My research focuses on the shift from hunting and gathering to food production – via farming
and/or herding – in northeast Africa.
Why is early food production important?
Prehistoric hunter-gatherers who began to grow crops or tend animals faced serious
decisions in how to rebalance their diets and work patterns. Changes in social organization
also occurred as different kinds of labor come to be more important, or as surplus products
could be stored and possibly accumulated by a subset of a social group, or used to support
Scholars studying prehistoric instances of plant and animal domestication, or cases
where crops or livestock were adopted from other regions, inevitably grapple with
• First, we try to understand the conditions leading up to early food production: What
environments were people living in? How did they structure their subsistence as
hunter-gatherers? What circumstances spurred them to focus on certain plants?
• Second, we try to understand the domestication processes themselves: What
morphological changes occurred in the plants? What does this say about the kinds of
selection employed, either consciously or unconsciously, by humans on plants?
• Third, we try to understand the consequences of agriculture and herding: How did peoples’
diets change? What new kinds of labor were involved? How were crops or animal products
shared, exchanged, or hoarded? How did social life transform?
Northern Sudanese farmer holding a local
variety of watermelon, an African domesticate.
I have conducted fieldwork in three areas of northeast Africa with distinct environments that
would have provided different contexts for early food production:
Northern Sudan: Early farming on Sai Island, where the Sudanese Nile passes through the
Sahara Desert (2004-2009);
Southwest Ethiopia: Early horticulture in the moist highlands of Sheko & Kafa: (1998-2006);
Northwest Kenya: Early herding and monumental architecture near Lake Turkana
The value of inter-regional comparisons
The processes of inventing or adopting food production, and ensuing changes in diet, social
life, and use of landscapes, unfolded in distinct ways in different settings in ancient times.
Comparing patterns of social and economic change in prehistoric Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya,
and other regions can help us understand why prehistoric people made particular choices
under different circumstances. Today almost all humans consume food produced by
agriculture and herding, but our eating habits, economies, and cultures differ vastly.
Knowledge of the multiple origins and histories of food production should help foster creative
solutions to food security dilemmas, and enrich our appreciation the diverse foods and culinary
traditions in today’s world.
Excavation of Duba Rockshelter, Kafa, SW
Left: Measurement of enset
plants to compare wild and
domestic populations, SW
To explore these issues, researchers pursue several
kinds of data:
Archaeological field research establishes local
culture history sequences that clarify the context of
early food production. It can also result in the recovery
of ancient plant and animal remains, which may include
wild and/or domestic taxa. In remote parts of Africa,
plant remains are often recovered through bucket
flotation of sediment.
Ethnobotany, the study of relations between plants
and people, can show what plant resources are
present in different local environments, and how
humans use and manage these resources. It is an
important source of knowledge about social attitudes
concerning plants, and the range of exploitation
patterns that might be found in the archaeological
record. Its sister disciplines, ethnozoology and
ethnoecology, probe parallel issues relating to animals
and larger ecological structures.
Ethnoarchaeology applies data from modern
settings to archaeological research questions via
analogical reasoning. For example, the morphology,
life cycle, distribution, and seasonal availability of
modern crops and their relatives are relevant to
considering the ways prehistoric people may have
used and affected plants. Observing and participating
in harvesting, food processing, and other aspects of
plant use can help archaeologists interpret finds from
Bucket flotation, Sai Island, northern Sudan.
Right: Sheko mother and
daughter prepare to take
cooked plant foods to a local
gathering, SW Ethiopia.
Research on early food production: farming and herding
Map of NE Africa, with research areas indicated.