West African Archaeology
New developments, new perspectives
BAR International Series 2164
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West African Archaeology: New developments, new perspectives
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A developmental history for early West African agriculture
The Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square
London WC1H 0PY
The origins and spread of domesticated cereals in Africa remains poorly understood despite continued efforts. This is partly due to
the perennial problem of insufcient research and poor conditions of preservation for plant and animal remains. But, there are also
potentially very real reasons for why early domestication continues to elude the archaeological record in West Africa. This paper
provides a synthesis of recent research, including genetic, linguistic and archaeological data, to examine what is known, and perhaps
what cannot be known, about agricultural development in West Africa. Particular attention is given to the initial spread of domestic pearl
millet (Pennisetum glaucum), which appears to have been the key, if not the only, crop being cultivated throughout the Sahelian regions
of West Africa between 3000 and 1000 BC. It is argued here that the apparent monocropping of early agricultural systems reects broad
environmental circumstances and deep time cultural trajectories of the region. Furthermore, on the basis of recent evidence from the
Lower Tilemsi Valley, it is argued that pearl millet cultivation originated further north in the western Sahara and likely predates the
earliest presently known nds by at least 1000 years. Evidence from sub-Sahelian regions of West Africa demonstrates that a greater
diversity of crops came into use during the 2nd millennium BC. The identication of pearl millet as the earliest domestic crop in this
region supports prior hypotheses advocating a northern origin for the agro-pastoral occupation of sub-Sahelian West Africa, leading to
a “knock-on” effect of local domestication events.
West Africa, plant domestication, agriculture, neolithisation, mobility
Agricultural modelling in an African context
Modelling the evolution of agricultural economies in
Africa demands a more critical understanding of the data.
One approach that has become increasingly central to
the debate is ethnobotany, i.e. the use of anthropological
data to characterise the broad diversity in current food
production strategies. Neumann (2005, 249) notes that
agricultural practices in Africa tend to cover a vast ‘middle
ground’ between hunting and gathering, on the one hand,
to intensive agriculture on the other. Greater awareness
of traditional land-use systems has led to the terms
‘cultivation’, and ‘intensication’, gaining much support
(Haaland 1999; Stahl 1993). Unfortunately, cultivation
is almost impossible to identify archaeologically, and
instead we have to rely on ethnographic analogy and
indirect evidence in order to infer cultivation practices.
Nonetheless, it is worth considering the social impact that
cultivation may have had on populations who perhaps
had little need to domesticate cereals to the point of
morphologically changing their size and shape. It is
important to bear in mind that lack of domestication i.e.
the production of genetic change in plant species, does
not negate cultivation, and that various factors may have
actually countered the domestication process. High levels
of mobility, for example, made necessary by increasingly
unpredictable environments or demographic constraints (cf.
Marshall and Hildebrand 2002) may, as suggested below,
have limited the morphological or physiological changes
associated with domestication. Instead, as suggested by
Barich (1998), the systematic exploitation and necessary
preparation skills of wild cereals would have necessitated
The emergence of agriculture and the transition from
foraging to farming represents one of the most important
events in human history. While a recent surge in data
collection in some parts of the world has led to increasing
awareness of regional variability, and greater appreciation
for the bearings of climatic and environmental
circumstance (Colledge et al., 2004; Vigne 2008), the
process of “neolithisation”, particularly in the Near East
and Europe, is still, for the most part, embedded in the
shift to agriculture. Here, there is evident co-evolution
of plant cultivation and livestock keeping alongside
increasing socio-technological change, and whilst this
event is clearly characterised by internal diversication, at
a broad temporal and geographic scale we can still talk of
a “Neolithic transition” (Childe 1936). The evidence from
Africa, meanwhile, presents a very different picture. In
particular, cereal agriculture appears to be a relatively late
phenomenon; the data indicating more than a 3000 year
lag between the initial appearance of domesticated animals
in the eastern Sahara and the rst signs of domestic crops
along the western fringes of the Sahara-Sahel borderlands,
and even later in Ethiopia. Indeed, the domestication of
plants and animals, the emergence of ceramic technology,
and the urbanisation of landscapes do not appear
synchronously as one package, negating the concept of
“neolithisation” as it is used in the Near East and Europe.
As noted by Casey (2005, 225) ‘What is being missed in
this rush to “neolithicize” the Holocene is the opportunity
to investigate a lifeway in which the management of
domesticated resources is only one of many options’.
West AfricAn ArchAeology: neW developments, neW perspectives
regional sharing and exchange of information, providing
a framework for later agro-pastoral developments. Such
activities would have played an essential role in what she
terms ‘pre-adaptive strategies’ (Barich 1998, 38).
Nonetheless, while investigations into the pre-adaptive
conditions for agriculture (Clarke 1976) are clearly of
importance, the context of agricultural development in
West Africa is quite different to that which is found in
the Nile Valley and eastern Sahara. The early to mid-
Holocene occupation of the central and western Sahara
is comparatively ephemeral, leaving little archaeological
trace. Equally, the hydrology of the Niger delta and dense
forest cover in sub-Sahelian Africa supported low density
Holocene populations. Archaeobotanical evidence dating
to before 3000 BC is therefore extremely rare, providing
little evidence of pre-existing socio-economic strategies.
Instead, the pre-existing conditions for West African food
production appear to be rooted in the developed pastoral
strategies found along the Sahara-Sahel borderlands. As
noted by Tafuri et al. (2006, 392), increased mobility
levels, prompted by increasing aridity would have included
exchanges between groups as a further adaptive strategy,
generating broad areas of interaction and herding territories
that acted as an apposite vehicle for the spread of plant and
Figure 1: Sites menoned in the text: 1= Lower Tilemsi Valley sites (Karkarichinkat Nord (KN05),
Karkarichinkat Sud (KS), Ebelelit (EB07), Tiboubija (TB07), Er Negf (EN07), Tin Alhar (TA07) and Jsmagamag
(JS07)), 2= Dhar Tichi and Dhar Néma, 3= Windé Koroji Ouest, 4=Ounjougou, 5=Birimi, 6=Boase sites,
7=Bwambé Sommet, 8=Abang Minko’o, 9=Ti-n-Akof, 10=Gajiganna, 11=Waladé, 12=Cubalel. Areas of
purported pearl millet domescaon: 1 [circled] aer Tostain (1998), and 2 [circled] aer Oumar et al. (2008)
A developmentAl history for eArly West AfricAn Agriculture
The primacy of herding and environmental context of
early African food production
Set against increasing aridication, climatic conditions
in Africa became signicantly more erratic during the
5th and 4th millennia BC. Between 3000 and 2000 BC,
conditions rapidly deteriorated leading to a distinct dry
episode happening around 2200/2000 BC marking the end
of the Holocene humid phase and the onset of current arid
conditions (Maley 1977, 1980, 1982; Lézine 1991). Whilst
these environmental dynamics are likely to have played
a central role in the establishment of socio-economic
change (McIntosh 1993), they also posed critical barriers
to the southward expansion of domesticated resources,
supporting what has been referred to as the ‘cattle before
crops’ model for early African food production (Marshall
and Hildebrand 2002).
Domesticated cattle are present in North Africa by at least
the mid-6th millennium BC, although Close (1987, 2001)
and Wendorf (Close and Wendorf, 1992; Wendorf et al.,
1984, 2001; Wendorf and Schild, 1980) argue for domestic
cattle in the eastern Sahara at Bir Kiseiba by c. 9300 BC
(9840±380 bp) and Nabta Playa by c. 8000 BC. The claim
for these being domestic cattle is argued primarily on
ecological grounds i.e. that in light of the associated fauna,
conditions would have been too dry to support wild cattle
populations (Close and Wendorf 1992, 64). However in
osteometric terms it has not been possible to conclusively
distinguish between them being domestic or wild (Smith
1986). Furthermore, the earliest dated remains came from
surface collections at the site of Nabta Playa E-79-8 and
most researchers today tend to view these remains with
some scepticism. To add to this debate, it now appears
as though cattle were domesticated independently in
Africa rather than being imported from the Middle East,
strengthening the case for an independent and earlier
domestication event in Africa. Grigson (1991, 2000) rst
hypothesised a common domestic progenitor for modern
African cattle derived from a distinct form of African
auroch (B. primigenius mauritanicus) that was separate
from both the wild aurochs of Europe (B. primigenius
primigenius) and traditional Asian zebu stocks (B.
primigenius namadicus). Recent work on mitochondrial
DNA also demonstrates a divergence in the wild cattle of
Europe and Africa dating back as early as 22,000 years ago
(Loftus et al. 1994; Bradley and Loftus 2000).
At the site of Nabta Playa E-75-6 a date of 7200 BC
(8290±80 bp) is more widely accepted for domestic
cattle in the eastern Sahara (Gautier 1984). From here,
domestication appears to have spread westwards across
the Sahara and southwards along the Nile Valley. The
westward trend can be observed in the occupation of the
Hoggar, the Tassili, Libya at Ti-n-Torah, Uan Muhuggiag,
Murzuq and Ti-n-Hanakaten (Gautier and Van Neer 1982;
Aumassip 1986; Aumassip and Tauveron 1993), southern
Algeria at Meneit (Gautier 1987a) and Adrar Tiouyine, and
in Niger at Arlit, Adrar Bous, and Tamaya Mellet (Clark et
al. 2008; Smith 1980). Cattle are present at Gabrong and
Baradigiué in the Tibesti at around 6300 BC (7455±180
bp) (Gautier 1987b), and at Adrar Bous in the Ténéré
desert of Niger (Clark et al. 2008), where they have been
dated between 4130 and 3400 BC (6325±300 bp).
After 2500 BC deterioration of conditions in the Sahara
and southward shift in the position of the Inter Tropical
Convergence Zone prompted the movement of domesticated
livestock into Sub-Saharan West Africa. Prior to this,
much of the Inland Niger Delta was then a vast swamp,
uninhabitable for pastoral groups due to a lack of suitable
grazing land, and profusion of associated disease vectors
such as Malaria and Trypanosomiasis. These climatic and
environmental changes prompted signicant population
movement. This is seen in areas such as the Tilemsi
palaeochannel, which would have provided a virtual
corridor for populations moving southwards (Gaussen and
Gaussen 1988; Manning 2008). Along with aspects of a
broadly shared Saharan material culture, the inhabitants
of the Tilemsi Valley also brought with them domestic
livestock, including cattle, sheep and goat, and domestic
pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum). During the 2nd
millennium BC, the ancient oodplain of the Méma region
in central Mali also underwent a major inltration of people
demonstrating cultural afliations with traditions from the
North (MacDonald 1994, 112). The Kobadi Tradition,
dated to c. 2000 BC has physical and material cultural
roots to the northeast at Hassi el Abiod (Raimbault and
Dutour 1989), while the later Ndondi Tossokel Tradition
clearly derives from the Chebka/Arianne assemblages
from Dhar Tichitt. Although evidence for cultivation is
present at Dhar Néma by c. 1700 BC (Fuller et al. 2007),
no evidence for domesticated cereals has yet been found
in the Holocene occupation of the Méma. This is likely a
result of the local hydrological conditions, which would
have provided suitable grazing territories on the periphery
of the inundated plain, but little in the way of agricultural
Lines of evidence for the origins of domestication
The reconstruction of Africa’s agricultural past demands a
multi-disciplinary approach. Although the recovery of well-
dated archaeological plant remains is a valuable source of
information in the study of early agriculture, much of what
is known today about the geographical origins of African
crops has been obtained from living plant communities
and historical linguistics. Vavilov (1926) pioneered
much of this work in Africa, suggesting the East African
highlands as the potential cradle of agriculture based on
the living diversity of cultivated plants. Vavilov’s theory
has since lost much support as it has become apparent that
a crop’s diversity does not necessarily mirror its area of
origin. More recently, Harlan (1971, 1992) mapped the
geographic origins for ten of Africa’s crops according
to the distribution of their wild relatives. He proposed
a theory of ‘non-centred domestication’ whereby the
hypothetical domestication areas were very large and
rarely overlapped. For pearl millet (which together with
sorghum is today a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa and
West AfricAn ArchAeology: neW developments, neW perspectives
parts of India) Harlan identied the western Sahara as a
centre for domestication.
Harlan’s work has since gained support from genetic
evidence. Tostain (1998), for example, undertook
isozyme surveys of wild populations and domesticated
varieties of pearl millet, identifying enzyme similarity
datasets favouring southeast Mauritania as a centre for
domestication and/or a stretch from northeast Mali to Lake
Chad (see Fuller 2003; Oumar et al. 2008). Recent work in
the Lower Tilemsi Valley (Manning et al., in press) lends
considerable support to these ndings (see below).
Another important source of information used in the
reconstruction of Africa’s agrarian history, comes in the
form of historical linguistics, dened as the analysis of the
relationship between languages, in particular those assumed
to be genetically related and to have ‘sprung from some
common source’ (Blench 2007). While linguistics have
proved successful in establishing secure reconstructions
for domestic animals (see Blench and MacDonald 2000),
they have proved to be more problematic for the major
African cultigens. Nonetheless, the names of some
cultivated plants found in the Benue-Congo languages of
Nigeria also have Bantu reexes indicating a West African
origin for their domestication (Blench 1996, 2007).
The following section looks in detail at current lines of
evidence for select domestic cereals, namely pearl millet
(Pennisetum glaucum), cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) and
fonio (Digitaria sp.) in West Africa. Although, a full
review of African agriculture is beyond the scope of this
paper, it is also worth noting a number of plant resources
domesticated outside of the West African range. In
particular, Harlan (1971) highlights Ethiopia as a centre
for the domestication of Enset (Musa ensete and Guizotiv
abyssinica), Teff (Eragrostis tef) and Finger Millet
(Eleusine corocana). The origin of domesticated Sorghum
(Sorghum bicolor), meanwhile, has proved difcult in
pinning down, with Harlan proposing a broad east-west
range between eastern Sudan and Lake Chad.
Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum)
Pearl millet is a staple cereal of sub-Saharan Africa and
parts of India, where it is tolerant of the drier Sahelian/
semi-desert zones as well as Savanna regions (Brunken
1977; Brunken et al. 1977; Harlan 1992; Tostain
1998). It is the only African cereal for which existing
archaeobotanical evidence is adequate, and much of what
is known today about early agricultural developments in
West Africa has to do with the domestication and spread
of pearl millet. Following Harlan (1992) and Tostain
(1998) it is perhaps not surprising that we nd the earliest
evidence for morphologically conrmed domesticates on
the southern fringes of the western Sahara, at Dhar Tichitt
around 1800 BC (Amblard and Pernès 1989) and in the
Lower Tilemsi Valley by at least 2000 BC (Smith 1992,
74, Manning 2008, Manning et al., in press). Domesticated
pearl millet has also been identied south of the river
Niger at Windé Koroji Ouest, dating to the early 2nd
millennium BC (Kevin MacDonald, pers. comm.) and at
Birimi in northern Ghana (D’Andrea et al. 2001) dating
to the same period. Fully domesticated pearl millet, which
is a native African crop, is also found in India in the late
3rd millennium BC, highlighting the obvious gaps in our
knowledge of early pearl millet agriculture. Was millet
being domesticated simultaneously in more than one area?
Or do we need to look further back in time for a northern
centre of domestication predating these nds?
Recent work in the Lower Tilemsi Valley provides
new evidence for the timing and process of pearl millet
domestication (Manning 2008, Manning et al., in press).
In the early 1970’s Andrew Smith (1974) undertook
excavations at the sites of Karkarichinkat Nord (KN)
and Karkarichinkat Sud (KS), identifying impressions of
domestic pearl millet on surface material at KS (Smith
1992, 74). As noted by Neumann (2005, 259), however,
the provenance of these samples is compromised and, in
effect, they contribute little to our understanding of the
earliest history of this cereal.
In 2005 renewed excavations began in the Lower Tilemsi
with the aim to rene the chronology, and investigate the
emergence of agro-pastoral communities in this region.
Extensive excavations were undertaken at Karkarichinkat
Nord (KN05) whilst the southern site proved to be
unworkable due to the unconsolidated nature of the
deposit. A survey was undertaken of the Karkarichinkat
hinterland, covering approximately 20x20km, in which 86
multi-period sites were identied. On the basis of surface
material, and shovel testing to assess the stratigraphic
integrity, ve of the large occupation mounds were chosen
for subsequent test excavation. These were Ebelelit (EB07),
Tiboubija (TB07), Tin Alhar (TA07), Er Negf (EN07) and
Jsmagamag (JS07-1 and JS07-2). In addition to sampling
for macro plant remains on site, analysis of the pottery
assemblages from the sites of EB07, EN07 and JS07-2 , all
dating to between 2500 and 2000 BC, revealed that a large
number of sherds were tempered with chaff. Casts of the
chaff impressions from a sub-sample of these assemblages
revealed that pearl millet was the predominant species.
Furthermore, eight involucre base impressions with
preserved rachis fragments were identied indicating the
stalked, non-dehiscient morphotype of the domesticate.
Only one possible wild type involucre base was noted,
although this remains somewhat ambiguous. Although the
sample size is small, it suggests the predominance of the
domesticated form (i.e. 89% of preserved rachis remains).
Direct dating of these sherds as well as a single grain of
indeterminate Pennisetum from Karkarichinkat Nord, all
produced dates in the later half of the Third Millennium BC,
mainly between 2500 and 2000 BC (Table 1). Based on the
evidence from other cereals, that non-shattering evolved
gradually, over about 1000-2000 years (Fuller 2007; Fuller
et al. 2009; Fuller and Allaby 2010), it can be inferred that
cultivation began perhaps in the 4th Millennium BC. It is
important to note that at the sites where domestic pearl
millet has been identied in the Lower Tilemsi valley, it
is present from the initial occupation levels, implying that
A developmentAl history for eArly West AfricAn Agriculture
the incoming population brought with them an established
economic suite, including domesticated millet, cattle and
Finds of domestic millet from the rst half of the 2nd
millennium BC are widely spread across West Africa,
including Mauritania (Amblard and Pernes 1989; Fuller et
al 2007), Mali (MacDonald 1996), Ghana (D’Andrea et
al. 2001; D’Andrea et al. 2006), Oursi and Ti-n-Akof in
Burkina Faso (Kahlheber et al. 2001; Neumann 1999) and
Gajiganna in Nigeria (Klee et al. 2004). Already by the
end of the 3rd Millennium BC, pearl millet had reached
India. Even if we are to assume that pearl millet was
domesticated some time before its initial appearance in the
archaeological record its early occurrence in India suggests
that it spread rapidly eastwards across Africa in regions that
as yet have been undocumented by archaeobotany (Fuller
2003), such as the northern savannas of Niger, Chad and
Sudan. By the 1st millennium BC, domestic pearl millet is
found at Waladé (Dorian Fuller, pers. comm.) and Cubalel
(Murray et al. 2007) in Senegal and by the mid to late 1st
Millennium BC it had penetrated the Central African forest
being present at the sites of Bwambé-Sommet and Abang
Minko’o in southern Cameroun (Kahlheber et al. 2009).
Fonio (Digitaria exilis)
Fonio remains one of the more elusive African crops,
both archaeologically speaking and in regard to its present
day status. Despite being cultivated throughout much
of West Africa, and considered to be one of the earliest
cereal domesticates (see http://inco-fonio-en.cirad.fr/),
archaeobotanical remains are extremely rare. Fonio has
been identied at the site of Kolima Sud Est dating to c.
850 BC, and is argued to be domestic on the grounds of
size diminution (Takezawa and Cissé 2004). Otherwise,
the only other reliable nds of domesticated fonio come
from Cubalel in Senegal, dating to c. AD 500 (Murray et al.
2007). Its current distribution, which is fairly fragmented
between Guinea and Lake Chad (Chevalier 1922; Portères
Lab ref. Site Material Crop Domestic
status Date bp Reference
Nord Grain Pennisetum
sp. Indet. 4011±33 Manning et
al., in press
OxA-X-2264-14 Ebelelit Ceramic
glaucum Domestic 3687±30 Manning et
al., in press
OxA-X-2287-26 Er Negf Ceramic
glaucum Domestic 3782±28 Manning et
al., in press
OxA-X-2287-27 Er Negf Ceramic
glaucum Domestic 3980±31 Manning et
al., in press
OxA-X-2287-29 Jsmagamag (2) Ceramic
glaucum Domestic 3604±30 Manning et
al., in press
OxA-X-2287-28 Jsmagamag (2) Ceramic
sp. Indet. 4121±31 Manning et
al., in press
GX-29359-AMS Djiganyai Ceramic
glaucum Domestic 3370±40 Fuller et al.
GX-28140 Djiganyai Ceramic
glaucum Domestic 3260±40 Fuller et al.
Erl-9196 Ounjougou Grain Pennisetum
glaucum Domestic 3416±109 Ozainne et al.
Pa-1157 Dhar Tichitt Ceramic
glaucum Domestic 3500±100 Amblard 1996
Pa-1299 Dhar Tichitt Ceramic
glaucum Domestic 3420±120 Amblard 1996
TO-8172 Birimi Grain Pennisetum
glaucum Domestic 3460±200 D’Andrea et
TO-8173 Birimi Grain Pennisetum
glaucum Domestic 2960±370 D’Andrea et
TO-11883 Boase sites Grain Vigna
unguiculata Domestic 3410±60 D’Andrea et
Utc-4906 Ti-n-Akof Grain Pennisetum
glaucum Domestic 2840±49 Neumann
Table 1: AMS dates for 3rd millennium and 2nd millennium BC nds of domesc pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum)
and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata)
West AfricAn ArchAeology: neW developments, neW perspectives
1955; Hilu et al. 1997), suggests that it was once spread
over a much wider area that has since been taken over by
higher yielding crops such as millet and sorghum. Equally,
the linguistic evidence indicates an ancient origin (Blench
2007). Certain linguistic isolates for the word fonio suggest
the crop was cut off from the main zone of cultivation at
an early period (Portères 1955, 1976; Burkill 1994, 226).
However, we have a long way to go before any conclusions
can be drawn on the early history of fonio cultivation.
Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata var. unguiculata)
Recent discoveries of domestic cowpea in association
with Kintampo deposits dating to c. 1700 BC in central
Ghana (D’Andrea et al. 2007) provide a critical clue to
the domestication process in this part of West Africa.
Cowpeas are one of the most important food legume crops
in the semi-arid tropics of Africa. They are a drought-
tolerant and warm-weather crop, and are also shade-
resistant making them today a good intercrop with maize,
millet and sorghum. The absence of a wild progenitor
outside Africa indicates that cowpea was domesticated
somewhere on the African continent. Phylogenetic studies
and linguistic evidence indicate tropical West Africa to be
the point of origin (Coulibaly et al. 2002; Blench 1996). It
is, therefore, intriguing that the nds from central Ghana,
which correlate well with the genetic and linguistic data,
are broadly contemporary with the pearl millet nds from
Sub-Sahelian adaptations of the agro-pastoral
Today, theoretical debates surrounding Kintampo
origins are vehemently divided between diffusionist and
migrationist models (cf. Davies 1980; Posnansky 1984;
Stahl 1985, 1993, 2005; Watson 2005). Davies (1980),
and more recently Watson (2005) have suggested that the
Kintampo complex represents a migration of northern
Sahelian populations ultimately derived from Saharan
groups. Watson (2005) cites fundamental technological
and stylistic differences between the Kintampo tradition
and preceding Punpun ceramics, representing a distinct
discontinuity signalled by the appearance of the Kintampo
tradition between 1600 and 1200 BC. In contrast, Stahl has
argued for an in situ development of the Kintampo complex
(Stahl 1985, 1993) claiming for a syncretic evolution
of Kintampo cultural traits based on evidence from the
rockshelter site K6. Stahl’s excavation area however is
relatively small in contrast to the work undertaken by
Watson (2005) at the nearby Boase rockshelter sites.
Striking similarities in aspects of the Kintampo material
culture with traits from northern Sahelian regions, namely
ground stone hachettes, labrets, grooved stones, stone
rings and cord based roulettes, further support a hypothesis
advocating a northern origin. Domesticated resources,
ultimately derived from further north, were also introduced
alongside the Kintampo, including sheep, goat, cattle and
pearl millet. However, the role of domestic cereals within
the Kintampo economic regime is far from being uniform.
Wild and domestic comestibles were integrated within a
seasonally based economic regime involving residential
mobility and food storage, characterising the Kintampo as
“low level food producers with domesticates” (D’Andrea
et al. 2007: 694). Whilst previously it was thought that the
Kintampo were adapted to the forest-savanna ecotone (e.g.
Davies 1962; Flight 1976; Posnansky 1984) a number of
Kintampo sites are now known from the southern forest
of modern Ghana, indicating socio-economic adaptation to
the forest/savanna boundary.
The key to what role domestic resources played in
Kintampo society, therefore, lies in the adaptive potential
of early West African agro-pastoral strategies. In
particular, the socio-economic adaptations of Kintampo
people appear to have been heavily inuenced by the
prevailing ecological conditions of the southern savanna/
forests (Watson 2005), leading to a shift in the importance
of domestic resources and a relatively greater exploitation
of available wild resources. Indeed, such malleable socio-
economic strategies continue to prevail amongst modern
savanna/forest populations, demonstrating fundamental
ecological and climatic inuences on regional food
production strategies. It is these ecological restraints that
appear to negate the primacy of cereal agriculture in the
African process of “neolithisation”, and more generally
speaking, in the diversication of African subsistence
regimes. As noted by Marshall and Hildebrand (2002), it
is likely that predictability in access to resources prevailed
over absolute abundance, leading to a prioritization of
domestic animals in the context of North Africa and the
Sahara-Sahel borderlands. Further south, continuity in the
exploitation of wild resources and gradual development of
indigenous savanna agriculture would have also ensured
predictability in an area where wild comestibles were in
A major obstacle in the study of agricultural development
in West Africa is that little is still known about how
migrations worked in the past and, more importantly, how
they would be represented in the archaeological record.
Traditionally, this process of population movement has
been seen as happening gradually. Ammerman and Cavalli-
Sforza (1973) estimated that the rate of spread of farmers in
Europe would have been 15 km per generation. If this rate
were applied to the West African savanna/Sahel, we could
expect a southward progression covering over 1500 years,
which does not appear to have been the case. Instead, the
spread of pearl millet was rapid, covering over 1000 km
in less than 500 years. Hassan (2000) offers an alternative
rate of migration in regard to the movement of pastoral
groups in Africa, which he describes as being more of a
‘leap-frog’ movement rather than an advancing ‘wave’ of
peoples (Hassan 2000, 74). His model, which takes into
consideration both the mosaic-like and unpredictable
environment of the African Holocene, predicts that small
groups, probably either single families or groups of
families, could have travelled a distance of up to 5000 km
in 500 years if they only travelled 10 km per year.
A developmentAl history for eArly West AfricAn Agriculture
In the Lower Tilemsi Valley, Dhar Tichitt, Windé Koroji
and at Kintampo complex sites, livestock were a key
socio-economic resource, and would have almost certainly
played an important role in the initial spread of associated
domestic crops. In contrast to other parts of the world,
pastoralism, in particular cattle pastoralism along with
high levels of group mobility, appears to have been the
catalyst for socio-economic change in Africa. That
cultivation and eventual domestication occurred in tandem
with the development and movement of pastoral groups
is perhaps not surprising, and as the dates on domestic
pearl millet keep on being pushed back along the Sahara-
Sahel borderlands, we evidently need to look northwards,
amongst the Holocene herders of the western Sahara for
the origins of West African agriculture.
Despite the overarching southward shift in agricultural
practices, domesticated cereals in sub-Sahelian West Africa
do not appear to have been integrated into pre-existing
economies either uniformly or irrevocably. Although the
Birimi deposits are dominated by pearl millet, suggesting
rapid assimilation of the northern domesticate, this is in
fact unusual for a Kintampo site. Further to the south
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yam, as well as oil palm and cowpea (D’Andrea et al. 2001,
346). This diversity in subsistence choices across a single
cultural complex raises interesting questions about the role
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from the monocropping trend observed in northern
Sahelian regions. At Gajiganna around Lake Chad and in
northeastern Burkina Faso (Breunig and Neumann 2002),
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