Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 January 2009
A history of food systems in Africa's Great Lakes region is presented using mostly historical linguistic sources, with help from archaeology and paleoecology. The paper moves beyond understanding the causes and consequences of iron-working as the most important feature of the period between c. 1000 b.c. and c. a.d. 500. I argue that a history of agriculture both gives context to changes in technology and introduces powerful new explanations for historical processes of settlement and occupational specialization that took place.
Between 1000 b.c. and 500 b.c., in the Great Lakes region, speakers of three of Africa's four major language families practiced distinguishable food-producing systems. Two groups, Central Sudanian and Sog Eastern Sudanian, depended mainly on growing cereals and raising livestock for their sustenance. The third group, the Tale Southern Cushites, gave decidedly greater emphasis to cattle but probably also grew grains. A fourth group, the Great Lakes Bantu, grew root crops, fished and raised cattle and grain. They inherited much of their knowledge of these techniques, other than cattle-raising, from earlier Eastern Highlands Bantu-speakers. But they incorporated cattle and some grains through longstanding contacts with the two Sudanian and the Southern Cushitic communities. The eclectic food system they thus created allowed them to carry their unified, complex food-producing system throughout the wide variety of environments that they encountered in the Lakes region. After c.a.d. 200 descendants of the Great Lakes Bantu refined this synthesis; they emphasized livestock raising inland from Lake Victoria, and mixed farmers spread throughout the Kivu Rift. Technological, demographic, ecological and sociological explanations of the technological evidence are offered.
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32 For comparative linguistic evidence see Ehret, Christopher, ‘Patterns of Bantu and Central Sudanic settlement in Central and Southern Africa (ca. 1000 b.c.–500 a.d.)’, Transafrican Journal of History, III (1973), 1–71;Google Scholaridem, ‘Agricultural history in Central and Southern Africa, c. 1000 b.c. to a.d. 500’, Transafrican Journal of History, iv (1974), 4ffGoogle Scholar; and idem, ‘Proto-Central Sudanic reconstructions’ (n.p., 1986). For more work on Central Sudanic see Demolin, Didier, ‘Some problems of phonological reconstruction in Central Sudanic’, Belgian Journal of Linguistics, III (1988), 53–96Google Scholar; Goyvaerts, Didier L. (ed.), Language and History in Central Africa (Antwerp, 1986)Google Scholar; and Bender, M. Lionel, ‘Central Sudanic segmental and lexical reconstruction’, Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere, XXIX (1992), 5–61.Google Scholar Sorghum and Pennisetum both thrive in lower rainfall regimes with much less atmospheric moisture than required for the yam or oil palm. Sorghum cannot tolerate frost but can briefly withstand waterlogged soils without suffering significant loss of yield. See Purseglove, J. W., Tropical Crops, Monocotyledons (Harlow, Essex, 1972), 269–71.Google Scholar In eastern Africa, Pennisetum requires a minimum average rainfall of 350–400 mm; Food and Agriculture Organization, Traditional Food Plants: A Resource Book for Promoting the Exploitation and Consumption of Food Plants in Arid, Semi-Arid, and Sub-Humid Lands of Eastern Africa (Rome, 1988), 472.Google ScholarPennisetum sp. needs a more evenly distributed rainfall regime than does Sorghum, although it will grow with as little as 250 mm of rain annually; Purseglove, Monocotyledons, 206. In eastern Africa, Pennisetum requires high temperatures during the day and cool ones at night to mature properly. The mean minima and maxima should be 18°C and 27°C respectively. The crop is rarely found above 1200 m, FAO, Traditional Food Plants, 396–7.Google Scholar
33 The authorities here are Ehret, Demolin and Goyvaerts (see note 32). But work undertaken in Zaire by Mary McMaster of Castleton State University, and soon to be underway by Kairn Klieman of UCLA, should add greatly to our knowledge.
35 Ford, pointing out the speculative nature of such considerations, concludes that modern distributions of fly fail to indicate ancient patterns of tsetse infestation, but that ‘a vegetational and faunal continuity existed that would have allowed fusca group tsetses and their hosts to have spread along the forest edges associated with the highlands of both the Western and Eastern Rifts…’; Ford, John, The Role of the Trypanosomiases in African Ecology: A Study of the Tsetse Fly Problem (Oxford, 1971), 121.Google Scholar For the sake of simplicity I assume, with Ford, that areas of more open grasslands above about 1500 m were relatively safe for livestock; Ford, Ibid. 5. I also assume that these same areas might have harbored tick-borne ‘east coast fever’. Comparative linguistic data might help to prove the existence of these pests during the early periods of history. A root *-gUpe meaning ‘cattle tick’ in proto-Great Lakes Bantu is the strongest evidence so far. A shift in meaning from the general term for ‘tick’ to that of ‘cattle tick’ seems to have occurred during the proto-Great Lakes period.
38 The name ‘Sog’ is the Kuliak word for ‘mountain’ and is a common loan word in Great Lakes Bantu. See root 23 in Appendix.
39 We are ignoring the question of the presence and role of specialized gatherer-hunters in the Great Lakes region. Since no linguistic evidence yet exists which might be of use in discussing exclusively gathering and hunting peoples the lacuna is justifiable if lamentable. Later efforts at reconstructing vocabulary for hunting, wild food collecting and fishing should reveal the rich contributions these activities made to Great Lakes nutrition.
40 I owe to Christopher Ehret the original observation that several Nilo-Saharan loans in Great Lakes Bantu could not be derived from Nilotic or Central Sudanic sources. Based on linguistic geography and its correlation with archaeological sequences, John Sutton long ago hinted at an ancient Nilo-Saharan presence in the Lakes region; Sutton, John E. G., ‘The Aquatic Civilization of Middle Africa’, J. Afr. Hist., XV (1974), 537.Google Scholar For a collection of reconstructed agricultural terms in Proto-Kuliak see Schoenbrun, , ‘Early history’, 570–1Google Scholar, where all items come from Heine, Bernd, The Kuliak Languages of Eastern Uganda (Nairobi, 1976), 73–9Google Scholar; Ehret, Christopher, ‘The classification of Kuliak’, in Schadeberg, Thilo C. and Bender, M. Lionel (eds.), Nilo-Saharan: Proceedings of the First Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium (Dordrecht, 1981), 269–89Google Scholar; and idem, ‘Revising Proto-Kuliak’, Afrika und Übersee, lxiv (1981), 81–100.Google Scholar
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43 Ehret's work furnishes the basis for the following review of Southern Cushitic agricultural practice, especially Ehret, Christopher, The Historical Reconstruction of Southern Cushitic Phonology and Vocabulary (Berlin, 1980).Google Scholar For considerations of the role of Southern Cushitic-speakers elsewhere in eastern African history see also Ambrose, Stanley, ‘Archaeology and linguistic reconstructions of history in East Africa’, in Ehret, and Posnansky, (eds.), The Archaeological, 140–2;Google ScholarEhret, Christopher, Southern Nilotic History (Chicago, 1971), 37–9, 48–51, 55–60, 110–27Google Scholar; idem, Ethiopians and East Africans: The Problem of Contacts (Nairobi, 1974), 7–44Google Scholar; Robertshaw, Peter T. and Collett, David P., ‘A new framework for the study of early pastoral communities in East Africa’, J. Afr. Hist., XXIV (1983), 289–301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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48 E. coracana is a very durable crop. It is extremely drought-resistant and may store seeds on the head for up to ten years, though viability for planting drops 50 per cent after two years. It thrives in free-draining soils with steady moisture levels. It does best between 18 °C and 27 °C, from sea-level to 2400 m. In Uganda it requires 900–1250 mm of rainfall and dislikes waterlogging; FAO, Traditional Plant Foods, 266–7.Google Scholar
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70 In the drier grasslands between the Kagera and the Katonga, settlement was probably sparse if present at all. See Andrew Reid, ‘The role of cattle’. But, in the lands between the lakeshore and the Kagera, south of its bend, occupation appears quite ancient. See Nelson, Charles and Posnansky, Merrick, ‘The stone tools from the excavation of Nsongezi rock shelter’, Azania, V (1970), 199–72Google Scholar; Schmidt, Peter R., ‘Early Iron Age settlements and industrial locales in West Lake’, Tanzania Notes and Records, LXXXIV/LXXXV (1980), 77–94.Google Scholar
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85 This may well have been the context for the initial integration of the constellation of symbols and ritual process in the umuganuro ‘first fruits’ ceremonies that are shared by enough Western Lakes societies to suggest that umuganuro has very ancient roots. See Newbury, Kings and Clans, 200–26, 290 n. 16, 291 n. 23.
86 The data for these developments will appear in Schoenbrun, ‘Cattle herds’.
89 See Wrigiey, , ‘Cattle and language’, 250–3 and 256Google Scholar, where he comes close to the position taken here. I employ a different etymology than does Coupez, André, ‘Linguistic taboo concerning cattle among the interlacustrine Bantu’, Acts of the African Languages Congress (Pretoria, 1976), 226–7.Google Scholar