, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 213-243

Wild yams revisited: Is independence from agriculture possible for rain forest hunter-gatherers?

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The hypothesis that energy-rich wild plant foods are too scarce in rain forest to allow subsistence by foraging peoples independently of agriculture lacks a firm empirical basis. Data on availability of wild plant foods such as wild yams are sorely lacking, and where quantitative information is provided to support the hypothesis, it usually concerns extent of use of wild plant foods: low availability is tacitly inferred from low use. We explore the alternative hypothesis that “extent of use” underestimates availability of wild yams and other wild plant foods; these foods are present in large enough quantities to support hunter-gatherers, but have become increasingly neglected with increasing availability of cultivated plant foods. Thus, the subsistence of contemporary rain forest foraging peoples, in which extensive relationships with sedentary farmers appear to be universal, may be a somewhat distorted reflection of their subsistence in the pre-agricultural past. Drawing on data from ecology, archeology, ethnohistory, and linguistics, we argue that pygmy foraging peoples of the western Congo basin were present in rain forest environments before the advent of farming villagers.