Cultivating Food, Cultivating People challenges many of the historical narratives researchers often hold up in explaining the development of food systems. First, the region of focus, the Botatwe-speaking part of central Africa, has largely been left out of these narratives because of its unusual dispersed political structure. Second, the book pushes readers to ask why a culture may choose a certain type of food system. This decision may not involve not just efficiency, but also resilience in a variable ecosystem, and involve interplay with social power dynamics.
The book moves through time, using largely a linguistic approach to describe the evolution and dispersal of pre-Botatwe foods and cultures from around 1000 BCE to 1700 AD. Over that long span of time, one of the biggest messages is that the trajectory of food system growth is not monolithic nor does it follow a single, straight path. The shifting climate in central Africa from wet to dry and back again left its residents with a desire to mitigate risk through multiple streams of food production. In any given year, one form would be “best,” and there was great value in maintaining open options.
Tied to the milieu of food production systems is the unique social structure of the region. The common understanding of the evolution of food systems is the story of a march of progress from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture and animal husbandry. This account also rests on a social structure evolving towards central power, and a patriarchal nuclear family structure. Instead, de Luna argues that the hunter-gatherer community in the Botatwe-speaking region was more decentralized, with many distributed nodes of power, and with a form of matriarchal family structure that awarded status by multiple kinds of contributions to society. This society changed in tandem with the local environment, shifting from grain-based agriculture to pastoralism depending on which product best fit the climate regime of the time. This non-traditional and dynamic view of social design can have lessons for how we categorize current societies as well.
The linguistic approach used to describe the changes in Botatwe food and culture through time allows a methodological lens well tailored to a society that did not leave much behind for traditional archeological and historical techniques. While the analysis through time does include conclusions from examining pottery, jewelry, and gravesites, the nature of the diversity and adaptability of Botatwe-speaking people is perhaps best captured in times of creating a linguistic diaspora. Words borrowed from neighboring languages can tell much about trading patterns, social learning, and intermarriage in a region that has left little in the way of archeological footprints.
This linguistic approach is also one of the book’s weaknesses, as the audiences that stand to gain the most from many of the discussions are also likely to be unfamiliar with the primary methodologies and disciplinary linguistic conventions used throughout the book. For example, some discussion of how one pins down a particular time frame to a word shift would have been enlightening. The depicted family tree of languages and accompanying maps appear to have much in common with molecular clock methods in evolutionary biology, so clarifying the linkages might help potential interdisciplinary applications of the book.
One other weakness is that the narrative waits until the last chapter and epilogue to add in greater details about the culture that come from other sources of evidence like copper jewelry, pottery, glass beads, and ivory. These sources enrich the history with insight into trade patterns and interactions with distant empires, and further demonstrate the complexity of the social networks in the region. This information would have been nice to read alongside the linguistic evidence. The author also admits that, even with linguistic evidence, the cultural stories of people and towns absorbed by the expansion of the Botatwe (through marriage or violence) are perhaps forever lost.
The strengths of this book lie in its broad conclusions that serve as both an interesting case study that defies so many stereotypes of the region and the time period of study, as well as a lesson for thinking about how modern cultures are forming in response to their food environment. The biggest strength of this book lies in its contribution to an underrepresented history of Africa, both in the region and time period of study. The Botatwe speakers serve as a good example of the diversity of social structures both in Africa and around the world, and in the types of factors researchers need to look at when describing a culture.
The value of linguistics alongside the more traditional disciplines to approach the questions discussed in this book speaks to the need for interdisciplinarity for understanding aspects of society that are not preserved well in the sands of time. This approach allows the book to cover time periods and geographies that have not received much research attention, and to document different kinds of social structures than were considered common for the continent. More surprises likely are around the corner in applying these methods.
Finally, this book is a welcome case in thinking about modern societies that mix hunting, gathering, agriculture, animal husbandry, and other kinds of food production. Botatwe-speaking historical Africa reminds us through the pages of this book that there are advantages in hunter-gatherer lifestyles for increasing community resilience. These structures offer forms of prestige and power outside of government. These lessons will be a welcome example for many fishing communities mixing wild-caught fishing with different forms of aquaculture and other subsistence activities. The lessons of central Africa carry through time.