We know a great deal about the early origins and development of the cattle keeping way of life in sub-Saharan Africa from rock art in the great Sahara Desert of northern Africa. The Sahara was once a place teeming with life: plant, animal and human. We tend to think that vast expanse of sand and rock, with its forbidding heat during the day and bitter cold at night had always been and will always be, like the Himalayas or the Amazon rain forest. In fact, like the Amazon, the Sahara was once a fairly moist place, which made it an ideal environment for creatures such as crocodiles and hippopotamus and fish.
One writer has even speculated that it was once ‘a great expanse of parkland with Mediterranean vegetation’. Yet another has called it a virtual ‘Garden of Eden during the pastoral period’. In such a climate and at that particular moment in history it was a suitable habitat for prehistoric man to practice cattle keeping, but also hunting, fishing, gathering and cultivation, or at least the gathering of wild grain.
The Saharan Pastoral Period (also known as the Cattle Period), had its heyday about 6,500 to 4,500 years ago during the ‘New Stone Age’ or Neolithic. The rock engravings and rock paintings of this time tell the remarkable story of man’s early interdependence with cattle. All across northern Africa, from the Atlas Mountains in the west to the Red Sea coast in the east, hundreds of sites, in present-day Libya, Niger, Sudan, Algeria, Chad and Morocco, containing an estimated 30,000 rock paintings and engravings have been found.
It was in these Saharan regions where the huge Aurochs (Bos primigenius), a wild ox, now extinct and the ancestor of domestic cattle, was probably tamed. Some experts believe that cattle were independently domesticated in the Sahara. However, the genomes of African cattle are very similar to those of cattle first domesticated in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago, concluding that those cattle were either brought to Africa when farmers migrated south, or traded, before interbreeding with African wild cattle, aurochs (the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, for example, has the highest genetic diversity in cattle. Such places that developed a plant or animal species generally have high diversity in those species whereas places where domesticates were brought in contrast have lesser diversity. Domestication is also said to have also occurred in the Indus Valley).
Much speculation has been made about the domestication process of the Aurochs, which survived up to the modern era. But the most likely scenario is that it might have begun by some early hunters adopting and taming young, orphaned calves. The herding and breeding stages would have followed later. In fact, the rock art of the Sahara bears this out by showing the gradual transition from trapping animals or taking them into captivity, to feeding them and finally their domestication.
The Bos africanus species of cattle is also represented amongst the Sahara assemblage of rock paintings. These animals, with their long, lyre-shaped horns, had evidently been domesticated for some length of time. We know this because art works show two, and sometimes three, colors in the coats of these animals. This suggesting that the crossbreeding of several strains had been taking place for a couple generations since this characteristic is not to be found in the wild bovids (Sahara paintings were either of a single color or multicolored).
The paintings themselves are a unique window on the past depicting the daily life of cattle herders during the New Stone Age. There are scenes of bucolic bliss. We see these ancient herders bringing water to their cattle and attaching the calves, each by one leg, to a single long rope just as the Egyptians once did and the cattle-keepers of Mali and Niger still do today. One particular painting shows a person squatting behind a cow with arms extended, milking the animal into a vessel; behind the cow stands a calf whose presence probably encouraged its mother to let down her milk. At Tin Tazazarift Tassili in Algeria there are paintings showing various herdsmen and their cattle. Here there are also paintings showing flocks of sheep accompanying cattle.
At a place called Sefar in the Algerian Sahara, for example, is the depiction of a man pulling on a calf's rope, which among some present-day Fulani (Peul) herdsman is still a sacred object (Dangul). An animal that sometimes had an insignia between its horns led cattle herds. Rarely depicted are scenes of slaughtering and butchering. This is not to say that such activities did not occur. In fact, cattle bones are quite common in archaeological deposits. However, like most African cattle keeping cultures today, these New Stone Age pastoralists were reluctant to reduce the number of animals in their herds. The expansive frescoes at the Iheren shelter in the Sahara shows finely caparisoned oxen, ridden by women in fine attire. The most recent Saharan rock paintings show cattle harnessed to chariots passing by with water-skins hanging from their flanks. Some animals are lowering their heads to the waterhole, whilst a huge herd moves forward in a regal manner.
(Using cattle as beasts of burden is still very common among some cattle-breeding peoples. For example, the pack ox still exists in a few regions of North Africa, such as the western part of the Saharan Atlas and Morocco and also, in particular, throughout the whole of the Sahel and Saharan zones. However, in some pastoral societies the sacredness of cattle forbids their becoming beasts of burden. The BaHima of western Uganda, for example, never used oxen for ploughing.
Today, Nilotic pastoralists like the Karimojong, inhabitants of the semi-arid, conflict-prone region of northeast Uganda, still manipulate the shape of the cow's horns, this is particularly the case with a favorite ox - a practice dates back to antiquity. In both engravings and rock paintings of the Sahara the horns of cattle are noticeably deformed. In the Tibesti Massif alone a hundred such cases of deformity can be seen.
In rock engravings, older than the actual paintings, cattle are sometimes shown wearing curious pendants. This is common in many areas throughout the Sahara such as the Ahaggar (Algeria), Ahnet (Algeria/Morocco), Tibesti (Chad), Fezzan (Libya) and Jebel Uweinat (Sudan) and Air (Niger). This reminds us that one aspect of the Pastoral Period that can only be guessed at is the mythical and magical component connected to their cattle. For example, what's the meaning of the two-headed oxen or the oxen with two hermaphrodite bodies, headdresses, including a crested one as at Jabbaren? Nevertheless, even in death there was to be some connection with the world of cattle keeping. The discovery of human burials with cattle skulls, around this time period, seems to indicate that pastoralists had already developed an intimate attachment to cattle.
The cattle period came to a gradual end around 4,500 years ago when the growing scarcity of grazing and the decreasing number of water sources, due to the beginning of lower annual rainfall, forced large-scale livestock herders to retreat to the west and south of the African continent. The desert was advancing.
Greek and Roman geographers of antiquity have left us with evidence that some 500 years before our era, the Sahara was already in a progressive stage of desiccation. Herodotus (c.484-c.425 BC) the Greek historian and traveler, mentions regions of dunes, oases, inhabited areas and domes of salt. Four centuries later Strabo, the Greek geographer, makes mention that the nomads had to take many precautions on their wanderings and that they had to sling water-skins under the bellies of their mounts (horses were still common then) suggesting that water in the Sahara was becoming frightfully scarce. Perhaps Neolithic man's early economic success helped to create one of the largest wastelands the world has known to date.
Indeed, since classical times it has been known that the cattle-keeping communities of east Africa have had a protracted love affair with their cattle. As far back as the 2nd century BC Agatharchides, the Greek peripatetic and historian wrote of Trogodytes (cave dwellers) who called those who slaughtered cattle for food as ‘unclean’. They regarded the bull as their ‘father’ and the cow their ‘mother’. Strabo was probably referring to the cattle-keepers of the Horn of Africa when he wrote, ‘Troglodytes lives a nomadic life’ and that ‘they also use the blood mixed with milk’.
These Ancient Greeks also noted that, “they also go lightly clad, wear skins and carry clubs...and also use spears and shields made of rawhide…They travel by night, first fastening bells to the male cattle, so as to drive away the wild beast with the noise; and that they also use torches and bows to repel the wild beast; and for the sake of their flocks, they also keep watch during the night, singing a kind of song near the fire”.
Agathachides, Strabo and their contemporaries have also left us with a record of some of the cultural practices of these cattle-keepers, who by the sound of it, were probably the cattle-keeping clans of Ethiopia or Somalia, the alleged ancestral homeland of the BaHima. They also noted the practice of circumcision (which predates Islam), and certain features connected with cattle herding like the use of wooden milk vessels and taboos on milk.
Perhaps one of the architects of our modern Western civilization were interested in these cattle-keepers because they themselves were an agro/pastoral society. In Greek mythology there are numerous references to that age old-pastoralist custom of cattle rustling (for instance, in The Iliad of Homer as Itymoneus was slain about a ‘cattle-lifting’, so the seven brothers of Andromache were slain ‘among their shambling herds’ during the sacking of Thebes).
The cult of the cow in Africa is equally ancient. In Egypt, it dates back to pre-dynastic times. Not surprisingly, given the antiquity of herding practices in this region (there is evidence from a place called Dakhleh [Dakhla]Oasis in Egypt, for instance, that large-scale pastoralism was practiced in that part of the eastern Sahara from even before 6,500 years ago).
To the Ancient Egyptians their gods were manifested as animals, among which were the bull and the cow. There were sacred bulls in different parts of Egypt, like Apis at Memphis, Mnevis at Heliopolis, Bouchis at Hermouths. Orisis had the title ‘Bull of the other world’ The cow was worshipped under the name of Hathor who was cow-headed, and amongst other functions she was the goddess of fertility, thus demonstrating the connection in the primitive mind between women and the cow that fosters man with its milk (this connection, as we shall see, is more evident in the culture of the BaHima). It has been suggested by W. Robertson Smith that:
“The greatest and most widely recognized deities of Egypt were those that had associations with domesticated animals,” wrote W. Robertson Smith, the nineteenth century Scottish orientalist and Old Testament scholar. “In this respect Egyptian civilization declares its affinity to the primitive usages and superstitions of the pastoral populations of Africa generally.”
Over the course of their evolution, herders developed varying levels of mobility. The purest was that of mobile pastoralism, where herds were moved locally across short distances in search for fresh grass and water. Another form of this mobility is transhumance, where animals are herded between different seasonal pastures across larger expanses of land. Nomadism is the purest of the pure. Here pastoralists families move opportunistically with their herds in search of any grazing areas without much long-term planning.
In Africa today, as was the case in Antiquity, the pastoralists way of life prevails right across the deserted areas of northern Africa and down the continent's eastern coast. Only the presence of the tse tse fly prevented the cattle keepers from settling in particular areas. However, below this ‘tse tse fly belt’ more pastoralists societies are found.
For example, the grasslands of east-central Africa’s Great Lakes region had been a pastoral paradise. While the savannas of East Africa are the places usually associated with cattle keeping, it is the Great Lakes region that was among the lushest on the continent. Not only is the region better watered than other pastoral homeland such as the Sahel and the savannas of East Africa but it was also possible for the cattle-keepers to dodge the scourge of the tse tse fly.
By about AD 1000, cattle had already been firmly established in the Great Lakes areas. The linguistic heritage of these people would later reflect the sophisticated and refined cattle-breeding strategies that developed in this area. These herders not only developed words for selective breeding lines but also a rich variety of terms for horn configurations and hide colour patterns for individual animals.
With its fertile soils and abundance of water, agriculture and fishing thrived as subsistence activities. It is here where the interdependence between the pastoralists on the one hand and the agriculturists on the other achieved its highest potentials. It was the cultivators who defined what the pastoralists would later become. The prestige of owning cattle, the symbol of wealth and status meant little for the minority pastoralists without a large agricultural community at hand. These communities provided the cattle keepers with essential carbohydrates in the form of millet and beans (which later was the case in Ankole). They would also provide them with items that would become an integral part of their culture: items such as iron spear heads, essential weapons in raids/wars of these warrior herdsmen, and wooden vessels, like the BaHi ma milk jar (‘milk-pot’).
From the pastoralists the cultivators got food items such as milk and milk by-products, which fulfilled their protein needs. In addition, the cultivators also received services such as manuring that helped increase their agricultural productivity of the soil.
“By the eighteenth century”, says historian John Reader, author of AFRICA: A Biography of the Continent, “The power of pastoral leaders was being eclipsed by the power of leaders controlling dense agricultural populations in the highlands of the Rift valley escarpment to the west and along the shores of Lake Victoria to the east. A number of distinct polities emerged from this conjunction of pastoral and agricultural interest; some were elevated to the status of kingdoms under colonial rule (1890's-1960’s): Buganda, Bunyoro, Nkore and Toro”.
Pastoralism is not aimless nomadic wandering. In fact, many cattle-keeping peoples, such as the Karimojong, practice a form of pastoralism called transhumance, a settle form of cattle-keeping through which only animals (and their male herders) move in search of pasture and water while the family settled permanently in given locations practicing subsistence agriculture.
Africa's diverse ecosystems have led to two distinct types of nomadic pastoralism. The milch pastoralists cared more for the animal’s milk, like those of the Sahel, Eastern Africa and the Great Lakes Region. While the carnivorous pastoralists cared primarily for the meat of the animal such as the cattle keepers of southern Africa. Both subsistence systems required different methods of herd management and directly affected the social organization of the people involved.
For the milch pastoralists, like the BaHima, cow’s milk was the most important asset in maintaining good health. Cow's milk contains carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and essential vitamins and minerals. Calcium is by far the most important of the minerals. It's essential for building strong teeth and bones in infants. Lack of this can lead to rickets, a disease that severely deforms the bodies of children. Adults with a ricketic past were less likely to reproduce than their healthier counterparts. Ricketic women who became pregnant, for instance, would be at risk of dying with an unborn child in their distorted birth canal. Sufficient supplies of milk from domesticated livestock corrected the deficiency.
Cow's milk speeded up the weaning of human infants after from their mother’s breasts. For adults, it also provided an alternative for when solid foods were not available. Milk's marketability and storage capacity was greatly enhanced when it was made into butter, yogurt and cheese. Milk also contains a substance that specifically promotes the absorption of calcium by the intestines: lactose (a milk sugar and thus an important source of energy).
Nevertheless, those who could digest milk as adults were, and still are, the privileged few. While the processes on natural and artificial selection was underway with regards to cattle at the outset of its domestication around 10,000 years ago starting in Eurasia (and perhaps in Africa also), the evolution of lactose tolerance had also kicked into full gear.
Most human adults, are unable to digest fresh milk because they lack the milk digesting enzyme lactase. Lactase breaks down the large and complex milk sugar lactose into glucose and galactose. It’s lactose that enables infants to absorb calcium, an essential ingredient in the building of strong bones and teeth. However, the gene responsible for lactase production is switched off after infancy in all mammalian species except one, Homo sapien sapien. Large populations in northern Europe, North Americans of European descent and pastoral peoples of Africa continue to produce lactase beyond infancy and remain able to digest lactose throughout their adult lives, enjoying the benefits of milk and its by-products.
Over the millennia humankind's intimacy with cattle deepened. Certain cultural practices developed which brought us into to even further physical contact with our Bovine friends. For example, the Nuer of Sudan and the Wahiba, a Bedu community in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, shared the practice of before a man milked a cow he would sometimes press his lips to the animal's vagina and blow into it to induce the cow to lower its milk. As if such practices weren't enough Africa's nomads, use the animal's urine for cleansing and, of course, its milk and blood was drunk. The meat of dead cows was happily consumed irrespective of the cause of death. Cow's chyme was used for anointing faithful followers of the community and its intestines told the destiny of the people. The animal's dung was used to construct clean and comfortable dwellings and as fuel that cooked food and warmed the wary bodies of herders. With the exception of the dog (which was also used in the herding and protecting livestock) no other domesticated animal is closer to the human species.
Such was humankind's close connection to cattle it is not particularly surprising that some diseases that afflict cattle have been passed on to humans down through the ages. Modern molecular studies have revealed that for many of the microbes responsible for our unique diseases, scientists are now able to pinpoint the microbes' closest relatives. For example, measles virus is most closely related to the virus causing rinderpest. That nasty epidemic disease affects cattle and many wild cud-chewing mammals, but not humans. Measles in turn doesn't afflict cattle. Measles also had the same devastating impact as its rinderpest kin had on cattle and related wildlife (the plague of Athens, that occurred between 430-429 BC and which killed as estimated one quarter of the population, was probably measles).
The close similarity of the measles virus to the rinderpest virus suggests that the latter transferred from cattle to humans and then evolved into the measles virus by changing its properties to adapt to us. This transfer is not surprising considering that many peasant farmers live and sleep close to cows and their feces, urine, breath, sores and blood. Humankind's intimacy with cattle has been going on for some 9,000 years since we domesticated them- sufficient time for the rinderpest virus to find us nearby (tuberculosis and smallpox also have their equivalent bovine friends; however, cattle do not suffer from smallpox but cowpox).
During the mid-19th century rinderpest had a devastating impact on African cattle, the continent’s herders and its iconic large mammals- comparable to what the Covid-19 pandemic has done to us humans (economically, psychologically and public health-wise) over the past two years (documented accounts of Rinderpest go back as far as the Siege of Troy in 1184 B.C.)The first devastating outbreak of Rinderpest (“Cattle Plague”) has been described as the greatest natural catastrophe to devastate the African continent. No discussion about Africa's cattle-keeping societies can be complete without this tragic episode.
In 1887, Italian forces reportedly brought in the outbreak with infected cattle they had imported from India, Aden, and South Russia to feed the troops then occupying Massawa, a port city in present-day Eritrea. Local herds, such as the Ankole Longhorn, which had been previously unexposed to the disease, lacked immunity and died swiftly. So too did susceptible cud-chewing wildlife like the buffalo and eland, the only two species of game whose meat some pastoralists customarily consumed. From Somaliland to South Africa, traveling at a speed of some 40 kilometers a day, an estimated 90-95 percent of all cattle in sub-Saharan Africa perished as a result. During the calamity, many herders became deranged and committed suicide.
The importance of cattle to man is also reflected in the human language. For instance, it is not surprising that the word ‘cattle’ is derived from the Anglo-French word ‘catel’ that in turn is related to the word capital, which in one of its many definition means accumulated wealth. Taking this a step further the word capital originates from the Latin word ‘Caput-it is’ or head. As a noun one of the twenty or so definitions of the word head is the denotation of an individual animal as a unit. In this context we use it often to describe cattle when for example, we talk about 100 heads of cows. The vocabularies of the languages of pastoralists like the Karimojong of northeast Uganda, are rich in words relating to cattle and herding while woefully impoverished of words dealing with farming or hunting or fishing.
During migrations, cattle herders encountered people who had a more advanced mode of subsistence than they did. These were the Bantu-speaking farmers (or in the case of the Karimojong the Kuliak-speaking farmers). As a result of such encounters various scenarios developed over time and not all of it was tense as those of Biblical times. (In Genesis 4, Verse 4 Chapter 2, we read of Abel the shepherd and his brother Cain the farmer and God's refusal to accept the latter's offerings of some of his harvest, but were pleased to have the first lamb born to one of Abel's sheep. The Old Testament is after all a history of pastoral peoples). In some instances, the two groups managed to avoid all contact with each other. Yet at other times they developed a relationship that one could call mutualistic, where both parties benefited economically and otherwise from their encounters. On other occasions they were probably absorbed into one or the other society.
When the Karimojong herders encountered the Kuliak-speaking agriculturists, the latter did not become ‘serfs’ but developed a mutualistic relationship that was equally beneficial to both groups. For example, the Kuliak-speaking Ik of Uganda, who live on the Turkana escarpment hills bordering Kenya in northeast Uganda, grew tobacco, which the Turkana pastoralists of Kenya once came as far away as the Turkwell River, far to the south, to trade their livestock and dairy products for.
On other occasions, one group enjoyed more privileges over the other, such as the Banyankole (BaHima/BaIru) and Banyarwanda (BaTutsi/BaHutu) of the Great Lakes kingdoms. It’s important to emphasize, however, that good relations had to be maintained in order for such a situation to work. Another scenario that evolved was that the cultivators dominated over the herders. This was the case with the Fulani of West Africa. The Mandinga and Hausa were the overlords of the Fulani cattle-herders right up to the 18th and 19th centuries.
However, as with their relations with the hunter/gatherers, the pastorals and cultivators occupied different ecological niches, thus there was little in the way of head on competition. This then opened the way for mutual co-operation where both groups benefited. The cultivators were in dire need of protein, which the herders had plenty in the form of cattle, camels, goats and sheep. Conversely, the cattle-keepers were in need of a constant supply of cereals, grains and fresh vegetables, all essential sources of energy-producing carbohydrates, from their farming neighbors. As author John Reader writes: “No pastoral society could survive for any great length of time without access to agricultural produce.”
Today, Africa's pastoralists are in a life or death struggle for survival. Global climate change has brought about serious environmental transformations such as famine-inducing droughts, which over the past two generations has become more severe and more frequent, increasing desertification and catastrophic floods to Africa’s pasturelands. Cattle-keepers throughout the continent are still perceived as backward and brutish, and largely looked upon as illiterate peoples pursuing an illogical lifestyle in today’s post-modern world. As anthropologist Sandra Gray laments:
“Everybody hates pastoralists. They're among the last groups in the world that it's politically OK to trash.”
Contemporary African nation-states, with their fixed national boundaries and international borders coupled with an increase emphasis on agriculture, has not been a conducive environment for the pastoral lifestyle, nomadic or otherwise. Such societies are not only remote from government centers both is geographic space and political time but are also difficult to tax, educate, and control, particularly when they are armed with modern weapons, a condition which prevails from Djibouti to Dakar. This condition prevails in some areas of east Africa in spite of the fact that many regional heads of state (Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri K. Museveni of Uganda, Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan, etc.) are themselves from cattle-keeping heritages, the policies and politics from their respective governments have not always been favorable to cattle-keepers in the past.
Furthermore, since their communities tend to produce only enough food to feed themselves (in those lucky years of sufficient rains), cattle-keepers are viewed as contributing next to nothing to national economic growth, if anything they put a strain on government resources, particular the military. The prevailing view that such a lifestyle is ‘primitive’ and that these herders are inherently lazy, by the average African, (who usually hails from a predominantly agricultural culture) leads to the lowest priority for development funds in many African countries.
This sorry state of political affairs has, unsurprisingly, led to armed revolt among some pastoralists societies across the African continent. Some cattle keeping peoples including the Shrawi of Western Sahara, the Moors of Mauritania, the Tubus of Chad and Niger, and the Fulanis and Tuaregs of Niger and Mali, have started separatist movements or have participated in insurrections to protest unequal treatment by national governments. Even the alleged ancestors of the BaHima, the Oromos (‘Galla’), have been fighting a prolonged national liberation struggle against the Ethiopian government. It has been estimated that there are over 5 million guns in the hands of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa. One could argue that the proliferation and indiscriminate use of modern firearms among the Karimojong is surely symptom of the malaise of a pastoral people struggling to survive in the 21st century.
The world we see today was a world created by settled agriculturists. But this does not imply that pastoralists and pastoralism have nothing to contribute to modernity. On the contrary, the malaise of the post-modern urban industrial world with its overemphasis on individualism, materialism and isolationism still have much to learn from the pastoralists lifestyle. As the late British-born American anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull once wrote:
“Pastoralism does not really make for a natural growth of what we call civilization. However, they did achieve many of those qualities that we generally think of as belonging only to what we called civilization. They respected their families; they respected the cattle that gave them life; they respect life itself.”