Cattle before crops :The Beginnings of Food Production in Africa
In many areas of the world, current theories for agricultural origins emphasize yield as a major concern during intensification. In Africa, however, the need for scheduled consumption shaped the development of food production. African cattle were domesticated during the tenth millennium BP by delayed return Saharan hunter-gatherers in unstable, marginal environments where predictable access to resources was a more significant problem than absolute abundance. Pastoralism spread patchily across the continent according to regional variations in the relative predictability of herding versus hunting and gathering. Domestication of African plants was late (after 4000 BP) because of the high mobility of herders, and risk associated with cultivation in arid environments. Renewed attention to predictability may contribute to understanding the circumstances that led to domestication in other regions of the world.
An interesting pdf, that has a fair bit of information on Nabta Playa and how modern hunter gatherers transplant plants nearer to their homes, and pen wild animals to feed up for meat at social/ritual events. It’s insightful as to the reasons behind some pre-domestication behaviour. I agree with the observation that it’s the favoured/hard to find foods and not the bulk foods that seem to be more likely to be domesticated first. If I think about what I grow in the garden, it’s things like strawberries and tomatoes, for flavour, not as a bulk calorie source. It’s much easier to go out to fetch the bulk of my food, and it seems to be the same for hunter gatherers. I notice they omit that Grigson described the early cattle at Nabta as morphologically wild though.
The observation that wild animals are penned and fed up for special occasions may shed some light on the Nabta Playa cattle remains. There’s been a cattle cult in the area for a long time, and it makes sense that you’ll make sure that you have access to a bull to sacrifice/eat, rather than risk being empty handed on the big day. One of the other Saharan sites is thick with wild Barbary sheep dung so there is a precedent for penning wild animals in the area; a precursor to domestication. I suspect this is more likely to be what happened at Nabta Playa than a full domestication complete with dairying. There was a cattle cult at Catal Hoyuk in Turkey (site of the Turkish domestication of cattle), the same as in El Nabta, so the same incentive would have been on both groups to ensure reliable supply of the animals. However, so far the evidence isn’t great that it got beyond penning for Nabta. One way to settle this one would be to sample the cattle from Nabta for mt DNA (if possible) to see if they are ancestral to the earlier cattle remains in Egypt and North Africa. A nice direct line back to Nabta into the early neolithic cattle would settle that debate.
The paper also has a good section on the domestication of African crops. It should be noted that some African crops turn up in Asia before they are found in African sites though, so I wouldn’t take the domestication dates at sites as gospel. An interesting (for me at least) observation is that wild grains are often not harvested with a sickle, but are hand stripped or knocked into a basket, which could mean the grains were being eaten in mesolithic Europea too (there’s pollen evidence for it, but plant material doesn’t survive the damp climate).