History of land and agriculture in Africa

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By Dr Michelina Andreucci

PRIOR to the beginning of food production, pastoralists and farmers began movements across the continent that transformed African societies ultimately leading to complex political groupings.
The beginning of modern day history in Africa can be established partly from the introduction and development of agricultural systems, domestic cultivation and cattle herding rooted in the years between 11000 and 3500 BC. During this period, the African climate was much wetter.
The height of the wet period occurred between 9000 and 6000 BC. The Sahara Desert was transformed into fertile grasslands and savannah woods with rivers cascading down from the mountains.
The Nile Valley became a rich source of food with abundant grains, wild game, fish and wild fowl. Shellfish harvested along coastal regions was another valuable source of food.
In sustainable locations, permanent communities were formed and effective methods were devised for storing food with smoking and drying techniques being developed.
As a result of improved nutrition, population growth occurred.
The areas of the Upper Nile, Lake Chad and down south to the Great Rift Valley in East Africa were home to fishing communities who made a living bartering dried fish for grain and other products from the different communities based in their area.
During this period, and likely concurrently with south-west Asia, innovative farming methods were introduced and developed in north-east Africa, which included the domestication of both plants and animals, the manufacture and use of stone and bone tools as well as pottery-making.
In the Congo Basin and heavily wooded parts of Africa, forests and rainforests were cleared with the aid of polished stone axes designed specifically for agricultural purposes.
Forest clearings for agricultural use in Africa is also linked to developments and use of iron and axes.
Iron smelting, though previously thought to have been adopted, was invented in Africa at a time when Europe was still living in a Stone Age world.
Iron was used in Africa for tools and for weapons.
The use of metal was vital in accelerating agricultural development as well as paving the way for the nascent industrialisation.
This advance enabled more land to be cleared for agricultural purposes and for hunting skills to be improved and to become far more effective.
Some archaeologists now believe the foundations of communities in Africa could stretch back much earlier, when sedentary communities could have been based around the movement of wild game and the seasonal harvesting of wild crops 15 000 years prior to the coming of Christ.
The environmental changes in the Sahara Desert occurred at the end of the Ice Age.
A grain of corn found in this region dating back to approximately 19 000 years ago is proof of the early domestication of grass in Africa, at a time when Asia Minor and West Asia were covered in ice.
The Western hypothesis that Egypt is the centre of Africa’s history, prior to spreading southwards into the rest of Africa was rejected by a Russian plant palaeontologist who gives Ethiopia, the Niger bend, the Sahel region, the Gambia, the Equatorial zones and the Zambezi River as possible regions where plant cultivation began in Africa.
Agricultural expertise spread across all regions, establishing agricultural bases in Africa arounf 3000 BC; expanding the number of plants being cultivated and harvested.
Raffia, oil palm, palm, peas, groundnuts and kola nuts were also grown, and the palm products growing in the vicinity were exploited.
By this stage guinea fowl had also been domesticated.
Wild sorghum was domesticated and cultivated in Central Sudan.
At the same time pottery vessels to store grain and carry water were being created.
In the Upper Niger basin, there was the cultivation and domestication of up to 24 nutritional and fibre plants south of the Sahara.
Between 7000 and 5000 BC, pearl millet, gourds, melons, a variety of beans and yams were cultivated domestically.
In the Niger Delta region, African rice (oryza glaberrima) started to be grown; though only recently proof of an African strain of rice has come to light.
African rice — hardier and more disease-resistant than Asian rice — is believed to have been first grown in West Africa 1 500 years ago; many years before the introduction of Indian rice (oryza satwa).
African rice, possibly grown in the flood basin of Central Niger River, may have been transported westward to Senegal, south to the Guinea Coast, then east to Lake Chad by pre-historic indigenes during their migrations.
Rice was also grown in the tidal river estuaries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone where rice farmers already used irrigation methods for growing their crops as well as a unique mixed cropping system.
These early farmers also used salt water to eliminate weeds and unwanted vegetable from their farmland while fresh water was pumped in to irrigate the crops.
These same agricultural practices were used on the slave plantations of South Carolina that was a major rice producer for over a century during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
There is a possibility that African slaves working these plantations may have been extremely knowledgeable about the techniques of rice cultivation.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has estimated that rice was domesticated in Africa approximately
6000 BC.
The intensive process of growing and cultivating bananas further illustrates the innate agricultural skills which existed on the African continent.
Early farmers in Uganda recognise that certain flowers, after blossoming, produced small fruits.
Through cross fertilisation experiments, over a number of successive generations, these ancient farmers developed and produced the cooking plantain which today is a staple food and shapes the landscape in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America.
The introduction and propagation of bananas gave access to a regular supply of feed that enabled herdsmen to expand their herds of livestock.
This practice continues in some parts of the world.
Bananas were introduced as a staple food on merchant vessels, also allowing trade to expand.
Bananas were added to millet as a staple food for sea faring vessels; it is quite likely that bananas reached the Indian sub-continent from East Africa.
The ability to grow cotton and supply many countries with cotton also demonstrates the agricultural skills that Africa already possessed prior to the Atlantic slave trade and European colonisation; and long before cotton weaving became a British industry.
These skills had been developed across successive generations over thousands of years.
African farmers practised inter-cropping for over 6 000 years.
Eighty percent of African farmers still use a mixed inter-cropping system; these methods could have been adopted by American plantations during the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The development of agriculture was followed by trade; trade routes were formed which eventually extended into Europe and right across Asia as far as China and Japan.
Crops originating from Africa such as pearl millet, sorghum and cow peas were introduced and also found in south-east Asia. Pearl millet reached south-east Asia around 2000 BC, or earlier; sorghum arrived in Korea around 1400 BC and cow peas, which originated from Africa, were cultivated in Korea around 1500 BC.
Plants introduced to Africa via the Indian Ocean were coconut, sugar cane, rice, water yams and some fruits. Chickens were also introduced to Africa from south-east Asia according to Western experts.
This is indicative of links established between south-east Asia and Africa during this time and that there was an active exchange of ideas and products.
Two thousand years before the Roman invasion of Britain, (who brought a glimmer of civilisation to the island), a flourishing agricultural base was already formed in Africa, together with established sea and overland trading links between Africa and the Far East.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans were also the first Europeans to explore Africa centuries before the Spaniards and Portuguese.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com

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