Origin of Farming in Africa: Ancient Nubia
Kevin Shillington, History of Africa, St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 16-17

It has generally been accepted that the strains of barley and wheat cultivated in Ancient Egypt were first domesticated in Mesopotamia. But there is increasing archaeological evidence that certain strains of wild barley were being tended and possibly cultivated by the ancient peoples of Egypt and Nubia (south of the Nile's first cataract) by 10,000 B.C. and perhaps even as early as 16,000 B.C. Sorghum and millet, certainly of local African origin, were being harvested in the Khartoum region of the upper Nile by 6000 BC.

All these "farming" communities, however, seem to have been only partially dependent on farming. They still spent a considerable time hunting, gathering and sometimes fishing. In addition, the climate was then wetter than it is at present and a small annual rainfall would have provided some vegetation to the east and west of the Nile.

Egypt is a desert. The Nile River runs through the middle of it. Egypt gets virtually no rainfall and from east and west the desert encroaches almost to the banks of the Nile. The climate is generally warm and can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius), but usually the nights are cool. Under these circumstances the peoples of the Nile valley learned to exploit more and more exclusively the unique characteristics of the Nile river itself.

Huss-Ashmore, Rebecca, Microperspectives (Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology), Taylor & Francis, 1989, pp. 166-168:

Populations used in this study are primarily from the Nubian C-Group (2400-1000 B.C.), Meroitic (350 B.C. - A.D. 350),
X-Group or Ballana (A.D. 350-550), and Christian (A.D. 550-1300) periods. This material was excavated from sites in Lower Nubia (described as the portion of the Nile River Valley that extends from the First Cataract at Aswan, Egypt, to the Second Cataract at Wadi Halfa, Sudan). Prehistorically, the region represents a major line of communication between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean. The sample consists of both subadults and adults of varying ages and both sexes. Today the locals continues to eat a diet comprised of the same cereal grains prepared in much the same way as did their ancestors.

The C-Group (2400-1000 B.C.) in Lower Nubia represents a mixed subsistence pattern using gathered, hunted and agricultural products. The Meroitic, X-Group and Christian groups subsisted fully on agricultural products (Adams 1970). During the Meroitic period, the development of the saqia (waterwheel) in upper Nubia allowed the intensification of agriculture thus increasing the productive potential of the region, and permitting the support of a larger population. (Adams 1970). Farmers from this period to the present could now grow several crops a year, and were able to irrigate farther from the Nile (as well as the banks higher than those next to the river) (Trigger 1965). Crops grown on these lands required a much greater energy investment per acre than did single annual crops grown on the alluvial flood plains.

The archaeological record shows a strategy that involved three growing seasons. Crops harvested included millet, wheat, barley, beans, tobacco, lentils, peas and watermelon (Trigger 1965). Dates, mangoes, and citrus trees could also be kept watered during dry seasons to produce more fruit. Cattle, sheep and goats probably were herded; however cattle were used to run the waterwheel and were most likely not eaten (Adams 1970). Milk and butter may have been used in trade (Trigger 1965).

Cattle breeding played an important role in Kerma suggesting that grasslands were more extensive in the time of the Old Kingdom. In addition, the Nile Delta below Memphis has always been one of great fertility, flanked on its eastern and western borders by wide meadowlands where goats, sheep and cattle were raised. The fertility of Nubia and it's products enriched both Egyptian and Nubian cultures which lived along the Nile.

In the classic volume Growing Up In an Egyptian Village, Ammar (1966) documents the day-to-day life in modern peasant community living along the banks of the Nile. The village, Silwa, is approximately 350 km north of the archaeological site used in this study. The descriptive account confirms the archaeological reconstruction provided by Adam (1970) and Trigger (1965) for the prehistoric Sudanese Nubians. Intensive farming activities consume the largest portion of adult activity. Millet, wheat and barley form the basis of the subsistence base, and other crops are grown for cashing or trading. Some livestock such as cattle are kept as resources for milk and butter, which is also sometimes traded. Ammar convincingly suggests that Silwa largely represents traditional agriculturally based communities in the region, and his accounts lend credence to our interpretation of the prehistoric Sudanese Nubian lifeways.


"Quails, ducks and smaller birds are salted and eaten uncooked; all other kinds of birds, as well as fish, excepting those that are sacred to the Egyptians, are eaten roasted or boiled."
Herodotus, Histories 2:77

"They eat loaves of bread of coarse grain which they call cyllestis. They make their beverage from barley, for they have no vines in their country.They eat fish raw, sun-dried or preserved in salt brine."
Herodotus, Histories 2:77

"The pig is accounted by the Egyptians an abominable animal; and first, if any of them in passing by touch a pig, he goes into the river and dips himself forthwith in the water together with his garments."
Herodotus, Histories II

The Ethiopian pharaoh Piye wouldn't break bread with the fish eating noblemen of Lower Egypt. Offerings for the dead rarely included fish and during various periods the eating of certain kinds of fish was outlawed. A few species of fish were considered sacred:

                  "and of fish also they esteem that which is called the lepidotos to be sacred,
                   and also the eel; and these they say are sacred to the Nile."
                                                                                               Herodotus, Histories II


Adam, W.Y., Nubia: Corridor to Africa, Princeton, Princeton University, 1970
Ammar, H., Growing up in an Egyptian Village. Silwa, Province of Aswan, New York: Octagon, 1966
Trigger, B., History and Settlement in Lower Nubia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965
Zohary, Daniel, Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley, Oxford University Press, (2001)

Papua New Guineans Among World's First Farmers

Bob Beal
Science, Issue of Friday, 20 June  2003
Papua New Guinea's highlands are one of the places where farming first began.
Papua New Guinea's highlands was one of the cradles of farming, where some of the
world's staple food plants were first domesticated, researchers have confirmed.

The region now joins five others as a core area in which the agricultural revolution - the world's most dominant landuse - had
its origins, report a team led by archaeologist Dr. Tim Denham of Adelaide's Flinders University in today's issue of the journal Science.

"Until recently, the evidence for independent development of agriculture in New Guinea was equivocal," said Dr. Katharina
Neumann of the Institute for Pre- and Protohistory at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, in an
accompanying commentary.

"From a 'Neolithic backwater', New Guinea has turned into one of the few pristine centres of early plant domestication. There is increasing evidence that two of the world¹s most valuable crops, sugar cane and banana, originated there," she said.

The report reveals that people living at the Kuk site, in the Wahgi valley of the Papua New Guinea highlands, were practising
agriculture by at least 7,000 years ago - about the same time as indigenous peoples in the Middle East were cultivating
wheat and Central Americans were farming corn.

Earlier research - based on sediments and pollen data - had suggested that deforestation and erosion rates increased in the
highlands from at least 7,000 years ago, consistent with human landuse impacts. But New Guinea had been generally considered a passive secondary centre, where "agricultural development was derived from or triggered by the arrival of domesticates from Southeast Asia," the authors said.

But archaeological remains found at the site have now identified six phases of wetland use: the first three of which predate the arrival of South East Asian influence on the island around 3,500 years ago.

The oldest were pits, stakeholes, postholes and runnels restricted to elevated levees and "consistent with planting, digging
and tethering of plants and localised drainage in a cultivated plot", which date back about 10,000 years. The scientists
caution that further research is needed to confirm whether these remains are the result of agricultural practices.

However, the remains of circular mounds used to better aerate soil - for growing bananas in the second phase, between
6,500 and 7,000 years ago - were much more definite evidence of prehistoric cultivation, the authors write. The third phase -
a sequence of ditch networks, or drainage channels - is also clearly associated with cultivation.

The researchers found tiny plant remains that helped them to reconstruct former environmental conditions and identify the
plant species present. As well as wood and seeds, they recovered pollen and phytoliths (or plant crystals) from sediments,
and starch grains from stone tools found at the site.

Apart from large numbers of banana phytoliths, they also found taro starch grains. "This species does not grow naturally in
the New Guinean highlands, and must have been brought there from the lowlands," Neumann said.

The other five regions now confirmed as core areas for plant domestication are: the Near East, China, Mesoamerica, South
America and the eastern United States. Scientists remain uncertain whether African plant domestication occurred
independently or was triggered by the arrival of crops from the Near East.

"The authors do not solve the question of how significant agriculture was compared to hunting and foraging, but they
illustrate impressively how humans have adapted to a specific environment over the past 10,000 years," Neumann said.

"Only a few regions were geographically suited to become the homelands of full agricultural systems. New Guinea seems to
have been one of them," she concluded.

Bob Beale – ABC Science Online
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