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Evidence for indigenous selection and distribution of the shea tree, Vitellaria paradoxa, and its potential significance to prevailing parkland savanna tree patterns in sub-Saharan Africa north of the equator

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Abstract Aim 

Woody vegetation patterns in African savannas north of the equator are closely connected to human presence, but the distinctions between natural and anthropogenic landscapes have not been clear to many observers. Criteria for identifying savanna landscapes on a continuum of intensity of anthropic impact are explored. Methods 

A key savanna tree species, Vitellaria paradoxa (Sapotaceae), was used as model for evaluating anthropic impact. Fruits harvested from tree populations across the species range were analysed for variation in traits valued by indigenous peoples. A simple selection index was used to scale tree populations from a hypothetical wild state to a hypothetical domesticated state. Index values were compared with trait values along climate zone gradients and evaluated in the context of indigenous savanna management practices and historical species distribution reports. Results 

Trait values such as fruit size and shape, pulp sweetness, and kernel fat content show a significant influence of temperature and rainfall. At the same time, the mean values of groups of traits vary perpendicular to the general climatic zone gradient. Selection index values between Vitellaria populations vary up to sixfold, with highest values in central Burkina Faso. Comparison of present day Vitellaria distribution with historical range limits show range expansion by human migration. Main conclusions 

The prevalence of major economic tree species in the savannas of Africa north of the equator is a strong indicator of human involvement in tree dispersal. This conclusion is supported by paleobotanical evidence and by recent Vitellaria range expansion as a result of human migration. The presence of high mean values of several Vitellaria fruit traits in central Burkina Faso suggests that selection for desired characteristics has occurred. The impact of indigenous savanna peoples on woody species composition and spatial distribution is probably much greater than usually thought and is the result of a deliberate strategy of altering the landscape to provide needed human resources.

Keywords: Butyrospermum; dispersal; domestication centre; karité; migration; traditional agroforestry

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: October 1, 2003


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