Posted by: orijemie5 | July 26, 2016

Expanding the frontiers of ancient farming in Nigeria: the archaeobotany experience

Orijemie, Emuobosa Akpo

A Newton postdoctoral research investigating ancient farming in the Benue Valley, Benue State, north-central Nigeria was initiated in early 2016. It is one of the outcomes of the African Farming Network Project. The main study areas of the current research are Ushongo and Katsina Ala towns of Tivland. The Tiv have been farmers for as long as they can remember; their major crops being yams (Dioscorea spp.), cereals, legumes and vegetables. Oral tradition holds that yams were the earliest crops while cereals were introduced subsequently. Where did the Tiv migrate from, Cameroon or the Congo? At what time did they arrive in the Benue Valley; did they bring yams with them, from where and by whom were the cereals introduced into the valley? Archaeologists have not yet been successful in ascertaining what constituted the earliest food crops as well as ancient farming strategies of the Tiv. Employing systematic archaeobotanical and geo-archaeological approaches, this research attempts to reconstruct the vegetation and soil histories of the Benue valley, and decipher farming dynamics as well as human impact on the landscape.

In the first field season (April-May, 2016) archaeological excavations were conducted in Ushongo and Katsina Ala areas of Benue State. Archaeobotanical research had hitherto not been attempted in Tivland partly because of the lack of personnel and erroneous assumption that plant remains are not preserved due to the acidic nature of the soils. Presented here are preliminary results of archaeobotanical remains recovered through flotation of samples from the excavations. Also included are results of ethnobotanical survey conducted in three markets namely Adikpo, Katsina Ala and Ushongo.

Macrobotanical Remains: A diverse array of materials including seeds, pottery, animal and fish bones, beads, charcoal, iron slag, smoking pipe and hammer stones were recovered from the excavated units in Tse Agwa and Tse Azenda (Ushongo), and Tse Akwadam (Katsina Ala). Preliminary analysis of macrobotanical remains revealed the following:

Domesticated species: Pennisetum glaucum (millet), Sorghum bicolor (guinea corn), Arachis hypogea (groundnuts), Carica papaya (pawpaw), Elaeis guineensis (oil palm), Parkia biglobosa (locust bean), Piper guineense (pepper), Anacardium occidentale (Cashew), Citrullus lunatus (melon), Oryza spp. (rice) and Vigna subterranea (Bambara nut).

Wild species: Dracaena sp., Phyllanthus sp., Prosopis africana and Poaceae (grasses).

Ethnobotanical survey: Three markets namely Adikpo, Katsina Ala and Ushongo were visited during their market days. Interviews were conducted on eighteen individuals. Sixty seven (67) plant food types, some of which are collected in the wild, were recorded. Of this number the Tiv identify and cultivate thirty one (31) different yam species, among which are true and water yams. The names of some of the yams suggest their introduction from Idoma (Agatu) to the north-west, Cross River (Ogoja) to the south-east, and Taraba-Adamawa (Mumuye) and Cameroon-Sudan (Sudan) to the north-east of Tivland. No doubt, yams are the most important foods in Tiv. Judging from the way they classify food, it may be that yams are indeed the earliest crops. The Tiv call yams, usually in its boiled or pounded form, Luam, i.e. “prepared food that satisfies”, while other food types namely rice, other cereals and legumes (for example groundnuts) are known as “snacks”.



It is gratifying that the archaeological data is complemented by the ethnographic findings. However, the remains of yams are yet to be recovered. Field observations show that all parts of yams are consumed including the peels which are fed to ruminants especially goats and sheep. What might escape the two processes are discarded as refuse and eventually burnt. These phenomena have partly rendered yams “invisible” in the archaeological record. Therefore the best chance of recovering remains of tubers will either be directly in the form of charred remains and and/or indirectly through pollen from coprolites of ruminants, and insects (beetles and termites) associated with yams. Whichever way, the successful recovery and identification of yams from an archaeological context will be a ground-breaking feat and a turning point in the narratives of ancient farming in Nigeria and indeed the West African sub-region.



  1. We do love our yam you’re right about that! Very interesting research I had no idea such researches where happening ..weldone sir and good luck in your search for the ancient yam!…do let us know how that goes. Cheers

    • Quite a lot is happening. We will keep you posted.

  2. This piece is quite educative. Am doing a doctorate on indigenous food crop production and challenges of post harvest management. The information is very useful. Thanks.

  3. This piece is quite educative. Am doing a doctorate on indigenous food crop production and challenges of post harvest management among Tiv farmers of central Nigeria: 1930-2014. The information is very useful. Thanks.

    • Hi Doosuur,
      Great! If you need any information, i will be glad to help.

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