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 specialists.

Scholars studying prehistoric instances of plant and animal domestication, or cases where crops or livestock were adopted from other regions, inevitably grapple with three issues:

• 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 (2007-present).

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.
Research areas
Excavation of Duba Rockshelter, Kafa, SW Ethiopia.

Left: Measurement of enset plants to compare wild and domestic populations, SW Ethiopia.

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 ancient sites.

Bucket flotation, Sai Island, northern Sudan.
Right: Sheko mother and daughter prepare to take cooked plant foods to a local gathering, SW Ethiopia.

Data Sources
Research on early food production: farming and herding
Map of NE Africa, with research areas indicated.