emerged for initial cultivation and shifts toward morphological domestication in most regions and for most of crops of African origin.4 Where evidence has been obtained, plant domestication in Africa occurred quite late when compared to the other parts of the world: slightly before circa 1800 bce in southwestern and south central Sahara and later in other parts of the continent, a difference of at least 1,500 years with Americas, 5,000 years with China, and 6,000 years with Near East.5 Several suggestions have been put forward for this delay. Some of these relate to harvesting techniques that are not sufficiently different from natural seeding and thus did not produce the selection pressures that result in the morphological changes by which domestication is inferred.6 Due to this paucity of direct botanic evidence, many archaeological researchers have used “material signatures” such as pottery and grindstones to infer the presence of farming.7
In contrast to the paucity of direct evidence for crops, rock paintings and bones of domestic animals have been recovered from a range of sites in eastern Africa, and have helped in discerning both the antiquity and types of domestic fauna. Marshall and Hildebrand note that in Africa, domestication of animals happened before crops.8 During the last circa 10,000 years, the Sahara was wet and contained good vegetation, which was conducive to the domestication of cattle. As conditions started to dry out from around the 7th to 6th millennium, these Saharan herders started to move southward toward the Sahel and later farther south, reaching the Turkana region of northern Kenya, where a number of sites with clear domestic cattle remains (such as Jarigole) have been dated to around 4,500–5,000 years ago.9 The mammalian remains and presence of pottery associated with hunter-gatherers (Kansyore and Elementaitan), from some sites in eastern Africa (e.g., Wadh Lan’go in Western Kenya), have suggested that while the occupants were foragers they also began to consume domesticated animals due to their contacts with herders perhaps as early as mid- to late 3rd millennium bce. Models of the spread of domestic animals in Africa have ranged from those envisioning large-scale movements of intrusive herding populations to the hypothesis of independent domestication of local but yet undiscovered wild cattle. The latter hypothesis remains speculative in sub-Saharan Africa but quite probable in the Sahara.10 The appearance of large-scale cattle-based economies seems to have been delayed by as much as a thousand years after the appearance of small stock in both eastern and southern Africa. This may have been due to the new diseases (i.e., trypanosomiasis and wildebeest catarrhal fever) encountered by pastoral colonists entering new biogeographical zones south of the Sahara.11
Initially, these earliest herding communities in eastern Africa were lumped together by the term “Neolithic.” The cultural terms “Stone Age,” “Neolithic,” and “Iron Age” have been borrowed from Europe and Southwest Asia based on the assumption that the whole world went through the same phases of cultural evolution and that these cultural changes were adopted as a package universally.12 In Southwest Asia pastoralism occurred after the domestication of crops, and the development of settled village life. The term “Neolithic” was therefore used in European prehistory to designate assemblages with pottery, polished axes, domesticated cereals, and domesticated animals.13 Emergence of pastoralism before farming is so contrary to this Southwest Asian orthodoxy that it has taken some time for scholars working in other regions to accept the implications of the evidence as it stands.14 As already noted, it is, however, now becoming clear that Africa did not take the same trajectory to food production as other parts of the world with domestic animals preceding the domestication of crops by several millennia.15 To suit this eastern African situation, “the Neolithic” was further modified to “Pastoral Neolithic,” which Nelson and Bowerdefined as those cultures that relied substantially on domesticated stock for their livelihoods, used pottery, and employed typical later Stone Age technology for the manufacture of edged tools16. This term too has attracted controversy because it masks the considerable diversity regarding relative importance of livestock in subsistence strategies, preferred ceramics styles, and range of formal tools.17 Where metallurgy appears in eastern African pastoral sites, circa 1250 years ago, archaeologists introduced the term Pastoral Iron Age (PIA) for this period, but this term too is equally problematic given that stone-tool usage and manufacture continued for up to circa 500 years following the first use of iron.18
First Food Producers (circa 5,000–2,500 Years Ago)
A great deal of information is published from Pastoral Neolithic and Iron Age sites in Kenya and northern Tanzania, but due to the unevenness of previous research, much less data are available from Ethiopia, southern Tanzania, and Uganda.19 Before the coming of herders, there existed fishing communities that exploited lake and river resources. These communities have been referred to as the “Aquatic civilization,” although the term “complex hunter-fishers” may be a much more appropriate descriptive label.20 These communities are characterized by bone harpoons, fish-bone middens, and wavy-line pottery, named after its distinctive decorative pattern, which was often executed with a catfish spine or a mollusc shell. To the north, Philipson has suggested that these populations of hunter-fishers paved the way for herders. According to him, it was through these communities that herding spread out of the Sahara with cattle, goat, and sheep first appearing by the 6th millennium BCE BP south of the Sahara in the central Nile region of Sudan at sites like Kadero. Origins of African cattle have been controversial, with some archaeologist suggesting independent domestication, others suggesting introduction from Southwest Asia through the Nile Valley, or via the Horn of Africa.21 Some have further suggested that the widespread humped cattle breeds of Africa are a cross-breed of South Asian introductions and zebu, which were introduced by the British into Sudan and other parts of eastern Africa in the 19th century.22 It is also argued that humped indigenous cattle breeds may have derived from an earlier admixture during the Islamic Indian Ocean trade.23 Genetic evidence has however provided more solid data, although the history of Zebu cattle is more complex, due to repeated admixture with wild aurochsen, male and female, over time.24 A distinctive mtDNA haplogroup, T1, in modern African breeds, with high frequencies in Africa and low ones in Asia, led geneticists to suggest independent domestication from the wild North African aurochs, though due to new evidence, this view has been modified, but evidence exists for male African aurochsen genetic material in African cattle.25 The only early site with a substantial sample of domestic animals securely dated in eastern Africa is Dongodian in Turkana, Kenya, with cattle and small stock at circa 4,000 years ago. However, large quantities of fauna remains from domestic cattle and sheep/goat dating between circa 5,000 and 4,000 years ago have been found at Jarigole pillar site, Lothagam, Dongodien, Kalokol, IIlokeridede, and Ileret, among other sites in Turkana, Kenya, in association with Nderit and Ileret ceramic style wares and fired clay figurines.26 Nderit pottery is also found in central western and southern Kenya, and northern Tanzania. In sites like Ngamuriak and Maasai Gorge, the pastoral remains are dated to between circa 3,000 and 2,000 years ago. Regardless of whether early dates are confirmed by future research, it is apparent that during this initial phase of the expansion of food production there was a continued reliance on wild species as part of daily subsistence by herding communities.27 In eastern Africa, archaeologists have had to grapple with the identification of purely pastoral sites from those of Holocene hunter-gatherers because in many cases, they have similar assamblages. For example, reduced stone tools, ceramics, and domestic and wild animal bones are found in association at most sites.28 Sites such as Enkapune ya Muto have produced evidence of mode 5 stone tools, which are generally associated with hunter-gatherer communities.29 However, evidence of domestication was also found, indicating that this site was occupied by hunting and gathering peoples who may have acquired animals from neigboring pastoralists. Moreover, on the basis of higher ratios of domestic to wild fauna and of slaughtering patterns, Marean has proposed an indigenous transition to pastoralism due to the presence of unchanged tool kit from the preceding levels where wild fauna dominated the assemblage.30 Overall it has been demonstrated that the introduction of domestic animals in eastern Africa was not a single revolutionary event. Studies show that cattle did not come in one wave replacing the hunter-gatherers; rather, multiple local indigenous pathways blending different economic practices seem to have been the norm.31 Theoretically the separation of foragers from food producers on the basis of patterns that discern domestic from wild resources has proven a quagmire.32 Blending of economic practices likely acted as a buffer strategy for pastoralists, enabling them to recover from occasional loss of animals through the support that they received from their hunting neighbors. The relationships may have ranged from exchange to intermarriages to blood-brother relationships.33 These relationships therefore may account for the occurrence of mixed cultural and faunal materials in pastoral and hunter-gatherer sites.
Evidence of Plant Domestication
The first evidence of domesticated plants in eastern Africa appears in Ethiopia, from Lalibela circa 500 bce consisting of introduced crops only (including wheat and barley?). Pastoralists known as C group from the Sahara to Nubia likely started to move southward shortly after mid-3rd millennium bce bringing with them goat, sheep, and long-horned cattle, but they may have been embryonic cultivators, as evidenced by their extensive use of pottery and the presence of grindstones.34 The general picture is that the 3rd through 1st millennia bce may be estimated as the period during which the majority of African crops were brought under cultivation in both the Sudanic lowlands and Ethiopian highlands. However, full morphological domestication seems to have been a long drawn-out process with clearly domesticated cereals only present from the latter part of this period. Excessive annual and short-term variability in rainfall, associated with pronounced temporal and spatial unpredictability of water and food resources, is considered one of the key factors stimulating the initiation of domestication. The onset of desertification of the Sahara may have especially motivated populations to move southward until they reached ecological limits for cultivation of sorghum and millet.35
Theories concerning the stimulus to domestication focus on population growth, environmental deterioration, and social economic gains.36 However, in addition to these, ethnographic examples show that domestications have occurred due to the need for predictable access to certain foods especially if the individuals who have an exceptional need for the plant live in locations where the desired plant is relatively scarce.37 These reasons may have led to the domestication of sorghum for example in Egypt circa 8000 bce, Sudan circa 7000–3000 bce, and Nubia circa 500 bce, although direct botanic evidence remains elusive.38 To date, the earliest direct botanic evidence for African sorghum comes from Yemen and India.39 Among Africa’s many indigenous crops, direct archaeobotanical evidence from within Africa is only available for pearl millet and teff. Teff has its earliest evidence in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea around 500 bce, while pearl millet and sorghum only appear around 400 ce in Eastern Africa long after pastoralism was established.40
Millet and sorghum have however been replaced in many parts of eastern Africa by bananas and maize. Although bananas constitute an important diet for east Africans, the evidence for their date of introduction has been elusive. Cultivated bananas are seedless, with rare exceptions, and in Africa propagation has been by vegetative means.41 Their presence in an archaeological site can only be detected through recovery of phytoliths. Bananas were first domesticated in East Asia during the 5th millennium bce and may have been introduced to eastern Africa from Madagascar, which was colonized by East Asians in the 1st millennium ce, or from India, where 3rd-millennium bce phytoliths of domesticated bananas have been found.42 These assumptions have recently been thrown into doubt based on linguistic, botanic, and geographic data.43 Further evidence of banana cultivation has been found from the Munsa site in Uganda dating to the 5th millennium bce, pushing back the earlier suggested dates by circa 4,000 years.44 This discovery introduces new debates and calls for more research not only in Uganda and the east African coast but also in the rest of the east African interior, where banana is an important crop.
Maize, having been introduced by missionaries, merchants, and slave traders after the 15th century and promoted by the European colonialists, now accounts for 30 percent of all calories in east Africa with Kenya and Tanzania being sixth and fifteenth on the world list of percentage consumption, and Ethiopia, being one of the world’s centers of genetic diversity in crop germplasm, now produces more of this New World food than any other crop.45 The overall impact of maize may be greatest in Africa where its growth as a major food source has parallel the continent’s economic and nutritional crises.46
Settled Farmers (circa 2,500–1,000 Years Ago)
Food production in its various forms laid the foundation for social transformations that shaped the development of complex societies in different parts of the world. Similarly to the eastern African Pastoral Neolithic, there is very sparse direct botanic information on agriculture from later sites in eastern Africa, although stronger evidence appears later with more settled farmers and associated material signatures. The Derolaine site dated to around 1,185 years ago in the Kenyan Rift Valley is one of the few Iron Age sites where direct botanic evidence in the form of finger millet was found.47 To identify the origins and cultural attributes of early farmers in eastern and southern Africa, historical linguists have proposed lists of borrowed words of a technical nature for crops and cultural practices related to the usage of animal secondary products.48 As much as these propositions have added value to the archaeological debates on the identities of the early farmers, they have in the past been used by archaeologists to suggest farming communities in the archaeological record regardless of independent archaeological data—often involving circular arguments wherein the archaeologists cited the linguists in support of unclear data and vice versa.
The paucity of relevant botanical evidence is partially because archaeological research in the so-called Iron Age has largely focused on “Bantu origins” and its material signatures, especially ceramics and iron working, rather than analysis of subsistence economies.49 Since at least the 1960s, models of transition to food production in east Africa tended to be driven by various hypothesis concerning the spread of various language families across the continent through the process of population migration.50 Consequently, cereal cultivation and iron smelting were assigned to proto-Bantu languages (often referred to as the Early Iron Age EIA), while domestic livestock was associated with proto-Cushitic or southern Nilotic languages (as in the PN, see above). 51 After finding domesticated pearl millet dated between circa 400 and 200 bce in southern Cameroon, Kahlheber and others have put forward the hypothesis that an agricultural system with pearl millet was brought into the rainforest during the 1st millennium bce and that it spread across central Africa coinciding with the dispersal of certain Bantu subgroups.52 This runs counter to the evidence of historical linguistics, which implies that historical linguistic evidence suggests that terms for livestock, grain crops, other subsistence terminologies, and certain terms of material culture used by Bantu speakers were derived from Nilotic and Cushitic loanwords.53
Based on linguistic evidence, Bantu speakers originated from the Cameroon/Niger border about 4,000 years ago54 and their “movement” are commonly thought to have proceeded from north of central Africa and resulted in the progressive colonization of vast areas farther south but with multiple interactions and admixture with autochthons.55 Historical linguists further propose that that the Bantu speakers introduced iron working and root crops such as yam from their central African home to east and southern Africa. In tandem with this, archaeologists have looked specifically for Bantu speakers’ sites using what was known as their “material signature”—dimple-based pots (Urewe ware), sedentism, and metal working. Phillipson named this material signature “the Chifumbaze complex.”56 Early Iron Age sites with Chifumbaze complex characteristics have been identified across a wide area from eastern to southern Africa. Variations in the ceramics of the Chifumbaze complex include Kwale and Channelled wares thought to represent different Bantu subgroups as well as an elaboration and diversification of the Early Iron Age signature as it spread geographically. Based on this rather limited evidence, several archaeologists have warned that it is premature to develop broader models of early Bantu ideology given not just the paucity of data from putative proto Bantu sites but also the accumulating evidence for quite varied pathways to the transition of food production.57
Environmental impacts associated with the period circa 2500 and later have also been attributed to these “Bantu” farming communities. It has been argued that due to the use of iron, these early Bantu speakers modified landscapes by clearing forests from large tracts of land for cultivation, and felling trees to produce charcoal used in smelting iron ore. Studies on such environmental degradation have been conducted around the Lake Victoria by MacLean and in Tanzania by Schmidt and in Uganda by Taylor and Marchant.58 According to Schmidt, specific species of wood such as syzygium are presently preferred for charcoal. Therefore, Taylor and Marchant have attributed the decline of this species during the Iron Age to farming and Iron smelting in the Rukinga highland. Same observation has been made by MacLean in Rakai, Uganda, where she points out that people settled in areas with not only good soils for cultivation but also abundant forests with syzygium, which they felled for charcoal production.
Intensive Farming (circa 1000–1900 ce)
During and after the first centuries of the Common Era, many presumed Bantu settlements and sites that display intensive iron-working activities have been reported along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts and in the respective highlands. These include areas with Tana ware or Triangular incised ware (TIW) on the coast and sites with Gatung’ang’a pottery in the Pare Mountains and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and around the Mount Kenya region.59 These later Iron Age sites presumed to be those of Bantu speakers are dated to between 1st millennium ce along the Tanzanian coast, and circa 11th to 14th century ce in the highlands. Tana and Kwale wares are mostly found in town ruins of Manda, Ungwana, and Shanga in the Lamu archipelago; Kenya; and Kilwa, Ugunja Ukuu, and Songo Mnara, among other sites in the Tanzanian coast. They are also recorded in Comoros, and Madagascar.60 Tana ware in particular appears in association with imported goods, a fact that prompted early archaeologists and historians of European descent to attribute the origins and development of these coastal towns to external forces.61 Several written historical sources by early travelers of 10th century ce , however, attest to farming that took place in these areas before the inception of intensive trade. For example, Wagboldus cites Abu Zaid Hasan and al-Masudi in the Arabic writings as referring to the plants and foods of the east African coast as “black” consisting of Dhura (Sorghum or “people’s food”) as the staple as well as sugarcane and the produce of certain “trees.”62 This information of coastal urban origins is corroborated by the presence of Tana ware in these sites and mud houses that underlie the stone walls.63 In Ungwana for example, excavations of a large mound just outside the town wall produced in the lowest levels quantities of bones of domestic animals, mostly cattle but also a few goat/sheep and camel.64 Equally important is the layout and planning of these early settlements, which Horton in particular has argued suggest that cattle kraals were an essential and central feature of sites from the circa 7th century ce.
Besides the coastal towns in east Africa, other states developed in the highlands including the Ethiopian Highlands where there are good soils, seasonal rainfall, and extensive pasturage, which provided the natural setting for the earliest state formation in the Horn of Africa. As the Sahara desiccated, Axum profited from marked agricultural fertility that was the result of annual Nile flooding as well as from the long-distance trade with the Mediterranean and northeastern worlds. These factors allowed for rapid population growth, settled life, and the production of agricultural surpluses leading to development of urban centers.65
In sum, agriculture underpinned the development of complex polities in these regions. For example, Kerma culture, which was centered in Sudan, flourished in Nubia, Upper Egypt, and northern Sudan between circa 2500 and 1500 bce.66 Other kingdoms including Bigo, Baganda, Bunyoro, Karagwe, and Rwanda later sprung up and developed in the interacustrine region.67
Case Studies of Extinct Intensive and Extensive Farming in Eastern Africa
Despite the more urban developments listed above, much African farming has in the recent past been described as extensive and employing shift-and-burn methods, and systems of intensive agriculture are usually seen as an exceptional development in special environments.68 It has been argued that while it is not always inappropriate to describe African farming as extensive, this description has been used glibly and derogatorily to imply crude or technically underdeveloped systems of cultivation.69 This description has, however, been proven untrue since there are several examples of extinct and extant complex (and often intensive) farming systems in eastern Africa. An example of elaborate extinct intensive farming is Engaruka in Tanzania. At Engaruka, an extensive field system of some 2,000 hectares remains largely visible and is laid out to receive water channeled through irrigation channels taken off one permanent and several seasonal rivers descending the Rift Escarpment.70 Although the origins of this irrigation system probably date to at least the 15th century ce, there is little agreement on the original impetus for the construction of the channels.71 The eventual fall of Engaruka took place during the circa 17th or possibly 18th century ce with again the reasons unclear—possibly due to a tectonic shift in hydrology or perhaps Maasai raiding.72 Although Engaruka may be the most extreme example of such farming systems, other similar settlements seem to have arisen very widely throughout the Rift Valley region over the last 500 years, persisting to historic times. An example of an extinct extensive agropastoral system is the Sirikwa tradition, which is found across Kenya’s western highlands between Mount Elgon and southeastward as far as Nakuru and dating from the circa 12th to circa 15th century ce. This tradition is evidenced by hollows (about 15 meters in diameter) that occur on the hillsides in groups numbering anything between five and fifteen sometimes even a hundred. These hollows were known to represent cattle pens of the old “Sirikwa people” according to the Kalenjin elders, and archaeological research has corroborated this interpretation.73 The hollows acted as livestock pens designed to protect herds and herders.74 Suttonsuggests that before the insurgence of the Maasai, they were used for protecting the cattle from petty thieves.75 Reinterpretation of an early central site at Hyrax Hill in central Kenya suggests that at times the Sirikwa economy was much more pastoral in nature, with domestic animals kept in quantities and proportions to the modern specialized pastoral communities, and with more ephemeral surrounding settlements.76 While cattle and also goats and sheep were already in the region two thousand years before the Sirikwa, Sutton argues that they perfected a specialized form of dairy pastoralism combining milk, cattle, flocks of goats, and sheep for the regular meat feasting.77 In addition to a pastoral economy, the presence of permanent houses as well as finds of cooking pots and grinding stones at sites within the wetter districts of Nandi and Kericho suggests that residents partly depended on grains.78
Farming in the 20th Century
Though not unchanged or static, some intensive farming systems have persisted from precolonial times to the present.79 Intensity of farming was/is closely related to precipitation patterns and topography. Certain areas with dense population of grain farmers exhibit the most clearcut examples of intensive and sustainable farming practices with histories of flood re-accessioning cropping, residual moisture cropping, rising flood cropping, rainwater harvesting, terracing, manuring, and mulching.80 Examples of river–flood-plain irrigation in eastern Africa include delta of the Tana River Kenya, Omo Valley in Ethiopia, Rufiji in Tanzania; furrow irrigation systems include Konso in Ethiopia, Marakwet and Pokot in Kenya, the Sonjo of Tanzania, and on the Mountains of Northern Kilimanjaro.81 In many of these areas, neighboring farming and pastoral communities, while radically different in terms of economy and settlement patterns, nevertheless have similar social structures and concepts of governance that allow for linkages across ethnic and ecological boundaries and resulting in extensive regional exchange networks.82 Gourou (1961) argues that intensive agriculture in Africa developed as a result of duress due to stress on resources following political unrest between herders and farmers—a theory that is termed “siege hypotheses.”83 Kejkshus, however, has argued against this theory and instead embraced Boserup’s 1965 thesis that population growth is the key variable that determines agricultural innovation under subsistence conditions.84 According to Boserup, an increasing population causes food shortages and forces humans to intensify their efforts through technological advances and longer hours of work.85 The siege hypothesis finds some support in Stump’s argument that some of the agricultural intensification may have developed in eastern Africa due to the need to support families forced to retreat from raids by Maasai pastoralism, or to avoid the danger of attacks by animals or hostile neighbors while collecting domestic water. In addition, the need to produce surplus that could be traded for cattle, or efforts by chiefs to increase production of finger millet for beer, have also been suggested.86 Furthermore, Davies reviews previous models and proposes a new model based on economic specialization.87 Whatever the motivation, several agricultural intensification methods have been used whether motivated by a desire for surplus or for the need to feed a growing population. The aim of all these methods is to water and drain the soils in a controlled manner in order to increase production. Therefore, intensification can be more broadly understood as an effect of pressure on production.88
Marakwet in Kenya and Konso in southern Ethiopia represent some of the best-studied traditional intensive farming communities in eastern Africa. Intensification in Konso derives from a long historical process related to the formation of complex sociopolitical and socioeconomic systems whose important political institutions can be traced by genealogies dating back to 16th century according to the oral traditions. The agricultural methods here include permanent cultivation on terraced fields, soil conservation, and fertilizing measures, combined with cattle raising.89 In Konso areas of terraced fields are often served by short irrigation canals led off streams whose discharge therefore supplements rainfall and allows those fields to be used for special crops or as a failsafe for the economy.90
In Kenya, Marakwet furrows have been in existence for about 300–200 years with reorganization, expansion, and abandonment over time.91 The furrows are taken from the parent stream via the construction of wood, brush, and stone dams of various sizes and led precipitously from the parent gorge. They are normally partially incised into the natural slope of the hillside, but terraces and embankments often lined with flat upright stones and constructed of stone and earth act to reinforce the down-slope side of the furrow and raise the course to maintain a steady gradient—thus avoiding erosion and allowing water channels to be contoured up to 14 km in distance.92
In sum, although a variety of studies have been carried out on the inception and development of cattle herding and agriculture in eastern Africa, a considerable amount of research remains to be done. Using modern scientific techniques, new studies can now provide secure dates for domestication, revisit earlier theories regarding the variety of African domesticates and their spread, and also conduct research on unexplored early farming systems that are currently widespread in eastern African landscapes and yet poorly known among global audiences. New interdisciplinary historical, archaeological, and anthropological analyses that address the temporal dynamisms of these farming technologies in relation to social, cultural, and economic developments can shed more light on understandings of farming trajectories in eastern Africa both past and present.93
Discussion of the Literature
Farming in antiquity has preoccupied research queries in eastern Africa since the 1970s. The questions that researchers sought to answer partially pertained to the origins of domestication of both animals and plants and when it happened in eastern Africa.94 Research into origins and inception of domestication have raised questions concerning which species might have been domesticated locally and which were brought into Africa. Moreover, further questions on the models of spread in the case of foreign introduction have widely been discussed in the literature.95 In the absence of direct botanic evidence for farming various cultural materials associated with farming populations have been used as signatures of these communities. These included burial cairns, particular pottery types, figurines, architectural types, beads, and so on.96 As questions on the impetus of agriculture and its spread continued to be debated, attention turned to the cultural identities of the farmers who facilitated the spread of animals and crops into eastern Africa during these periods. The debates featured predominantly among historical linguists and archaeologists as they discussed the origins and movement of Bantu speakers.97 Identities of the early farming communities were not linked to any ethnoliguistic groups as opposed to the later farmers. As such, the question of identity was more about economies, pastoral versus hunting and gathering. This question became central to the archaeologists as material culture that was thought to belong to pastoral groups and vice versa were found in association.98 In some cases, however, sites with purely pastoral materials were identified. Contrary to this, identification of farmers in the later periods became problematic as scholars started to associate the spread of different crops to movement of various ethnolinguistic groups such as Cushitic, Nilotic, or Bantu speakers. Therefore, a large body of literature exists regarding later farmers of the Iron Age period in eastern Africa. Several sites believed to be of Bantu speakers have been recorded, which by extension means spaces of Iron Age farmers.99 However, until recently, little attention had been paid to historical farming systems as the African traditional farming technologies were thought to be backward and unchanging; hence it was imagined that there was little to learn from it. Research on these technologies has now been carried out, and it has revealed that the African farming technology is more complex than previously thought.100 Many sites in eastern Africa that had been excavated earlier in the century continue to be investigated with new questions on farming and farming technologies being raised. Such sites include Engaruka in Tanzania, Konso in Ethiopia, and Marakwet in Kenya. New questions include social and political structures governing these irrigation systems, and the technologies involved (e.g., current work by Matthew Davies in Marakwet and by Daryl Stump in Engaruka and Sonjo). Many such farming technologies exist in eastern Africa, although the current focus is on the above-mentioned three locations.
In eastern Africa, archaeological sites are part of each respective country’s heritage, and as such all the collections from these sites are deposited in the national repositories such as national museums and state universities. For example, fauna and cultural materials from all the Kenyan sites listed in the text can be found in the archaeology department of the National museums of Kenya. Here too, primary documents such as original catalogues, site documentation (maps and survey forms), photographs, and regional topographic maps can be found. Original research documents can also be found in the museum library and at the British Institute in Eastern Africa’s library, where several PhD and master’s theses have been deposited by Africanist archaeologists. The journal of the British Institute in eastern Africa, the Azania, contains reports and synthesized data emanating from various sites in eastern Africa this journal has been in circulation since 1965 and can now be found in hard copy and online. At the BIEA website, one can gain access to the British Institute archaeological site maps and other grey literature. For site locations, detailed maps can also be purchased from various government departments dealing with land survey.
Links to Digital Materials
Africa Farming: Farming systems across Africa.
Ceramics and Society web: Early Tana tradition and the Swahili coast.
Resilience in east African landscapes web: Historical perspectives on human-environments interactions.
Photomap Kenya web: Air photos.
AFSIS web: African soil information services.
African Pollen Database (APD) web: Pollen data base.
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Sutton, E. John. A Thousand Years of East Africa. Nairobi: British institute in East Africa, 1990.Find this resource:
Sutton, E. G. John. Engaruka: An Irrigation Agricultural Community in Northern Tanzania before the Maasai. British Institute in Eastern Africa, 2000.Find this resource:
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(48.) Christopher Ehret, Ethiopians and East Africans the Problem of Contacts (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1974).
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(50.) Lane, “Moving Frontier,” 243.
(51.) Pierre de Maret, “Archaeologies of the Bantu Expansion,” in Handbook of African Archaeology, eds. Peter Mitchell and Paul Lane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 627–643.
(52.) Stefanie Kahlheber, Koen Bostoen, and Katharina Neumann, “Early Plant Cultivation in the Central African Rain Forest: First Millennium BC Pearl Millet from South Cameroon,” Journal of African Archaeology 7.2 (2009): 253–272.
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(57.) Lane, “Moving Frontiers,” 259.
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(62.) J. S. Wigboldus, “The Spread of Crops into Sub-equatorial Africa during the Early Iron Age: A ‘Minimalist’ View Based on Documentary Evidence from the Indian Ocean Side,” Azania: The Journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa 29–30 (1994/1995): 121–291.
(63.) Mark C. Horton, Shanga: The Archaeology of a Muslim Trading Community on the Coast of East Africa (London: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1996); and George H. O. Abungu, Communities on the River Tana.
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(65.) Cameroon, J. Monroe, “The Archaeology of the Precolonial States in Africa,” in The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology, eds. Peter Mitchell and Paul Lane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 708.
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(67.) Andrew Reid, “The Emergence of States in Great Lakes Africa,” in The Oxford Handbook of African Archaeology, eds. Peter Mitchell and Paul Lane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 887–899.
(68.) Thomas Hakansson, “Social Political Aspects of Intensive Agriculture in E. Africa: Some Models from Cultural Anthropology,” Azania 24 (1989): 12.
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