Niger-Congo Peoples Spread Agriculture in Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Niger-Congo peoples spread both mixed agriculture and systematic agriculture and laid the foundation for advanced civilizations in West Africa.

Summary of Event

According to most scholars, the earliest plant domestication for food occurred around 10,000 b.c.e. in different parts of the world. This transition from food gathering to food production constituted an agricultural revolution, taking place simultaneously in various parts of the world. In Africa, this major change in food production probably took place in Egypt close to 8000 b.c.e. Cereals produced in Egypt and later transferred to the Niger-Congo region differed from the Asian grains, which required more rainfall.

About 5500 b.c.e., people living along the banks of the Niger and Congo Rivers in western and central Africa slowly transformed their lives. They transitioned from hunter-gatherers who practiced minimal agriculture along the western and southern regions of the Sahara to an expanding population of farmers who cultivated cereals, including millet and sorghum, in western and central Africa.

The Niger-Congo peoples had begun cultivating yams around 8000 b.c.e. They later domesticated okra, oil palms, blackeyed peas, and guinea fowl, using digging-stick agriculture rather than mound agriculture. In a region in which tropical rainfall softened the ground, stick agriculture predominated. Agricultural tools—an axe, hoe, and sickle—were also most likely in evidence by this time period. By about 6000 b.c.e., Niger-Congo peoples planted cowpeas, yams, cereals, and root crops, including the potato. However, as the climate in the Sahara changed and the area became drier, the food producers moved deeper into the rain-forest zones of West Africa and even to the Atlantic coast. These changes in climate forced an environmental adaptation but promoted the spread of agriculture by the Niger-Congo peoples from the fringes of the Sahara into the more tropical zones of western Africa.

Other bands of Niger-Congo peoples moved into the areas along the equatorial belt. Farmers began cultivating grain crops such as millet and sorghum. These cereals most likely arrived in the region from Egypt, the site of Africa’s first food-producing economy. Millet and sorghum thrived in the tropical rain-forest region of West Africa, particularly along the banks of the Niger and Congo Rivers. This advanced agriculture laid the foundation for population growth among the Niger-Congo peoples.

The Niger-Congo population in this region is estimated to have been about 500,000 or less by 6000 b.c.e. However, because of the increased food supply stemming from organized agriculture, it rose to about one million inhabitants by 1000 b.c.e. The sustainable population, based on food production, mixed agriculture, and a higher fertility rate (which usually accompanies an improved diet), could have been even larger, perhaps 1.5 million people. In addition to a greater food supply, the Niger-Congo peoples also came to depend on mixed agriculture, producing large herds of domesticated goats, cattle, and sheep. Large herds of such animals were present in the central Sahara by 7000 b.c.e., but domesticated animals did not reach the Niger-Congo region until sometime around 5000 b.c.e. Slowly, large herds of domesticated animals spread from western and central Africa into South Africa, virtually covering the entire continent by 1000 b.c.e. Mixed agriculture, in addition to systematic agriculture, led to the population explosion among the Niger-Congo peoples.

The changing climate forced the Niger-Congo peoples even farther from the Sahara, causing more resettlement along the banks of the Niger and Congo Rivers and their tributaries. Some groups moved into central Africa, close to present-day Zaire. Wherever the Niger-Congo peoples spread, they took with them the agricultural technology necessary to spread the cultivation of cereals and other crops. The spread of systematic agriculture into new regions fostered diverse systems of food production that led to settled communities elsewhere in Africa.

Systematic agriculture entailed using hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in an organized manner to produce food. Many crops, especially millet and sorghum, were labor-intensive; that is, they required a large number of workers to produce small yields of food. However, systematic agriculture among the Niger-Congo peoples in Central and West Africa led to settled communities, far more advanced than the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.


Systematic agriculture and its spread by the Niger-Congo peoples into the tropical rain forest along the western and southern Sahara laid the foundation for the powerful civilizations of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Niger-Congo peoples organized around agriculture became the most significant development in West Africa before the formation of the great Sudanic kingdoms.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">July, Robert W. A History of the African People. Prospects Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1998. Chapter 1 provides background to African agriculture. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munson, Patrick J. “Africa’s Prehistoric Past.” In Africa, edited by Phillis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. This essay gives information on crops and environmental factors in ancient African agriculture. Maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oliver, Roland, and Brian M. Fagan. Africa in the Iron Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Chapter 2 examines food production in ancient Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schoenbrun, David L. “We Are What We Eat: Ancient Agriculture Between the Great Lakes.” Journal of African History 34 (1993): 1-31. This article explores food-producing communities in east Africa and examines previous works on the subject
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Der Veen, Marijke, ed. The Exploitation of Plant Resources in Ancient Africa. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 1999. A series of essays on agriculture in ancient Africa. Maps and index.

Categories: History