Archaeologists report the earliest evidence for plant cultivation in East Africa

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A trove of ancient plant remains unearthed in Kenya helps explain the history of plant cultivation in equatorial East Africa, a region long thought to be important to early agriculture but where previously little evidence of actual physical crops exists discovers.

In a new study published July 10 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Barchaeologists from Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Pittsburgh and their colleagues report the largest and most extensively dated archaeobotanical record from interior East Africa.

Until now, scientists have had virtually no success collecting ancient plant remains from East Africa and, as a result, have had little idea where and how early plant cultivation originated in the large and varied area that includes Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

“There are many stories about how agriculture began in East Africa, but there isn’t much direct evidence of the plants themselves,” says WashU’s Natalie Mueller, assistant professor of archeology in Arts and Sciences and co-first author of the new study. . The work was carried out at the Kakapel Rockshelter in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya.

“We found a huge collection of plants, including many crop residues,” Mueller said. “The past shows a rich history of diverse and flexible agricultural systems in the region, contrary to modern stereotypes about Africa.”

The new research reveals a pattern of gradual introductions of different crops native to different parts of Africa.

In particular, the remains of cowpea discovered at the Kakapel rock shelter and dated directly to 2,300 years ago represent the earliest documented arrival of a domesticated crop – and presumably of farming – to East Africa. Cowpea is believed to have originated in West Africa and arrived in Lake Victoria simultaneously with the spread of Bantu-speaking peoples who migrated from Central Africa, the study authors said.

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“Our findings at Kakapel reveal the earliest evidence of domesticated crops in East Africa, and reflect the dynamic interactions between local herders and incoming Bantu-speaking farmers,” said Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya, a project partner. “This study is an example of the National Museums of Kenya’s commitment to uncovering the deep historical roots of Kenya’s agricultural heritage and building an appreciation for how past human adaptations can impact future food security and environmental sustainability.”

Constantly changing landscape

Located north of Lake Victoria, in the foothills of Mount Elgon, near the Kenya-Uganda border, Kakapel is a recognized rock art site with archaeological artifacts reflecting more than 9,000 years of human habitation in the region. The site has been recognized as a Kenyan national monument since 2004.

“Kakapel Rockshelter is one of the few sites in the region where we can see such a long series of occupations by so many different communities,” says Steven T. Goldstein, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Pittsburgh (WashU PhD ’17), the other first author of this study. “Using our innovative approaches to excavations, we have been uniquely able to detect the arrival of domesticated plants and animals in Kenya and study the impact of these introductions on local environments, human technology and socio-cultural systems.”

Mueller first joined Goldstein and National Museums of Kenya in 2018 to conduct excavations at the Kakapel Rockshelter site. Their work is still ongoing. Mueller is the chief scientist for plant research at Kakapel; the Max Planck Institute for Geoanthropology (in Jena, Germany) is another partner in the project.

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Mueller used a flotation technique to separate remains of wild and domesticated plant species from ash and other debris in a hearth excavated at Kakapel. Although she has used this technique in her research in many other parts of the world, it is sometimes difficult to apply this approach in water-scarce locations – which is why it has not yet been widely used in East Africa.

The scientists used direct radiocarbon dating on charred seeds to document the arrival of the pea (also known as the black-eyed pea, today an important legume around the world) about 2,300 years ago, at about the same time that humans began living in this area started using domesticated cattle. Researchers also found evidence that sorghum arrived from the Northeast at least a thousand years ago. They also recovered hundreds of finger millet seeds, dating back at least 1,000 years. This crop is native to East Africa and is an important heritage crop for the communities living near Kakapel today.

An unusual crop that Mueller discovered was field pea (Pisum), burned but perfectly intact. Peas were not previously considered part of early agriculture in this region. “To our knowledge, this is the only evidence of peas in East Africa from the Iron Age,” Mueller said.

The exceptional pea is pictured in the newspaper and represents its own little mystery. “The standard peas we eat in North America were domesticated in the Near East,” Mueller said. “They were bred in Egypt and probably ended up in East Africa by traveling on the Nile through Sudan, which is also likely how sorghum got to East Africa. But there is another type of pea that was independently domesticated in Ethiopia, the Abyssinian pea, and our example could be either!”

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Many of the plant remains that Mueller and her team found in Kakapel could not be positively identified, Mueller said, because even modern scientists working today in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda do not have access to a good reference collection of plant samples from the east. Africa. (As a separate project, Mueller is currently working on building such a comparative collection of Tanzanian plants.)

“Our work shows that African agriculture was constantly changing as people migrated, adopted new crops and abandoned others at the local level,” said Mueller. “Before European colonialism, flexibility and decision-making at community level were critical to food security – and this remains the case in many places.”

The findings from this study could have implications for many other areas, Mueller said, including historical linguistics, plant science and genetics, African history and domestication studies.

Mueller continues to work to identify the wild plants in the collection, especially those from the oldest parts of the site, before the beginning of agriculture. “This is where human evolution took place,” Mueller said. “This is where hunting and gathering was invented by humans at the beginning of time. But there is no archaeological evidence about which plants hunter-gatherers from this region ate. If we can get that kind of information from this collection, then that will be a great contribution.”

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