Medieval African food – what did people eat?

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Olive orchard in Tunisia

Olive orchard in Tunisia

The foods people ate in Africa didn’t just stay the same. Instead, they changed slowly over time. Around 800 BC, with the arrival of Greek and Phoenician invaders, the people of North Africa began to plant olive orchards and produce olive oil. They ate a lot of olives and olive oil, even though they also shipped a lot of olive oil all over the Mediterranean and Europe, and even as far away as India. But olives wouldn’t grow south of the Sahara Desert. The weather wasn’t right for them.

African cattle

African cattle

Then in South Africa, the Khoikhoi got hold of cattle around 400 AD and they began cattle herding. So after that, Khoikhoi people ate a lot of meat. Soon they began milking their cows too and drinking milk.

Bananas growing on a tree

Bananas

Then the process sped up a lot more. Around 800 AD, in the Middle Ages, African people began to eat a lot of new foods all at once. Indonesian settlers in Madagascar, and traders from India and Iran, brought many new kinds of Asian foods to Africa.

Plantains

Plantains (related to bananas)

There were bananasplantains, coconuts, and sugar (from sugar-cane). African people also started to eat  some new kinds of yams, and new kinds of rice. These foods came first to the east coast of Africa, but they quickly spread with Islam to North Africa and West Africa too.

Coconuts

Coconuts

Sometime before 1000 AD, soldiers in East Africa also began to eat coffee beans when they needed extra energy for fighting. Soon East African traders were selling coffee to Islamic traders from Yemen. Around the same time, people in North Africa began to make their millet into couscous, which replaced millet porridge (puls) as the basic staple food of North Africa from the Atlantic to Tunis. The adoption of rice in East and West Africa may have influenced the switch, because couscous looks a lot like rice.

By this time, most people in North AfricaWest Africa, the Congo river basin, and East Africa were farmers. In south-east Africa most people were cattle herders. Only in the most dry desert areas, or in the wettest, thickest part of the rain forest, were people still hunting and gathering most of their food.

Learn by doing – African food project
African food and the Columbian Exchange

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

Islamic Food
Ancient Africa
Quatr.us home

By | 2017-10-02T23:21:02+00:00 October 2nd, 2017|Africa, Food|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Medieval African food – what did people eat?. Quatr.us Study Guides, October 2, 2017. Web. November 17, 2017.

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.

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