The Spread of Pastoralism and Agriculture in Africa

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  • 0:01 Spread of Pastoralism
  • 0:34 Pastoralism and Agriculture
  • 2:48 Spread in Africa
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we discover the key differences between pastoralism and agriculture and explore the diffusion of these two practices in the history of Africa.

Spread of Pastoralism

Animal herds and farms are probably very familiar to anyone who has grown up in or driven through rural areas. So often do we pass by field after field and herd after herd that they barely even register with us anymore. But 12,000 years ago, having a herd of animals would have been an incredibly novel thing; not only in rural America, but across the entire globe. In this lesson, we will explore the first instances of pastoralism and agriculture in Africa and discuss these practices' spread throughout the continent.

Pastoralism and Agriculture

First off, we should probably explain exactly what pastoralism and agriculture are. Pastoralism is a way of life characterized by the herding of animals. These animals were domesticated centuries ago by early human civilizations, and are generally large herbivores that can provide milk and/or large amounts of meat. For example, cattle are preferred in many parts of the world today, such as North America and in parts of Africa, while the preferred animal in the Middle East is often goat or sheep. In other areas, it can be any large animal from horses to camels to reindeer.

People in pastoral communities often live semi-nomadic lives. They build shelters, but they are often rudimentary and easily movable. This is necessary because, as the herds of animals exhaust the grazing land and resources of a particular area, they are forced to move to new lands and hence, do not stay in the same area for too long. Many pastoral societies move in cycles, giving the land a certain amount of time to regrow and replenish its nutrients before allowing their animals to graze there again. As you might guess, the diets of these communities are heavily dependent on meat and other animal products like dairy.

Agriculture differs from pastoralism in many ways and in human history, it was often developed after pastoralism. Rather than living a semi-nomadic life herding animals, agriculturalists instead live more sedentary lifestyles and plant large quantities of domesticated plants. The earliest domesticated crops were likely wheat, barley, and millet, while today that quantity has grown to include all of the diverse fruits, vegetables, and grains that you can buy simply by going to the grocery store!

Having a food source that stayed in one location for the entire year allowed humans to settle down and stop moving from location to location. Using agriculture, humans can stay in place and build permanent settlements, which lead to villages, towns, and cities. In addition, agriculture generally creates a surplus of food for communities, which can be stored and eaten later. It also gives humans more free time to develop pursuits not connected with meeting basic living requirements - in other words, culture and the development of civilization.

Spread in Africa

Both of these lifestyles were incredibly important in the history of humanity and in the development of the modern world, and Africa is no different. As mentioned above, pastoralism often predated the beginning of agriculture in human societies throughout the world, and the same is true in Africa. Though the exact date for the beginning of pastoral society in Africa is highly disputed, the earliest bones of domesticated cattle have been found in the Nile River Delta, in Egypt, dating to the 10th millennium B.C.E. However, other historians claim that these early bones are from wild cattle and that pastoralism arrived in North Africa from ancient Mesopotamia in the east sometime in the 8th century B.C.E. It is possible, of course, that both of these things happened, since the DNA signatures of today's cattle in Africa suggest several different sources.

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