Vol. 33 No. 1 (2024): Nordic Journal of African Studies
General articles

The Introduction of Sugarcane in West-Central Africa: Insights from Comparative Bantu Word Histories

Sifra Van Acker
Ghent University
Sara Pacchiarotti
Ghent University
Koen Bostoen
Ghent University

Published 2024-03-28


  • Central Africa,
  • historical linguistics,
  • lexical reconstruction,
  • Southeast Asian crops,
  • sugarcane,
  • West-Coastal Bantu
  • ...More

How to Cite

Van Acker, S., Pacchiarotti, S., & Bostoen, K. (2024). The Introduction of Sugarcane in West-Central Africa: Insights from Comparative Bantu Word Histories. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 33(1), 16–45. https://doi.org/10.53228/njas.v33i1.1107


Due to the extreme scarcity of archaeological and historical data very little is known about the introduction of Southeast Asian crops such as banana, sugarcane, taro and greater yam in Africa and the role they played in the subsistence and lifeways of ancestral African communities. Therefore, we closely examine in this article comparative lexical data as a source to reconstruct the history of sugarcane in West-Central Africa. We focus more specifically on one branch of the Bantu language family, i.e., West-Coastal Bantu, in conjunction with data from Bantu languages spoken in the Congo rainforest and further south. We argue that despite their shared origins, sugarcane and bananas were not introduced in Africa as part of one single Southeast Asian package. Sugarcane made its way through West-Central together with crops of American origin such as maize, cassava, peanut, common bean, and (sweet) potato as part of the so-called “Columbian Exchange”, i.e., not earlier than the sixteenth century CE, while the ancestry of bananas in the Congo rainforest area likely goes back to the Early Iron Age, i.e., about 2,500 years ago.


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