Nilo-Saharan Peoples Produce Food and Pottery

Ancient Nilo-Saharan peoples are believed to have been the producers of the first African pottery and to have initiated the African domestication of cattle and cultivation of the grain sorghum.

Summary of Event

Nilo-Saharan peoples can be defined as those populations who inhabited territory west of the Red Sea Hills up to the Nile River region in the period 9000-7000 b.c.e. Nilo-Saharans were among the first food producers in the world. In particular they began to domesticate African wild grasses and to raise wild cattle, both of which could be sustained in the Red Sea Hills and in small pockets of the eastern Sahara. Nilo-Saharan descendants typically established seasonal patterns of herding, moving livestock between highland and lowland pastures to the east and west of the Nile, where native wild grasses were sustained in the desert steppe climate and in the hills. Some time around 10,000 b.c.e., populations were moving farther north into the dry steppe regions, where Nilo-Saharans invented the production of food by cultivating wild grains and raising cattle for meat and even dairy products. It seems, from available evidence, that the grain cultivating and cattle raising innovations of Nilo-Saharan peoples emerged partially because the new ecosystem in the expanding grasslands provided an environment distinct from the more arid parts of the southeastern Sahara. The discovery of new ideas and techniques was furthered in the new ecological context. These first agriculuralists spoke a proto-Sudanic language of the Nilo-Saharan language family. Before 10,000 b.c.e., the pre-agropastoral Nilo-Saharans collected food by hunting small- to medium-sized mammals of the grassland steppe such as hares. The practice of hunting most likely continued as a supplement in conjunction with food production for several millennia.

The Nilo-Saharans of the eleventh millennium and later centuries increasingly came into contact with Erythraian populations speaking Afrasan languages (also known as the Afro-Asiatic language family). Nilo-Saharan and Afrasan contacts between the Nile River and the Red Sea Hills extended over three millennia and resulted in a cultural exchange and interaction that produced a fertile tradition of grain cultivation. The Northern Sudanians adopted the practice of grain collecting from their Erythraian neighbors and went beyond collection to the domestication of the grains. Northern Sudanians also incorporated the grindstone into their own technological repertoire. Interestingly, the Northern Sudanians employed the grindstone in slightly different ways than their Erythraic neighbors had, in that they refined tropical African grasses such as fonio, pearl millet, and sorghum rather than the grains that their neighbors more typically utilized.

The Nilo-Saharans began to produce so-called Wavy Line pottery in quantity from about 9000 b.c.e., and it is assumed that they had attained this skill even centuries before production became widespread. This pottery is identified by the wavy line motifs used in decorating the exterior of the pots. By 9000 b.c.e., their skill in pottery had achieved a relative sophistication, and between 8000 and 6000 b.c.e., the technique began to spread to Erythraite communities to the north and east of the Nilo-Saharans. By 7000 b.c.e., Nilo-Saharan pottery skills had spread into Saharan Africa to the west as well. Thus there was an extended period of pottery dispersal out of the corridor between the Red Sea and the Nile into the regions to the north and northwest. Both Nilo-Saharan Northern Sudanians and the Afrasian Erythraites had drawn on ideas introduced by their regional neighbors and then made innovations to suit their own environmental needs and sociocultural preferences.

Through the archaeological evidence, agroecology, and geographic analysis, a history of interaction between Nilo-Saharan and Erythraic communities is evident. In the Nile-Sahara cross-zone, ancient cattle bones, potshards, and grain seeds are distributed in a manner that demonstrates to scholars that communities with distinct backgrounds came together in certain regions and shared ideas; from about 10,000 b.c.e., there was population movement that resulted in identifiable cross-cultural interaction between Nilo-Saharan and Erythraic communities in northeastern Africa. Food production began to emerge between 10,000 and 9000 b.c.e., and through Nilo-Saharan and Erythraic interactions, grain cultivation and cattle raising spread at the crossroads of the Nile and Sahara. Within the same broad time frame, pottery production emerged as an extension of the new economic lifestyle and new needs that arose within that way of life.


Wavy Line pottery is the oldest known earthenware pottery of Africa, and in terms of global history it is second only to ceramics of Japan in antiquity. Pottery’s significance lies in its usefulness for innovation in cultural and everyday practices. In particular, pottery allowed for novelty and diversity of cuisine and food preparation. With pottery, people could prepare porridge, stews, soups, and sauces to be integrated as supplements into a diet of breads and roasted meats.

For settled populations, pottery also provided creative storage options not only for food, but also for fermented drinks of alcohol, medicinal brews, and herbal products. Pots could be heated to high temperatures, unlike wooden or leather holding vessels; other containers such as the vessels made from animal skins, gourds, and wood that preceded ceramic wares were less durable and less varied in size and shape than the earthenwares could be, and thus ceramics allowed more choice, diversity, and creativity.

A major significance of food production in cattle raising and grain cultivation is that it supported Nilo-Saharan population growth. As populations increasingly expanded in numbers, they often opened out into new territories, carrying the Wavy Line pottery as well as systems of food production into new regions. Population growth and expansion lead to even greater innovation and diversity in the language, culture, and lifestyle of northeastern and north central Africa.

The ancient Nilo-Saharans and their Erythraian neighbors developed lifestyles and economic systems that have served as the basis of economy and society for Sudanic and Cushitic peoples of northeastern Africa into modern times. Although there has been significant change over time, elements of the socioeconomic structures of northeastern Africa are a result of ancient Nilo-Saharan agropastoral innovators.

Further Reading

  • Bender, M. Lionel. The Nilo-Saharan Languages: A Comparative Essay. Munich, Germany: Lincom Europa, 1997. A linguistic analysis of the Nilo-Saharan language family.
  • Ehret, Christopher. A Historical-Comparative Reconstruction of Nilo-Saharan. Cologne, Germany: R. Köppe Verlag, 2001. An analysis of Nilo-Saharan languages in historical context, with vocabulary, etymology, and bibliography.
  • Ehret, Christopher. “Nilo-Saharans and the Saharo Sudanese Neolithic.” In The Archaeology of Africa: Foods, Metals and Towns, edited by Thurstan Shaw et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. A discussion of Nilo-Saharan archaeology and the development of tools and food production.
  • Morgan, Ben. Tropical Grasslands. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2003. An atlas textbook for secondary schools that depicts the agroecology of grass and grasslands in tropical and subtropical regions.
  • Welsby, Derek. “Early Pottery in the Middle Nile Valley.” In Pottery in the Making: Ceramic Traditions, edited by Ian Freestone and David R. M. Gaimster. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. A historical examination of the world’s potteries. Welsby’s chapter focuses on the earliest pottery of the Middle Nile Valley, Kerma, and Dongola.