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READ: The Origin of Agriculture in Africa

The Origin Of Agriculture In Africa

By David Baker, Adapted By Newsela
Sub-Saharan Africa is notable for the unusual path it took into the agrarian era, much of it affected by the fact that it is the homeland of humanity itself.

Agriculture: why wasn’t Africa first?

As long as humans have existed, some of them have always called Africa their home. We evolved in Africa from a long lineage. Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus are just a few milestones over the past 3.5 million years – many times longer than Homo sapiens have existed (approximately 200,000 to 250,000 years). Africa is the cradle of our species, and our first home. In fact, we are a very closely related family, much more than usual in nature. DNA testing tells us that a disaster 74,000 years ago, which many think was the super-eruption of Mount Toba, reduced the hu- man population to a few thousand. That was 10,000 years before the biggest human migration out of Africa. As a result, there is more genetic diversity between two different groups of chimpanzees separated by a few hundred miles than there is in the entire human species now spread across Earth. With humans having spent such a long time in Africa, and with such a “recent migration” out, why didn’t something like agriculture evolve there first?
The Fertile Crescent developed agriculture first, about 9000 BCE. On the other side of the world, China and New Guinea followed in 7000 BCE. For thousands of years, the only part of Africa to have agriculture was Egypt, interacting closely with Southwest Asia. All of Africa below the Sahara practiced hunting and gathering until approximately 3000 BCE. Why did sub-Saharan Africa lag behind the Fertile Crescent by 6,000 years, despite the fact that hu- mans had lived there for about 200,000 years? Was there some sort of disaster that wiped out earlier attempts at farming without a trace? Was there some sort of “failure” in the collective learning of the people there? Why didn’t the first farms, the first cities, and the first empires emerge in sub-Saharan Africa, where our ancestors had roamed and innovated for hundreds of thousands of years?
Continent of Africa.

African “fine-tuning”

In fact, Africa developed agriculture a little later because it was the cradle of our species. Humans evolved in Africa, alongside the many other animals there. That meant that for millions of years, these animals had evolved to cope with Homo habilis, Homo erectus, the Neanderthals, Homo sapiens, and many others in their environment. It is the same reason why tons of megafauna still exist in Africa, whereas much of it was wiped out in Australia and the Americas when humans arrived there. Animals need generations to adapt their instincts to humans. African animals had a lot of time for that adaptation so it was much more difficult for humans to domesticate a wide variety of animals, and that domestication is one of the first crucial steps for farming.
It also works the opposite way. Humans had evolved in Africa as foragers. In fact, earlier human species foraged for millions of years. This was our way of life for most of our history, and for people in Africa, for the longest time it was the best way of life. Over many generations, humans were keenly adapted to their environment, forming an intricate part of the ecosystem there. This was very different from many other regions of the world, where humans suddenly cannonballed in, creating all sorts of ecological ripples and facing environmental challenges to which they were not naturally well adapted. Over long stretches of evolutionary time, humans had learned to live with Africa and Africa had learned to live with humans.

“Gardens of Eden” and the “Trap of Sedentism”

Life as an early farmer was an ugly deal. It was one that humans tried to avoid if they could. It was usually only with a “trap of sedentism” that humans abandoned foraging and started to farm. As farmers, humans had to spend more time actually working (one estimate is 9.5 hours a day as a farmer; 6 hours a day as a forager). The result of early farming was more disease, worse nutrition, worse health, and greater vulnerability to climate and ecological disasters. For instance, we know that for the longest time, foraging communities in the Kalahari Desert in Southwest Africa knew about farming but didn’t adopt it. Why would anyone adopt a way of life that was far less healthy, far more work, and generally much more miserable than foraging?
Africa is a beautiful and diverse continent, but it also contains many challenging environments. The north has the deadly and harsh Sahara, which makes a transition to agriculture unlikely. It also cuts off a lot of communication with earlier agricultural societies, and in fact sub-Saharan Africa had to come up with farming independently, in West Africa, below the desert. Also, there are many dense malarial forests that would be very difficult for foragers to clear, settle, and farm, even if they wanted to. Finally, diseases also had evolved alongside humans in Africa, and there were many tropical diseases that made it a good idea for humans to keep moving rather than settle down.
Another factor contributing to the long absence of agriculture in Africa is the lack of so-called “Gardens of Eden,” regions so lush and abundant with life that foragers would settle there and no longer need to travel for a generation or so. Eventually, they would exhaust the land and fall into the “trap of sedentism.” This may have happened with the Natufians in the Fertile Crescent. In Africa, there weren’t many, if any, “Gardens of Eden.” Humans had roamed from region to region as foragers for hundreds of thousands of years, entering one area, feasting on the resources, then moving on to another region while the old one naturally replenished itself over several years. Sub- Saharan Africa simply did not have many (or any) of those tempting “traps” to force humans into early farming.

The independent origin of African agriculture

However, farming did eventually emerge independently in West Africa in about 3000 BCE (some estimates state even a little earlier), in the fairly lush and habitable savanna on the border between present-day Nigeria and Cameroon. It is possible there finally was a “Garden of Eden” there to “trap” people into early farming. However, many scholars argue that even here, farming began as a way to support the development of animal husbandry rather than to meet a demand for food. West Africans had begun to domesticate wild cattle several thousand years before they started to farm. The advantage of herding cattle to a group that was on the move, foraging from place to place, is obvious. You can take your food source with you. If you can breed your food, you’ve got a renewable supply of meat. If you can grow a bit of food when you’re foraging in an area for a few months, you can sustain your animals on simple grains while you forage for more nutritious food sources.
It seems pretty clear that the beginnings of West African plant domestication were fairly piecemeal. Eventually, however, West Africans began to settle and grow their food full-time. From 3000 BCE to 1000 BCE, the practice of farming spread across West Africa. They grew millet and sorghum (plants used for grain and fodder), and later began growing a special strain of rice native to Africa. They also grew tubers (root vegetables), yams, cowpeas, and oil palms, and began mass producing all sorts of succulent melons and fruits.
Because early West African farming methods are unique in a lot of ways and they made use of many crops only native to Africa, scholars have determined that farming in West Africa was not derived from Egypt or the Fertile Crescent. It would appear West Africa is another one of those regions that mysteriously started farming independently. In fact, West Africa started this whole process around the same time it had begun in the Americas, and before it had begun in many other regions of the world.
The spread of African agriculture (1000 bce-500 CE) Sorghum and millet were the number one crops of West Africans, and they continued to put a lot of emphasis on cattle herding as well. This played a role in a great migration of farmers out of West Africa starting approximately 1000 BCE. These migrants were the Bantu people, who spread farming across the rest of the continent. Some of them traveled along the verdant grasslands of the Sahel, a strip of land just below the Sahara. This was a corridor to East Africa, where the Bantu arrived around 1000 BCE, bringing their farming methods with them. The East Africans had already domesticated a few plants, such as enset (a kind of banana). Around this time, the Africans had adopted the use of iron technology, producing useful weapons and sturdier farming tools, particularly from the major iron production sites near Lake Chad just to the northeast below the Sahara, and Lake Victoria, in the lush regions of East Africa.
Meanwhile, other Bantu wandered out of West Africa and headed south, and by 500 BCE had reached the Congo region. Finally, the Bantu in East Africa migrated south all the way to the end of Africa, arriving in Natal, the lands of the Zulu, by 500 CE. By that time, farming had spread all over the continent, except to the harshest environments and densest forests. Most foraging communities became absorbed by these herding/ farming peoples.
It’s interesting to note that the Efik origin story, which you read in Unit 1, talks about people defying the gods and beginning to farm exactly in the region where farming did begin. Also, the Zulu origin story speaks of a long journey south from the “reed” lands to the north, when their people did indeed migrate down from East Africa.
The spread of agriculture across sub-Saharan Africa is reflected in the sudden jump in population around this time. West Africa remained the most populous, thanks to its early start, and it remains so today. In 500 BCE, it is estimated sub-Saharan Africa had a population of only 7 million. This is quite low and is due to the fact that foragers need a lot of land to support themselves because they stay on the move, searching for food sources, rather than intensifying the output of a single stretch of land. By 500 CE — in the space of just a thousand years — this number had nearly tripled to 20 million.
Bunches of sorghum (bottom) and pearl millet (top right), annual grasses grown as grain in the Sahel Desert, Mali, and West Africa.

“Late” African regions, c.1000 BCE-500 CE

Sub-Saharan Africa enjoyed the advantages of foraging for a very long time. Even so, West Africa was one of the first regions of the world, after the Fertile Crescent and East Asia, to develop agriculture — and independently at that. However, there was a huge gap of about 2,000 years before farming spread into the rest of Africa. Only from 1000 BCE to 500 CE did the peoples of most regions in sub-Saharan Africa start farming. This is considerably later than some of the other regions of the world. Also, it takes time after the start of agriculture in a region before agrarian civilizations begin. You need time to build up your population. You need time to build up “agricultural sur- plus” to feed cities.
The timeline of Africa’s journey into the agrarian era is a mixture of pros and cons. On the one hand, some regions of Africa were at a disadvantage when they encountered European and Islamic cultures in the Common Era. On the other hand, the late start of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa was a blessing for many people for thousands upon thousands of years. They enjoyed healthier lifestyles and a generally higher standard of living as foragers for much longer than the people of the Fertile Crescent or East Asia. Even after farming was introduced, large regions of Africa escaped the rigid hierarchies, the rule of despotic monarchs, and the widening gap between the rich and poor that characterize agrarian civilizations. A case could be made that between for- aging and modernity, the standard of living for most people got worse. In that sense, Africa enjoyed the advantages of foraging for a long time. Its challenge today is to fully enter and enjoy the advantages of modernity. As the African population continues to rapidly grow, this is a challenge that concerns the entire world as it becomes increasingly interwoven in a single global system.

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