History of EnsetWhat are the origins of enset agriculture?
What is the historical evidence for enset agriculture in northern Ethiopia?
What role has enset played in the agricultural policies of Ethiopia's recent and current governments?
Given the restricted geographic distribution of domesticated enset and the degrees of complexity and variability in contemporary enset agricultural systems, agronomists and biogeographers have long considered the Ethiopian highlands to be the primary center of origin for enset agriculture (Harlan, 1969 and 1992; Sauer, 1952; Vavilov, 1951). Anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and other scholars have also developed theories that argue for the domestication of enset in Ethiopia as early as 10,000 years ago.
Stiehler (1948), one of the first scholars to consider enset origins, believed that the indigenous hunter/gatherers of southern Ethiopia were the first to cultivate enset. He also proposed that enset agriculture was later introduced to the northern Ethiopian highlands by Cushitic-speaking peoples, only to be replaced by such crops as wheat, barley, and t'eff following the migration of Semitic-speaking groups into northern Ethiopia. In a similar vein, Murdock (1959) suggested that sometime in prehistory "Sidamo tribes" (i.e., Omotic and eastern Cushitic-speaking groups) of southwestern Ethiopia independently brought enset under domestication. Later, central Cushitic-speaking peoples of northern Ethiopia (i.e., the Agaw) also began to grow enset and a wide range of other crops, and were quick to incorporate wheat, barley, cattle, goats, and sheep into their economy once these domesticates were introduced into Ethiopia from Dynastic Egypt. Soon thereafter, cattle became important to enset farmers as a source of manure for fertilizing their fields.
Another theory proposes that Nilo-Saharan speaking farmers were forced out of the lowlands of eastern Sudan and western Ethiopia some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago because of the increasingly drier climates of the mid- Holocene (Clark, 1967 and 1976). Migrating east to the Ethiopian highlands, they introduced farming to the indigenous hunter/gatherers of highland Ethiopia and Eritrea, who began cultivating enset and other indigenous Ethiopian domesticates on their own. Drawing largely upon historical-linguistic data, Ehret (1979) proposed another theory that argues for a much earlier date for the beginnings of enset food production, perhaps as early as 10,000 years ago. He suggested that Omotic-speaking peoples, responding to a food crisis at the end of the Pleistocene, first increased their consumption of wild enset and then eventually domesticated the plant. Sometime between 8,000 and 5,000 years ago, cattle, sheep, and goats were introduced into Ethiopia from the Sudan and were rapidly incorporated into existing enset systems.
Recognizing the need to explain how enset agriculture evolved into the diverse systems that exist today, S. Brandt (1984 and 1996; and Brandt and Fattovich, 1990) developed a model that expands upon previous theories by arguing that the arid conditions of Ethiopia during the height of the Last Glacial some 18,000 to 10,000 years ago (Gasse et al, 1980) resulted in major changes in the environment and in the abundance and predictability of critical resources. The highlands of southern Ethiopia became an environmental refuge where "complex" hunter/gatherer systems emerged, which used certain wild animals and plants, including enset, as dependable, stress-relieving food resources. Between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, enset was fully domesticated and a system of shifting cultivation emerged.
By the mid-Holocene (4,000 to 5,000 years ago), the introduction into Ethiopia of foreign domesticates such as cattle, sheep, and goats (Brandt and Carder, 1987), as well as wheat and barley, resulted in the establishment of more intensive forms of agricultural production in the highlands. These forms included the use of the plow, irrigation, and terracing, as well as the greater utilization of manure as a means to maintain the fertility of enset without having to practice shifting cultivation. Increasing population densities may have forced some societies to develop additional methods of intensification, including techniques to postpone consumption and prevent surplus crop spoilage (e.g., the fermentation and storage of enset in deep earthen pits). Over the last 3,000 years new socioeconomic and political alliances resulted in the establishment of chiefdoms and states in highland Ethiopia, dependent to various degrees upon enset food production.
Today the vast majority of enset farmers live in southern Ethiopia. However, historical evidence suggests that enset may have once played a much more important role in the agricultural practices of central and northern Ethiopia. The earliest recorded evidence of enset agriculture in northern Ethiopia is from the "Royal Chronicles"--medieval manuscripts written by priests in the liturgical Ethio-Semitic language of Geez. There is a single passage dating to 1590 mentioning Oromo peasants growing enset for food south of the Blue Nile River (Pankhurst, 1996).
European travelers of the 1600s and 1700s provide information on enset agriculture. In the early 17th century, Manuel de Almeida, a Portuguese Jesuit traveling through northern Ethiopia in the area south of Lake Tana and north of the Blue Nile, noted that enset was "the sustenance of most of the people . . . The tree itself is eaten, either sliced and boiled, or crumbled and ground into meal which they put into pits in the ground where it keeps for many years . . ." (Almeida, 1954). In 1640 Jeronimo Lobo, another Portuguese priest traveling in the region, described enset as "a tree peculiar to this country" which "when cooked . . . resembles the flesh of the turnips, so that they have come to call this plant 'tree of the poor' even though wealthy people avail themselves of it as a delicacy, or 'tree against hunger,' since anyone who has one of these trees is not in fear of hunger" (Lockhart, 1984).
The 18th century Scottish traveler James Bruce described enset as grown in "large, thick plantations" south of Lake Tana, "exposed for sale" in local markets and as "food in great quantity" growing in "great perfection at Gondar." Furthermore, he stated that it was "the general opinion" that enset was "naturally produced in every part of Abyssinia, provided there is heat and moisture" (Bruce, 1790). Although R. Pankhurst (1996) has questioned the accuracy of some of Bruce's descriptions of enset, there is little doubt that enset was a significant crop in the Lake Tana region at that time.
However, by the 1840s, enset had apparently all but disappeared as a food source in the north. Charles Beke, a British traveler, provided a detailed description of farming in the Lake Tana area as a region dedicated to cereal production and consumption with little enset (Beke, 1844).
The reason(s) for the rapid demise of enset in northern Ethiopia remains unknown and unstudied. Possibilities include disease and drought. It is also possible that the dramatic socio-political events that took place in northern Ethiopia between the mid-1700s and mid-1800s played a critical role in the rapid reduction of its production. In 1769, following the collapse of the once-unified Kingdom of the Solomonic Dynasty, northern Ethiopia entered the period known as the "Era of Princes" or Zemane Masafent.
During this turbulent period, northern Ethiopia was racked by socio-political and economic insecurity and unrest, brought on by the rapid rise and fall of petty kingdoms, increasingly more dependent upon tax and tribute from their desperate peasantry. Kaplan (1992) states that "for the population in general and the peasants in particular, the Zemane Masafent was a period of severe hardship. In the best of times the lot of the peasants and in particular those who labored as tenant farmers was not a happy one. For them the endless military conflicts of the Zemane Masafent aggravated an already difficult situation. The soldiers of the different regional armies lived off the land, ravaging both enemy territories and those of their masters. Insecurity, poverty, and depopulation were characteristic of this period."
The consequences of this difficult period for enset farming could have been two-fold. First, peasants may have been unable to devote the minimum two to three years necessary to re-establish enset farms and regain associated livestock during unending periods of insecurity, destruction, displacement, and depopulation. In this situation, it would have been much simpler to plant and harvest annual cereals. Second, faced with rising debts from standing armies and other war-related activities, landlords and nobility may have directly and indirectly placed considerable pressure upon the peasants to emphasize more prestigious, surplus-producing, and income-generating crops such as cereals, rather than subsistence "peasant food" like enset. A somewhat analogous situation occurred during the 1600s in the Kaffa kingdom of southern Ethiopia. Here, the desire of the royal court and elites for the "prestige" foods of t'eff and other cereals spurred them to demand cereals as tribute, since cereals "were better for tax collectors since they could be stored, divided and moved" (Orent, 1979). Whatever the causes, by the end of the 19th century when King Menelik conquered surrounding regions to create the modern map of Ethiopia, enset food production in the north was practically nonexistent.
Unfortunately, archaeological and historical research into the origins and evolution of enset agriculture is just beginning, so specific data are lacking (Brandt, 1984 and 1996; Clark, 1988; McCann, 1994; Pankhurst, 1996; Phillipson, 1993). Therefore, the various theories scholars have constructed are untested and will remain so until long-term archaeological and historical research is initiated.
What role has enset played in the agricultural policies of Ethiopia's recent and current governments?
During Haile Selassies's reign from the 1920s to 1974, and in particular after World War II, Ethiopia's Ministry of Agriculture launched major initiatives to increase food production. Among these initiatives was the establishment of Ethiopia's first agricultural university, funded and staffed in large part by the United States. Haile Selassie's government gave explicit instructions to focus upon cereal agriculture and other income-generating crops such as coffee; enset was virtually ignored.
Following the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974, the communist-inspired military dictatorship established small research programs and experimental stations for enset, but provided little in the way of operating funds or staff. It also tried to establish Soviet-type collective farms in enset growing regions, with the usual abysmal results. After the fall of Mengistu in 1991, the current Ethiopian government has shown more interest in enset and recognized its importance to the people of the south. In 1997 the government declared enset a "national crop" worthy of significant increases in research and development funding.