Nilo-Saharan Farmers Spread Cultivation and Herding Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Nilo-Saharan speakers spread the practices of cultivation and herding westward across the Sahara and the Sudan Belt into the Eastern Sahara and also eastward across the upper Nile plains; these practices led to the establishment of farmsteads and the production of cotton textiles and leather products.

Summary of Event

One of the most remarkable early events in the history of Africa is the shift from food consumption by way of collection to food production in farming and herding. In the long view, agricultural production and animal husbandry created new opportunities and resources that had a major impact on all aspects of society, economy, and politics throughout the continent.

One of the independent inventions of agriculture linked to animal husbandry took place between 6500 and 5000 b.c.e. among Nilo-Saharan people. The Nilo-Saharan language family includes groups as diverse as the Kanuri of Kanem-Bornu region in the central Sahel and the Luo and Maasai of eastern Africa. Before true cultivation, Nilo-Saharan speakers collected wild grains and in time added wild grass (sorghum, fonio, pearl millet) to their repertoire. Along with grain collection came important technologies such as grindstones and pottery, which the archaeological record reveals preceded the development of agriculture by as much as two millennia. Although still collectors of grasses and grains, the Nilo-Saharan communities had the apparatus necessary to stew porridge and sauces. In particular, it was the Northern Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan that collected grains and produced pottery by the tenth millennium b.c.e.

Archaeology indicates that by 8000 b.c.e., the Northern Sudanic communities had begun to domesticate wild cattle, an event that may mark the first production of food in all of Africa. The deliberate act of nurturing and looking after animals that would be used for human consumption had such an important impact on the control people had in sustaining their communities nutritionally that animal domestication itself constituted a revolution. Cattle keeping in fact had major demographic consequences, as it must have been at least partially responsible for greater population growth and density. Culturally, reliance on domestic cattle as a food resource reshaped how people thought about the land; they no longer looked at the use of land for food collection but rather as a place to graze cattle. Archaeological and linguistic evidence indicates that in the eighth and ninth millennia b.c.e., northern Sudanians practiced seasonally migratory cattle raising to maximize use of Sahelian grazing lands and to avoid depleting them.

One branch of descendants of the Northern Sudanians, the Saharo-Sahelians, began plant domestication in this region between 8000 and 7000 b.c.e. Much as their northern Sudanian ancestors had done before them with cattle, the Saharo-Sahelians began to intentionally sow grain seeds and nurture the plants. The combination of grain cultivation and cattle raising once again enhanced the yield of food production, which provided resources to sustain growing populations. The intensification of food production would have preceded substantial population growth. This tradition of cultivation began as a grain-seed tradition, but between 7000 and 5000 b.c.e., these cultivators incorporated gourds, calabashes, watermelons, and even nonfood crops such as cotton into their agricultural system. These burgeoning farmers, speaking languages of the Nilo-Saharan language family, spread cultivation and herding westward across the Sahara and the Sudan Belt, into the eastern Sahara and also eastward across the upper Nile plains. Particularly in the later sixth millennium b.c.e., these Sudanic farmers spread as far west as the bend of the Niger.


The invention of food production through agriculture revolutionized societies at all levels. Agropastoralism fundamentally changed the way ancient people related to their environments, how they used time, and how they organized communities politically, socially, and economically.

Although cattle raising required transhumance (seasonal movement of livestock by herders), grain cultivation necessitated longer-term settlement in order to care for farm plots. The settlements of the Saharo-Sahelians can be characterized as farmsteads that were communities enclosed by thorn-bush fences to safeguard cattle, granaries, and households from predatory animals and wild vermin. The residential structures were adaptations of earlier temporary settlements. These tended to be dwellings for extended families, built on a circular floor-plan, that were topped off with conical thatched roofs.

The farmstead was divided into spaces for living, cattle pens, granaries, and probably public activity. The cultivation of grain crops thus led to new social organization, new architectural styles, and the development of granaries for storage. Additionally, the Saharo-Sahelians who were cultivating more regularly began to bore water holes and wells in or near the farmstead to make water available for both human and animal needs. Cattle feeding still necessitated seasonal grazing, but the presence of well water and food stores alleviated the need for frequent movement of the entire population. These agropastoralists were increasingly seeking out permanent local resources for subsistence. What is striking about the Sudanic homestead is that the house building style shows a pattern of uniformity from the Niger Bend in the west to the Middle Nile Basin in the east.

Beyond the realm of subsistence, the development of agropastoral food production contributed also to the growth of material products such as cotton textiles and leather products. As Saharo-Sahelians experimented with cultivation of grain seeds, they also domesticated cotton. The domestication of cotton was followed by the important development of the spindle whorls made of baked clay. As early as 5000 b.c.e. cotton was being spun and woven; this is demonstrated in the Middle Nile Basin inhabited by Saharo-Sahelians by the presence of the spindle whorls used to twist and coil cotton thread. This technology spread farther west, where cotton weaving became an important domain of cultural and artistic production.

Parallel to cotton textiles emerging from agriculture, the production of leather goods emerged as a result of cattle domestication. The presence of domesticated cattle in significant numbers, particularly for human consumption, contributed to the availability of raw leather and horns for production of material objects. Horns were used for musical instruments such as trumpets for either entertainment or sounding news. The availability of new kinds of excess raw materials such as cotton, horns, and leather provided the materials that creative persons used to establish professional occupations.

Thus the important developments of food production in agriculture and cattle raising also produced cultural innovations. It is the Nilo-Saharan, Northern Sudanian, and Saharo-Sahelian legacies of agropastoral invention and elaboration that served as the foundations for the important technological and creative arts, which were widely separated temporally and geographically, spreading from ancient Egypt to Kanem-Bornu.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abdel-Magid, Anwar. Plant Domestication in the Middle Nile Basin: An Archaeoethnobotanical Case Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Focuses on archaeoethnobotany from Sudan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bender, Lionel M. The Nilo-Saharan Languages: A Comparative Essay. Munich: Lincom Europa, 1997. An in-depth analysis of the Nilo-Saharan language family.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: Precolonial Cities and States in Tropical Africa, an Archaeological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A historical account of ancient African towns that draws from archaeological data. Includes a section on ancient Egypt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002. A textbook survey of Africa before, during, and after the agricultural revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. A Historical-Comparative Reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan. Cologne: R. Köppe Verlag, 2001. An analysis of Nilo-Saharan languages in historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaw, Thurstan, et al., eds. Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals, and Towns. New York: Routledge, 1993. This book covers a number of historical topics that influenced ancient African history from climate and geography to Iron Age tools and economies. This source draws heavily from archaeological data.

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