Posted by: Matthew Davies | December 8, 2014

The archaeogenetics and ecology of African cereal crops

Alex Schoeman

Matthew Davies 

This text has been modified from a recent project proposal developed out of the African Farming Research Network. It highlights the importance of recording, analysing and preserving the great genetic and ecological diversity of African crops and food plants. 

African rural communities cultivate unique varieties of various crops including
globally important sorghums and millets. These local varieties are often adapted to
unique ecological and climatic conditions and crops with variable characteristics are
often inter-cropped to insulate communities against unpredictable climates. We
believe that this local ecological knowledge and the crop resources on which it is
based represent reserves of genetic and ecological variation which can and
should contribute to resilient futures, both in Africa and globally. Unfortunately
these resources are under-studied and threatened by ecological and land-use
change including the spread of mono-culture, the allocation of land to commercial
and non-food crops and other GM and hybrid varieties. Several previously
widespread varieties have also disappeared over the last few hundred years and
are only recoverable through archaeological techniques. We argue that it is essential
that these crops and associated knowledge are recorded, analysed and preserved
as essential resources for the future.

Understanding traditional African solutions to climatic and ecological change and
their contemporary importance requires the development of reference collections
and interdisciplinary analysis combining archaeological research into historic
agricultural systems with identification of crops in the archaeological record, and
the contextualisation of this through studies of present-day crop varieties and their
uses. At the same time genetic analysis of archaeological and present-day
specimens will allow for deeper understandings of the ecological history and
unique characteristics of these varieties. We hope that ongoing research under the African Farming Network will lay the foundations for a more integrated study of African crop varieties from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives. We aim to establish effective protocols for collecting modern and archaeological reference collections, and establish effective networks of human resources, skills training, knowledge sharing, and laboratory resources.

As we develop this work we will draw on the expertise within the African Farming Network. In initial phases we hope to establish herbarium quality botanical reference collections from Marakwet Kenya and Mpumalanga Province South Africa including several varieties of sorghum, finger millet, pearl millet, maize, squash and beans. This work will build on ethnographic data already collected in Marakwet and especially on the experimental crop gardens established under the Bokoni research project. We will collect a wide range of ethnographic and contextual data on these specimens and establish both physical and online repositories of the crops and associated data. Workshops in Cambridge and South Africa will train team members in botanical collection and preservation methods and share knowledge concerning the range of more advanced analytical techniques to be applied in later phases. Special focus will be paid to the future potential of crop genetic studies drawing on the reference collections. We also hope to expand the collections and analysis to other parts of the continent, especially to the Tiv-land component of the African Farming Network.

Given global and local concerns over climatic and ecological change and the
extensive resources expended by governments and international organisations to
develop mitigation strategies, we believe that this pilot collaboration will enhance and contribute directly to global stores of ecological resilience.

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