Baka Pygmy management of wild yams


 Wild yams (Dioscorea spp.) are primordial sources of carbohydrates for many hunter-gatherers of African forests. Yams play a key role in the symbolic perception of the forest by the Baka Pygmies of Southern Cameroon. The Baka have elaborated an original form of wild yam exploitation that I have termed “paracultivation”. Paracultivation defines a set of technical, social and cultural practices aiming at managing wild resources while keeping them in their natural environment.

 In 1994, I undertook an experimental survey to estimate the effect of paracultivation on survivol and growth of yam plants. Preliminary results presented here demonstrate that paracultivation increases the production of tubers without affecting plant survivorship. Furthermore, it allows a better control of the spatial and temporal availability of yam resources by the Baka.

This study has opened up new perspectives on the evolutionary ecology of tuber producing tropical forest plants. Paracultivation encourages us to reconsider the interactive process between forest dwellers and their environment.

I’m having a domestication research moment today, after reading an interview full of inaccuracies by a renowned professor (I won’t name names). After spotting two major screw ups in his logic and several outright wrong ‘facts’, I’ve decided to be more thorough and start digging into West African yam domestication and the process that leads to it. I’ve blogged one paper that describes how wild yams are transplanted nearer to home by hunter gatherers, and this paper, gives a nice description of how the wild yam resource is managed by hunter gatherers. The author describes it as ‘paracultivation’, where wild plants are replanted after harvesting tubers, or moved closer to the home of the hunter gatherers. It’s a step on the route to domestication, and does show hunter gatherer behaviour regarding plants to be a lot more complex than most people think.

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