Cooking Culture on the West African Savanna

A portrait of technologies and practices from prehistoric times to the present-day

Stephen Wooten

Thousands of years ago (ca. 3000-­1000 BCE) people on the West African savanna transitioned from a mobile hunting and gathering mode of livelihood to new way of life: sedentary farming. In the process they domesticated several indigenous grasses that became foundational food crops in the region: fonio (Digitaria exilis), millet (Pennisetum glaucum), and sorghum (Sorghum bicolor). In the diet that emerged these starchy grains were complemented by leaf sauces comprised of gathered wild plants as well as locally cultivated vegetables such as okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) and bitter eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum). New technologies and practices – a “cooking culture” – co-evolved as part of this transition to agriculture – in the realms of production, preparation and consumption. Toolkits were created to facilitate cultivation and harvest, to transform grain into flour and leaves into sauces, and to transform raw products into cooked meals. These important developments gave rise to what one noted observer labeled “the Sudanic agricultural civilization” – one of the first agrarian cultures on the vast African continent. Many generations later, farming remains the mainstay of livelihood across the West African savanna’s rural landscape and the classic grain/sauce dyad endures, even as new ingredients have been integrated.
Despite this agrarian system’s pioneering innovativeness and enduring relevance, we have relatively little detailed information on the technologies, practices, and the cultural patterns that have characterized this way of life over time. To address these lacunae, I offer an historical profile of savanna “cooking culture.” I have two main objectives in the presentation: the documentation and analysis of the material dimensions of cooking (techniques and toolkits) in the region and an exploration of their social and cultural connections. Drawing on archaeological and linguistic evidence, first-­hand accounts from pre-­colonial travelers and colonial administrators, and insights from my own long-­term ethnographic research in the region, I provide a synthetic portrait of material aspects of savanna “cooking culture.”
In essence, I am concerned in this presentation with the material processes of food production and consumption and the role these processes play in the production of culture. I highlight important continuities and changes in both domains and reveal agency and creativity in Africa, a geographic and cultural context many have assumed to be devoid of such dynamism. I show that while the basic culinary pairing of grain and sauce has prevailed and the technology has stayed relatively stable, generations of farmers and cooks have adopted and integrated new crops and ingredients and amended their cook kits and techniques accordingly. I pay particular attention to the ways in which cooking has shaped and been shaped by local gender roles and identities. In this way I redress the lack of attention to African women’s roles in producing culture. My overall portrait of “cooking culture” on the West African savanna provides a systematic account of distinctive patterns in the region and offers an important complement to existing knowledge of cooking and cuisine in other world areas.