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Making the invisible visible: tracing the origins of plants in West African cuisine through archaeobotanical and organic residue analysis

Abstract

West African cuisine has long been known for its distinct ingredients and flavours, often enhanced by the addition of a large and diverse range of plant foods. A traditional meal comprises a starchy staple cooked in a pot and served with a sauce prepared from vegetables, fish and/or meat, often accompanied by pulses. However, reconstructing the antiquity of the full range of plant use by ancient peoples, using archaeobotanical remains, in West Africa is challenging due to their somewhat fragile nature. Hence, there is a strong bias toward food plants that survive in charred condition, rendering invisible those that easily decompose, such as leafy plants and tubers. Here, we combine organic residue analysis of 458 prehistoric vessels, with archaeobotanical evidence from ten sites of the prehistoric Nok culture, Nigeria, spanning a period of around 1500 years, beginning around the middle of the second millennium BC and terminating in the last century BC. Our results reveal a range of highly diverse and complex lipid distributions denoting the preparation and processing of various plant types, including leafy vegetables or ‘greens’, cereals, pulses and underground storage organs, possibly yams. Here, we render previously unidentifiable leafy plant use visible and suggest an early origin for the plant component of modern-day West African cuisine.

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Data availability

All data are available in the paper.

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank NERC 771 (Reference: CC010) and NEIF (www.isotopesuk.org) for funding and maintenance of the instruments used for this work and Ian Bull, Alison Kuhl and Helen Whelton for technical help.

Funding

We especially thank the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft for the financial funding of this project (BR 1459/7 and NE 408/5) and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria for permission to conduct research on the Nok Culture and providing staff to assist in the fieldwork.

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J. D., K. N. and R. P. E. conceived the project. J. D., T. G. and C. W.-D. performed the experimental work and GC–MS analyses. G. F. assessed pottery characteristics and provided photographs. G. F. and J. D. selected the samples. K. N., A. H., G. F., L. C. and P. B. provided insights into excavation contexts and archaeobotanical insight. J. D., A. H. and K. N. wrote the manuscript, with contributions from all authors.

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Correspondence to Julie Dunne.

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Dunne, J., Höhn, A., Neumann, K. et al. Making the invisible visible: tracing the origins of plants in West African cuisine through archaeobotanical and organic residue analysis. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 14, 30 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-021-01476-0

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Keywords

  • Organic residues
  • West Africa
  • Nok culture
  • Pottery
  • Leafy greens