For thousands of years, the oil palm – indigenous to West Africa – has had an intimate relationship with people. An explosive expansion of oil palm groves throughout western and central Africa in the wake of a dry period around 2,500 years ago enabled human migration and agricultural development; in turn, humans facilitated oil palm propagation through seed dispersal and slash-and-burn agriculture.
Archaeological evidence shows that palm fruit and their oil already formed an integral part of West African diets 5,000 years ago.
With the exception of “royal” oil palm plantations, established in the 18th century for palm wine in the Kingdom of Dahomey, all of West Africa’s oil palms grew in wild and semi-wild groves.
Women and children collected loose fruits from the ground, while men harvested fruit bunches by climbing up to the top of the palms. The fruit was then processed into palm oil by women, through a time-consuming and labour-intensive process involving repetitively boiling and filtering the fresh fruits with water. Similar methods are still widely used throughout West Africa.
Source: The Conversation