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“[An] essential reading for anyone trying to understand the long-ignored interaction between environmental change, global commerce, natural knowledge, and slavery.”
"Shadow of Slavery is thorough, cogent, creative in its use of scarce historical materials, and beautifully illustrated with color plates."--Intl Journal of African Historical Stds
"A useful, entertaining, and exacting analysis of those theories and debates that have engaged economic historians for the last quarter-century."--Technology And Culture
"Groundbreaking. . . . This informative and enjoyable book offers not your regular meat and potatoes, but collard greens, cornbread, and gumbo."--Jrnl African American Hist
Food and the African Past
Anansi, the great spider of venerable memory, gathered all of the world's wisdom into a gourd. Seeking to safeguard this wisdom for future generations, he hung the gourd high in a tree. But he failed. The gourd fell and broke, and wisdom was scattered far and wide.
Unumbotte made a human being. Its name was Man. Unumbotte next made an antelope, named Antelope. Unumbotte made a snake, named Snake. At the time these three were made there were no trees but one, a palm. Nor had the earth been pounded smooth. All three were sitting on the rough ground, and Unumbotte said to them: "The earth has not yet been pounded. You must pound the ground smooth where you are sitting." Unumbotte gave them seeds of all kinds, and said: "Go plant these."
OUR AWARENESS OF AFRICA BEGINS as the place where our hominid ancestors evolved. But it remains a "Dark Continent" in terms of broader understanding of what African peoples accomplished in the millennia preceding the transatlantic slave trade, when the continent's history again comes into focus for modern audiences. Unexamined views of Africa carry the presumption of a continent on the sidelines of world history, where little occurred until the Atlantic slave trade swept away millions of its people. In the New World, so these views maintain, Europeans taught their unskilled bondsmen to plant crops and tend animals. Nevertheless, one of the remarkable achievements of Africans over the past ten thousand years was the independent domestication of plants and animals for food. These African species journeyed to Asia in the second and first millennia B.C.E. and, later, profoundly shaped the food systems of plantation societies of the Americas.
The African continent harbors more than two thousand native grains, roots and tubers, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and oil crops. Its plant resources also provide stimulants, medicines, materials for religious practices, and fodder for livestock. Long before Muslim caravans and Portuguese caravels reached the African continent, its peoples initiated the process of plant and animal domestication. Africans have contributed more than one hundred species to global food supplies. The plants they gave the world include pearl (bulrush) millet, sorghum, coffee, watermelon, black-eyed pea, okra, palm oil, the kola nut, tamarind, hibiscus, and a species of rice. Widely known consumer products—Coca-Cola, Palmolive soap, Worcestershire sauce, Red Zinger tea, Snapple and most soft drinks—rely in part on plants domesticated in Africa. African contributions to global plant history, however, are largely unacknowledged and seldom appreciated. In the popular image, Africa is a place of hunger and starvation, a continent long kept alive by food imported from other parts of the world.
But this modern perception belies a very different history. In ancient times, African cereals transformed the food systems of semiarid India by providing grain and legumes suitable for cultivation. Domestication of animals and plants in Africa thousands of years ago instigated a continuing process of indigenous experimentation and innovation, a process that incorporated species later introduced from other continents. From these immigrant species, Africans developed new cultivars and breeds that strengthened the capacity of food systems to provide daily subsistence. By the time Europeans visited the west coast of Africa in the fifteenth century, they found a land whose bounty provoked admiring commentary. In the words of the seventeenth-century Luso-African trader Lemos Coelho: "The blacks have many foodstuffs such as [guinea] hens, husked rice (all high-quality and cheap), plenty of milk, and excellent fat (manteiga, 'butter').... This is because the whole kingdom of Nhani is full of villages of Fulos [Fula], who have these foodstuffs in abundance. A cow costs only a pataca or its equivalent.... Thus everything necessary for human existence is found in this land in great plenty and sumptuousness."
Even as the transatlantic slave trade removed millions of people from the continent, African societies produced food surpluses. And in the Americas, enslaved Africans continued their innovating processes. They nurtured Africa's principal dietary staples in their food fields and adopted Amerindian crops beneficial to their survival. Livestock-raising peoples such as the Fula brought animal-husbandry skills that contributed critically to New World ranching traditions.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL CONTEXT OF AFRICAN DOMESTICATION
Human beings evolved in Africa. Fully modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens—people like us with full syntactical language—emerged from the African ancestral line of all living humans between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago. This evolutionary development probably took place in the eastern parts of Africa. With their new capacity for language, these first true humans soon spread across the continent. Later, between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago, a small group of these fully human hunter-gatherers left Africa. They expanded outward from northeast Africa following one, possibly two routes: with watercraft along the Indian Ocean shores of southern Asia and by foot across the Sinai Peninsula into the Middle East. The descendants of these African emigrants eventually settled most of the habitable regions of the world, giving rise to the human populations that we recognize today.
The DNA of human cells preserves a biological record of this remarkable global journey. Two different genetic signatures—one from the DNA of cellular mitochondria (mtDNA) and the other from the Y-chromosome that confers maleness—offer compelling scientific evidence for humanity's "out of Africa" origins. MtDNA is exclusively inherited from our mothers, so mutations pass intact from one generation to the next through the female line. The extent of change or variation on a strand of mtDNAm ay be quantified by chemical analysis. Through this technique, mtDNA provides geneticists a tool for measuring the evolutionary distance between the original African population of human beings who evolved on the continent and those descended from the small group who formed its primordial diaspora. Scientific studies of the human genome show that a nearly full diversity of all mtDNA variation occurs in the populations of Africa. MtDNA lineages found in humans outside Africa belong to one subset of that diversity. A similar pattern characterizes the Y-chromosome, which men inherit directly from their fathers. Y-chromosome lineages found outside Africa comprise one subset among all the Y-chromosome lineages found among Africans. The subsets of mtDNA and Y-chromosome lineages found in humans outside the continent are most typical of northeastern African populations. This supports the conclusion that human populations of the rest of the world originated through the migration of peoples out of that part of the continent. Africa is indelibly imprinted in the genetics of all human beings.
One of the greatest achievements of human beings was the domestication of plants and animals. Just as the earliest Homo sapiens sapiens of 90,000 to 60,000 years ago coped with different environments as they spread across Africa, so did their descendants who fanned out across the rest of the globe after 60,000 years ago. The African emigrants encountered diverse new environments in which they discovered edible plants and new animal food sources. On grasslands, river floodplains, highlands, marshes and coastal estuaries, they hunted animals and birds, took fish from bodies of water, gathered wild plants, and uprooted edible tubers. In distinctive environmental settings, humanity began the long process of manipulating species for their food, medicines, and spiritual needs. Some ten thousand years ago the process of plant and animal domestication was simultaneously underway in several parts of the world, including Africa.
Africa is the world's second-largest continental landmass after Asia. Three times the size of Europe and larger than North America, Africa is nearly an island. Just a sliver of land connects the continent to the Sinai Peninsula and the Near East. It is a sprawling continent, extending across 72 degrees of latitude. Most of its landmass falls within the tropics, between the defining lines known as the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The equator cuts the continent into two unequal halves: from Tunisia lying 37 degrees latitude north to Cape Town at 34 degrees south, the distance traversed is equivalent to that between New York and Hawaii. Within these vast geographical extremes, life, settlement, and livelihood strategies have been adapted to heterogeneous landscapes.
Africa is a mostly tropical continent, but it is also a savanna continent. The most extensive areas of savanna in the world are presently found in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. These grasslands cover areas of low topographic relief that include diverse types of environments. Their vegetative profile varies with rainfall, soil type, and human activities. Some savannas are well watered, others not. This gives them their distinctive appearance, which ranges from thickly wooded grasslands to nearly treeless plains. Many of Africa's principal food crops were domesticated in these variegated landscapes.
The savanna environment is also in part the result of human agency. Africa's savannas have long been manipulated by fire, both natural and human-made. In the thousands of years prior to the onset of the domestication of wild species, human beings used fire to drive game animals in desired directions. Burning also encouraged the growth of nutritious grass shoots that became forage for wild animals. When ancient peoples discovered this, they exploited the practice to improve the survival of the game they hunted. Today no other environment on the face of the earth supports animals of such spectacular size or herds of such immense numbers. Africa is often called the living Pleistocene precisely because of the game animals that thrive on its savannas.
Research from a number of disciplines suggests that Africa's pathway to food production may have been unique among world regions where the domestication of plants and animals took place. Archaeological, genetic, botanical, and linguistic studies indicate that the earliest African food producers were likely mobile herders rather than sedentary plant gatherers. In contrast with other regions of the globe, the domestication of animals in Africa apparently preceded that of plants.
Africans began the process of plant and animal domestication around 10,500 B.P. From the last glacial maximum some 20,000 years ago to the close of the ice ages, the Sahara was hyperarid, even more so than it is today. After 10,500 B.P. the Sahara's climate became wetter. In the eastern Sahara this transformation was both abrupt and dramatic. For three thousand years, from 8500 to 5300 B.C.E., summer rains from the Atlantic airflow system periodically reached the region. In the Nubian Desert of southern Egypt, a large basin known as the Nabta Playa began filling with water. The unpredictable rains and frequent droughts during this climatic phase made the emergent lake an attraction for animals and human beings. The earliest settlements at Nabta, some 10,500 to 9,300 years old, suggest the inhabitants were cattle-keeping people.
The oscillating wet and dry periods that marked the early Holocene may have encouraged hunter-gatherers to domesticate cattle as a food source. The uncertainties of environmental change and the need for more dependable food supplies perhaps prompted ancient Africans to embark upon the domestication of the wild cattle species, Bos primigenius africanus. The oldest undisputed remains of domesticated cattle in the eastern Sahara date to 8,000 years ago. However, the Nabta evidence suggests that domestication may have taken place between 10,500 and 9,000 B.P., more than a millennium earlier. Recent data from archaeology, historical linguistics, and DNA analysis now support a claim for an independent domestication of humpless longhorn cattle in the eastern Sahara at an early date.
Cattle tending spread westward across Saharan grasslands and south to the Red Sea Hills. Rock art of the western Sahara indicates that pastoralists diffused across the savannas of the Sahara between 8,000 and 6,000 B.P. (figure 1.1). Around 5300 B.C.E., a decisive climate shift in the eastern Sahara promoted a gradual desiccation. The original area of cattle domestication in turn grew less hospitable to herders. The cessation of summer rains once again brought hyperaridity to the region. Pastoralists responded by moving their cattle herds to wetter savanna environments. The return of desert conditions in Egypt about 3500 B.C.E. coincided with the initial period of the pharaonic civilization, centered on the Nile River flood plain. By then the entire Saharan region was trending toward decreased precipitation.
As aridity once again returned to the Sahara, lakes and waterholes on the grasslands that had made the region attractive to game animals, hunter-gatherers, herders, and fishing peoples dried up. Eventually, rainfall declines shaped the Sahara into the arid landscape that it is today. Domesticated livestock provided herders a reliable subsistence strategy, as people and animals followed the patchy retreat of savannas to the verdant grasslands to the south and southwest, an area now known as the Sahel. Herding dramatically reduced the risk of hunger because the mobile food supply could be relocated to take advantage of local differences in forage and water availability. Human populations came to depend on cattle for the milk and meat their animals produced. The Sahara's earliest food-producing communities thus were organized around the practice of herding.
Animal husbandry did not stop with the taming of wild cattle. Ancient herders continued the process of selecting and breeding animals with desirable traits. One breed with long bulbous horns, known as Kuri or Buduma cattle, developed around Lake Chad. It consumes aquatic plants for food and spends several hours each day immersed in water. The breed's long horns act as a flotation device. Herders developed another indigenous breed in the humid woodlands of Guinea's Futa Jallon plateau: the dwarf humpless cattle known as n'dama, whose outstanding virtue is resistance to the bovine sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) transmitted by the tsetse fly. The n'dama breed allows cattle-keeping in fly-infested areas that would prove lethal to animals without this special trait. Ancient herders bred other types for aesthetic features. The continent's indigenous breeds are distinguished by slender, sinewy limbs and often by their horns, which are long, inward curving, and crescent- or lyre-shaped (figures 1.2, 1.3).
Cattle were not the only animals that ancient Africans domesticated in arid environments. Between 7,000 and 5,000 B.P. Africans developed the donkey (Equus asinus) as a transport animal. The animal enabled early pastoralists to respond to growing aridity through frequent relocations between camps and oases. The donkey's capacity to carry wood, water, and people over short distances, made it an efficient transportation system. It was likely domesticated from the indigenous wild ass (E. africanus), which occupied the savanna steppes that then stretched from the Horn of Africa westward to the Atlas Mountains (now part of the Sahara). Eventually, the donkey spread from the African continent to the Near East and Mediterranean world. Another savanna food animal that Africans domesticated was the guinea fowl (Numida meleagris), the continent's indigenous poultry species.
The experimental process that led Africans to domesticate cattle and develop breeds adapted to specific ecological and aesthetic contexts was applied to other livestock introduced to the continent. Sheep and goats arrived in the Saharan regions by 8,500 years ago, camels in the first millennium B.C.E., and the hump-less Indian zebu cattle about 2,000 years B.P. Each of these domesticated species enabled African pastoralists to diversify their herd composition and breeding stock. With drought a recurrent threat in these regions, ownership of many different types of livestock reduced the chances of losing everything, diffusing the risk among different breeds and species. Herd diversification moreover improved the forage efficiency of savannas because each species grazed different parts of grasses or consumed plants unpalatable to the others. The introduction of these food animals involved African herders in a continuous process of experimentation as they adapted the species to theirneeds. They crossed the indigenous longhorn cattle with the zebu to develop a hardy drought-tolerant breed known today in Uganda as ankole. Herders also bred a type of woolless thin-tailed sheep that was particularly adapted to the continent's hot arid savannas but that was also able to survive in humid tropical areas. This so-called hair sheep was raised for meat rather than fiber. A distinct fat-tailed and also nonwoolly sheep, adapted to a variety of savanna and mountain environments, became the predominant breed across the eastern side of the continent.
Excerpted from In the Shadow of Slavery by Judith A. Carney, Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. Copyright © 2009 Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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List of Illustrations
1 Food and the African Past 6
2 African Plants on the Move 27
3 African Food Crops and the Guinea Trade 46
4 African Food and the Atlantic Crossing 65
5 Maroon Subsistence Strategies 80
6 The Africanization of Plantation Food Systems 100
7 Botanical Gardens of the Dispossessed 123
8 Guinea's Plants and European Empire 139
9 African Animals and Grasses in the New World Tropics 155
10 Memory Dishes of the African Diaspora 177
Selected Bibliography 239