African Food – History – Cooking and eating in early Africa

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Flat round pita breads on plates - Early African food

Early African food: Wheat bread

African food before farming

Before people started farming, African hunters and gatherers ate mainly fruit (especially figs), with some meat and fish and seafood and eggs. They also harvested wild grain and nuts to eat. They got a lot of their fat from nuts and palm oil. By 7000 BC, people in North Africa also began herding cattle, imported from Central Asia through West Asia. People milked the cows and made yogurt and cheese.

Teff, millet, barley and beer

Around 6000 BC, as the climate changed and the Sahara Desert gradually took over the grasslands, it got harder to get food and so some African people began to farm some of their food. By 4000 BC, Ethiopians and Eretrians had domesticated a grain called teff, and in Nubia people had domesticated millet. In North Africa and Egypt, people farmed millet too, but also, the wheat and barley, lentils and chickpeas that had already been domesticated in West Asia. So these people began to eat mainly pita bread and porridge and barley soups, like the people of West Asia. People in Egypt also made their barley into beer.

Raw millet grains

Raw millet grains

Around the same time, African people also got sheep and goats from West Asia. North Africans also fished, especially for tuna.

Chicken replaces pork

Sometime around 1500 BC, during the Egyptian New Kingdom, people in Egypt started to eat chicken. Around the same time, rich people stopped eating pork, which became taboo (forbidden) for them.

Cooked millet - brown balls in a silver dish - Early African food

African food: Cooked millet

South of the Sahara Desert, in the Sudan, the weather also got drier, so people also needed to begin farming. But wheat and barley wouldn’t grow so close to the equator.

So the people of West Africa gradually domesticated local grasses that were similar, especially millet. Millet is a lot like barley and could also be made into bread or mush (like a thick oatmeal).

Yams before they're cooked: like a sweet potato but with a thicker, browner skin

African food: Yams before they’re cooked

West African yams

In the rain forests south of the Sudan, you couldn’t grow any kind of grasses, because it was too wet and jungly.

Here people began to farm root vegetables, especially yams, and so they lived mainly on yams and a lot of dried fish. One kind of food cooked with yams was eto.

Cooked yams: orange meaty slices: African food

Cooked yams

Food in ancient Egypt
Food in medieval Africa

Bibliography and further reading about African food:

Food and Recipes of Africa (Kids in the Kitchen.) by Theresa M. Beatty
The People of Africa and Their Food (Multicultural Cookbooks) by Ann Burckhardt

A Taste of West Africa (Food Around the World) by Colin Harris

African Food
Africa Crafts and Projects
Ancient Egyptian Food
Islamic Food
Indian Food
Ancient Africa home

By | 2018-01-12T11:00:12+00:00 May 18th, 2017|Africa, Food|8 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. African Food – History – Cooking and eating in early Africa. Study Guides, May 18, 2017. Web. February 24, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


  1. ZeroTwo February 2, 2018 at 8:50 am - Reply

    Thanks, this is really great information!

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 2, 2018 at 10:30 pm

      Wonderful! I’m glad you liked it.

  2. Taylor January 23, 2018 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    super helpful

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 24, 2018 at 9:14 am


  3. sassy January 12, 2018 at 5:49 am - Reply


    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 12, 2018 at 8:44 am

      Thanks, Sassy!

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    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr November 30, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      I’m so sorry! We’ll check that out and try to get rid of them. Thanks for taking the time to let us know.

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