that Africa is an early center of plant domestication?
When I posted a piece on the black-eyed pea more than a year ago, around New Years, I promised my readers that I would do additional posts on Sub-Saharan Africa plant domestication. With a long delay, I am now fulfilling that promise. I felt a real urgency to get this post out, even though this is not the final product I envisioned. But I decided to not let the pursuit of perfection triumph over the good that could come from getting this post out.
The featured image at the top of this post is a scene from Africa showing the transporting of the African yam, one of Africa’s early domesticated crops that is consumed throughout Sub-Sahara Africa. The yam is an important staple in the diets of Africans and Latin-Americans, a crop which is said to have been independently domesticated in both Sub-Sahara Africa and the Americas.
All the fruits and vegetables that we know and eat today came from wild varieties of these plants that were nurtured by humans to make them more productive and more amendable to human use and consumption. Plant domestication and human civilization are thought to go hand-in-hand. Agriculture gives rise to more stable and abundant sources of food than hunting and foraging, which in turn makes for larger and denser populations. When Europeans made contact with Africa via the Atlantic Ocean in the 1400’s (more than 600 years ago, before the Atlantic slave trade had started), they invariably took note of the dense populations they encountered. This could not have happened without an abundant food supply. Indeed, that coast of West Africa from Senegambia down to about Liberia was known as the Grain (or Rice) Coast because of the abundance of rice, millet, sorghum and cereal crops grown along that coastal area and inland.
Over the past several years as I searched the Internet looking for centers of plant domestication, I barely found any references that identified any areas in Africa as centers of early plant domestication; sometimes Ethiopia came up; I presume that the writers did not consider Ethiopia to be part of Black Africa. There were a few college course syllabi which acknowledged some centers of plant domestication in Sub-Sahara Africa. If you search diligently and long enough, you will find scholarly articles which acknowledge and provide scientifically based confirmation of Sub-Saharan African plant domestication.
One of the first things I found right away when I began my search was an article(The origins of agriculture and crop domestication) which showed the world centers of agricultural domestication. As you can see below in the table taken from the article, the first column lists the basic areas of origin and the second column subareas. Note that for Africa, the second column is blank. In other words, according to these authors, Africa domesticated no plants. This is not true and at the time of the publication of this article (1997), most, if not all, of the information I will share was known. Elsewhere in the article, the authors list Abyssinian (Ethiopian) as one of the eight primary centers of domestication recognized by Vavilov, Russian botanist who did pioneering work in this area. Clearly the authors of this articles did not consider Abyssinia (Ethiopia) as part of Africa.
In this post, I will introduce you to more than fifty (50) plants that originated in Africa. More than forty (40) of them were domesticated by Africans. When most writers use the term Africa, they are actually referring to Sub-Sahara Africa, that part of Africa that is south of the Sahara, essentially Black Africa.
The West /Central African: domesticated plants are (a) African rice, cotton (Gossypium herbaceum), sorghum, pearl millet, Guinea millet, fonio, eggplant (Guinea squash), cow pea (black-eyed pea), long bean, sesame seed, icacina, bambara bean (earth pea or Bambara groundnut), geocarpa bean (groundnut), yam bean, Guinea yam, rizga, celosia, fluted pumpkin, bottle gourd (calabash), watermelon, cantaloupe, muskmelon, egusi, tamarind, yams, butterfruit, akee apple, red sorrel, tree grape (linnea oleosa), coleus (Kaffir potato), and amaranth. Undomesticated: (b) shea butter tree, balantes (desert date), oil palm tree, kola nut, locust bean, Tree grape (linnea acida), dika and chocolate berries..
Abyssinian (Ethiopian)/East African domesticated plants: (a) Okra, enset, tef, finger millet, Ethiopian oats, and moringa tree.
Southern Africa domesticated plants: (a) horned melon and marula. Undomesticated: (b) marama, kei apple, Carissa, and tree grape (linnea discolor).
Africa-wide crops: (a) lablab (b) baobab tree
As you peruse the above lists, you will notice that the major area of crop domestication in Africa is West/Central Africa (with the vast majority in West Africa) to which is attributed the vast majority of the crops listed. The center of early crop domestication in West Africa was in present day Mali where the Niger makes a bend after emanating from the highlands of Guinea. The annual inundation of the river formed an inland delta (an alluvia plane) which created ideal conditions for growing certain crops, similar to what happened in Ancient Egypt as the Nile meandered from the Ethiopians highlands and emptied into the Mediterranean.
Most of the non-domesticated plants (the (b) plants) in the group of fifty-one mostly grow wild, that is they are not planted by humans, generally, but some are cultivated or protected because of their wonderful qualities that make them good for human consumption and for medicine, animal forage, and other things that people need or find useful, plants such as the shea butter tree and the baobab tree. A few of the plants included in this list as African domesticates, sesame seed and eggplant, for example, will be disputed by some experts; however, I do point you to some of the sources I consulted. It is a tentative list that could grow or diminish with the accumulation of more knowledge or a more exhaustive search/investigation. However, I believe it is more likely to grow rather than diminish in size.
When the blank cell for Africa is filled in, Table 1 becomes Table 2 as shown below:
I am sure that some of the African crops listed above, are unknown to many of you, crops such as, yambean, icacina, rizga, celosia, fluted pumpkin, egusi, akee apple, amaranth, balantes, dika, enset, tef, horned melon, marula, marama, and carissa. The names are exotic sounding but most of them have wonderful nutritional and/or medicinal properties. I will tell you something about these crops in my next blog post. But before I end this post, there are several observations I must make about African crops.
African Crops Exported to Asia and the Americas before Columbus
Several of Africa’s domesticated crops made their way to Asia during ancient times, namely, Kaffir potato (exported to India early on), pearl millet (exported to India in late third millennium B. C.), sorghum (exported to Ethiopia, India, China, and North Africa), cowpea – black-eyed pea (exported to India at a very early date), long bean (special form of the cowpea or black-eyed pea), watermelon (spread from Sudan to Egypt during the second millennium B. C. and also at a very early date to India), tamarind (spread from western Sudan to Egypt and India at an early date), Celosia Argentea (exported to India and Indonesia), lablab (exported to Asia). calabash – bottle gourd (spread from western Sudan to Egypt and India before the second millennium B.C.), amarantha (Africa to Asia), and the sesame seed (also known as benne or benne seed) (exported to Mesopotamia and India). For years the cowpea, long bean, calabash; amarantha, and lablab were thought to be Asian exports to Africa when in fact it was the other way around; these plants were domesticated in Africa and transplanted from Africa to Asia. Two important sources for the aforementioned assertions are Murdock, Africa: Its peoples and its culture and Lost Crops of Africa, Vols. I and II.
Interesting observations about the black-eyed pea (also called a cowpea or long bean)
“In Asia there is a special vegetable, renown by growers for its productivity, by chefs for its appearance, and by diners for its flavor and tender-crisp texture. Reportedly, it is one of Southeast Asia’s top ten vegetables, grown especially in southern China and Taiwan. That report, however, does it less than justice. In addition, it is the most widely grown legume of the Philippines, where it is known as “poor-man’s meat.” It also is very well known in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, and more. … In Europe … it is being grown extensively. And the United States has also begun producing it on a large scale for Chinese, Thai, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Indian restaurants.”(Lost Crops of Africa, Vol. II).
“A surprising thing about this “Oriental” vegetable is that it is not from the East at all. In the beginning—thousands of years ago—it was unknown to any Asian, or for that matter any European or New World inhabitant. But it was well known to Africans. This historical fact is a fairly new realization. A century ago even botanists were fooled into labeling the plant Vigna sinensis (bean of China). But now we know that it is nothing more than a very special form of cowpea, Vigna unguiculata—a plant that unquestionably arose out of tropical Africa thousands of years ago” (Lost Crops, Vol. II p. 223).
“On the basis of modern evidence, there is no doubt that the cultivated cowpea originated in central Africa from where it spread in early times through Egypt or Arabia to Asia and the Mediterranean. Fifty years ago the British botanist, Burkill, stated that the cowpea reached Sumeria about 2300 B.C. Perhaps that was the first leg of its journey away from Africa. In its new home across the seas, this wandering scion of cowpea took on the new guise of a long, long bean and began masquerading as an Asian food.” (Lost Crops, Vol. II, p. 232)
The way it has too often been presented, Africa is a debtor to the world when it comes to crop development and domestication. Though Africa has borrowed many crops from the rest of the world, she has in turn given much to the rest of the world when it comes to plant development and domestication.
- Anson Mills, What you need to know about benne. Accessed at https://www.ansonmills.com/grain_notes/19
- Carney, Judith A. (2001). Black rice: the African origins of rice cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Donnelly, Kristin, Benne: An heirloom hesame heed and hride of the American Low country. Accessed at https://www.tastecooking.com/ingredient-spotlight-benne-seeds/
- Encyclopedia Britannica. Roselle. Accessed at https://www.britannica.com/plant/roselle-plant
- Encyclopedia Britannica. Sorghum. Accessed at https://www.britannica.com/plant/sorghum-grain
- Kay, Andrea U., et al (2019). Diversification, intensification and specialization: changing land use in Western Africa from 1800 BC to AD 1500, Journal of World Prehistory. Accessed at https://academic.oup.com/af/article/3/3/28/4638630
- Manning, Katie (2010). A developmental history of West African agriculture. Accessed at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235410801_A_developmental_history_of_West_African_agriculture
- Morton, Julia (987). Akee. In Fruits of warm climates. p. 269–271. Accessed at https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/akee.html#Origin%20and%20Distribution
- Murdock, Peter G. (1959). Africa: its people and their culture history. New York: McGraw Hill.
- National Resource Council (2006). Lost Crops of Africa, Vols. I and II. Washington, D. C.: The National Academies Press.
- Pinnisi, Elizabeth (2019). Plant studies show where Africa’s early farmers tamed some of the continent’s key crops. Accessed at https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/05/plant-studies-show-where-africas-early-farmers-tamed-some-continents-key-crops.
- Purdue University. Lecture 5 – Purdue University Horticultural list of centers of crop domestication. Accessed at https://hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/Hort_306/text/lec05.pdf
- Wood, Peter H. (1974). Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.