The Journal of African History

Archaeology and Linguistics Among the Great Lakes

We Are What We Eat: Ancient Agriculture Between the Great Lakes1

David L. Schoenbruna1

a1 University of Georgia

A history of food systems in Africa's Great Lakes region is presented using mostly historical linguistic sources, with help from archaeology and paleoecology. The paper moves beyond understanding the causes and consequences of iron-working as the most important feature of the period between c. 1000 b.c. and c. a.d. 500. I argue that a history of agriculture both gives context to changes in technology and introduces powerful new explanations for historical processes of settlement and occupational specialization that took place.

Between 1000 b.c. and 500 b.c., in the Great Lakes region, speakers of three of Africa's four major language families practiced distinguishable food-producing systems. Two groups, Central Sudanian and Sog Eastern Sudanian, depended mainly on growing cereals and raising livestock for their sustenance. The third group, the Tale Southern Cushites, gave decidedly greater emphasis to cattle but probably also grew grains. A fourth group, the Great Lakes Bantu, grew root crops, fished and raised cattle and grain. They inherited much of their knowledge of these techniques, other than cattle-raising, from earlier Eastern Highlands Bantu-speakers. But they incorporated cattle and some grains through longstanding contacts with the two Sudanian and the Southern Cushitic communities. The eclectic food system they thus created allowed them to carry their unified, complex food-producing system throughout the wide variety of environments that they encountered in the Lakes region. After c. a.d. 200 descendants of the Great Lakes Bantu refined this synthesis; they emphasized livestock raising inland from Lake Victoria, and mixed farmers spread throughout the Kivu Rift. Technological, demographic, ecological and sociological explanations of the technological evidence are offered.


1 This study was supported in part by a grant from the Social Science Research Council for work in Belgium, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi during 1987 and 1988. Field work in Tanzania in 1987 was supported by a grant from Fulbright-Hays, administered by the International Institute of Education. I am deeply grateful to those institutions for their confidence and material support. I must also thank the governments of those eastern African countries in which I worked: Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Most importantly I thank humbly the women and men whose ancestors I seek to write about here. This paper could not have achieved whatever merit it now possesses without the help of David M. Anderson, André Coupez, Christopher Ehret, Peter Hoffer, Joseph C. Miller, Kearsley Stewart, Jan Vansina and an anonymous reviewer. I thank them all for their help and acknowledge any remaining errors as my own.