Describing the principal sources of food for the inhabitants of Africa south from the Sahara is a relatively easy task. Most diets are dominated by products made from a single staple crop, and there are not all that many of them. Maize, sorghums, pearl or bulrush millet, and rice are the prominent grains, and cassava, yams, and bananas or plantains account for most of the vegetatively propagated varieties. Furthermore, their general geographies can be explained, for the most part, by annual totals and seasonality of rainfall. For example, near the dry margins of cropping, pearl millet makes its greatest dietary contribution, whereas the equatorial zone is where bananas and plantains come to the fore. Even adding in the role played by livestock, one that varies from insignificant to crucial, does not overly complicate the picture. Among farmers, fowl are fairly ubiquitous, while sheep, goats, and cattle are kept wherever diseases, especially sleeping sickness, do not prohibit them. When aridity intervenes to make crop cultivation too hazardous to rely upon, the herding of camels or cattle becomes the primary subsistence activity.
The problems come when attempting to go much beyond this level of generality. There is a plethora of other foods that are important to diets, including those from wild sources, and matters get even more difficult to sort out when issues of history, culture, and nutritional adequacy must be addressed. The region’s human diversity is enormous, and most food systems display a complex interweaving of influences, ranging from the distant past to the present. Unfortunately, trying to understand what has happened through time is hindered by a dearth of information. The written record is sparse before the twentieth century, and archaeology,so far, has produced very few dates. As a result, temporal insights often must rely on somewhat less precise sources of information, such as paleobotany, historic and comparative linguistics, and cultural anthropology.