Pottery Abrasion and the Preparation of African Grains

By Reid, Andrew; Young, Ruth | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Pottery Abrasion and the Preparation of African Grains

Reid, Andrew, Young, Ruth, Antiquity

The lack of botanical remains from farming sites in Africa remains a serious archaeological problem. This paper discusses how the indirect evidence of pottery may help to evaluate grain farming in African archaeology.

Key-words: Africa, pottery, abrasion, grain, plant remains, crop processing, food preparation, Ntusi

Archaeologists have for several decades been aware of the importance of looking for direct evidence of agricultural produce and plant use. Despite this awareness, a number of leading scholars have noted the dearth of primary archaeobotanical evidence across the African continent (Phillipson 1993: 197; Sutton 1994: 10). McIntosh (1997) directly blamed archaeologists for failing to adopt even basic methods for the recovery of archaeobotanical material. In addition, consideration of results from a number of East African sites, where such recovery methods have been an integral part of research designs, has shown that actual remains of plant materials (other than wood charcoal) are unlikely to be retrieved from archaeological sites in this particular region. This absence of remains may either be due to the manner in which a food plant is processed, or may simply be related to the conditions prevailing on sites. Both factors appear to be relevant to tropical regions (Young & Thompson 1999). For instance, Jonsson (1998: 80) discusses several processing characteristics which are likely to have mitigated against the presence of grain seeds on African archaeological sites, including the possibility that some grains `pop' and become unidentifiable when they are exposed to the temperatures necessary for carbonization. On the other hand, recent excavations at Munsa, a 2nd-millennium AD site in western Uganda, recovered many grindstones thought to be associated with agricultural activity, but, despite an extensive sampling and retrieval programme, no charred domestic grains or chaff were recovered (Robertshaw et al. 1997). The likelihood that plant remains may not normally be recoverable from sites in certain parts of the continent, does not, however, discount McIntosh's challenge and does not mean that archaeologists can ignore the problem of archaeobotanical material. Instead, alternative methods for making inferences about agriculture need to be utilized, such as the recovery of grain impressions from the walls of ceramics from Sudanese sites (Haaland 1995). In addition, archaeologists must increase their recovery efforts so that sites with exceptional preservation of archaeobotanical material can be readily recognized and singled out for major programmes of palaeoethnobotanical research,

Archaeological grains in Eastern and Southern Africa

Archaeological occurrences of cultivated grains such as sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), finger millet (Eleusine coracana) and pennisetum millet (Pennisetum typhoides) are remarkably rare throughout central, eastern and southern Africa (FIGURE 1). Whilst 36 archaeological sites have produced evidence of grain, it is important to consider the huge area in which these sites are distributed. The concentrations of sites reflect to a certain extent the abundance of archaeological research; southern Africa dominating eastern Africa, with the western side of the continent having little or no research, and/ or being unsuitable for grain cultivation, having rainforest, desert or temperate climates. In South Africa itself, many of the occurrences can be linked with the research strategies of one archaeologist, Tim Maggs. This suggests that in the more temperate latitudes grains may be preserved on archaeological sites, but archaeologists are simply not looking for them. It should also be noted that these occurrences have been sparingly reported (TABLE 1), often in appendices or as asides, and no concerted attempts have been made to examine collectively the remains and their significance for crop histories across the continent.


Location                        plant type

Deloraine Farm, Kenya           finger millet
Ntusi, Uganda                   finger millet,
Kilwa, Tanzania                 sorghum
Engaruka, Tanzania              sorghum
Igunga, Tanzania                sorghum,
Ingombe Ilede, Zambia           sorghum
Makwe, Zambia                   finger millet
Basanga and                     sorghum
 Mwanamaimpa, Zambia
Nampula (site not               sorghum
 specified), Mozambique
Kadzi, Zimbabwe                 finger millet
Leopard's Kopje                 finger millet
 Main kraal, Zimbabwe            sorghum
Blue Jay/Bunting Close,         finger millet
Great Zimbabwe                   sorghum
Khami                           finger millet,
Ziwa Ruins, Zimbabwe            finger millet,
Pomongwe, Zimbabwe              sorghum
Matlapaneng, Botswana           sorghum,
Nqoma, Botswana                 sorghum,
Thatswane, Botswana             sorghum
Kgaswe, Botswana                sorghum,
Silver Leaves,                  Pennisetum
 South Africa
Magogo, South Africa            finger millet,
Ndondondwane,                   Pennisetum
 South Africa
SK17, Kruger National           sorghum
 Park, South Africa
Schroda, South Africa           ? 

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