The Story of Meat: The Truth of History

The Story of Meat: The Truth of History
Eben van Tonder
27 June 2023


My quest to find ancient traditions related to meat in West Africa brought me face-to-face with slavery within Africa which was part and parcel of the social fabric of pre-colonial West Africa. Human sacrifice was key to the religious structure of the Kingdom of Dahomey, as it was to life in Ile Ife and probably in other nations at the time in West Africa. I learn that what is far more important than the gruesome past is the altogether astounding present that emerged, centred around food.

The Road to This Point

Chapter 1 in my book on the history of bacon is called “Bacon, my Teacher!” This is true as it was Bacon who took me by the hand and introduced me to the wonders of the natural world. I wrote, “Bacon taught me about health, nutrition, and science and about my relationship with the entire human race, my family and with the natural world. It continued to challenge my notions of purpose and destiny. It allowed me an unhinged experience of that amazing concept of wanderlust, foundational to its first emergence in our culinary traditions. More than anything else, it allowed me to be a human being in the ultimate sense. The worlds it allowed me to travel to through time and across vast oceans!

I continued to follow the story of meat and I discovered that curing was never a technology set that made sense in Africa. In terms of preservation, drying of meat as we find in the South African Biltong or Nigerian Kilishi was one of the main forms of preservation. In West Africa, my colleague in Lagos, Beyers Cronje alerted me to the link between Kilishi and the pulp of ground nuts that are left after oil has been extracted. The pulp becomes part of the spices applied to Kilishi.

The oil itself became of immediate interest because it was key in the other way to preserve meat. I knew that meat in Nigeria today is mostly cooked and then deep-fried. Initially, I saw this as a modern trend, but the more I looked, the greater my realisation that the practice was ancient and that it incorporated key food safety hurdles. Boiling the meat would take care of any possible contamination inside the meat and deep frying it would remove external contaminants and effectively seal it. I started writing about this link in The Nutty’ness of African Meat Curing

While I was making these discoveries, I was introduced to the ancient African city of Ile Ife (ile ife). I travelled there two weekends ago. I wrote about this volcanic experience in:

I focused on the ancient knowledge expressed in the practice of sacrifice. Especially related to the use of blood. My thesis is that the use of blood had its roots probably in its nutritional value which I discovered to be iron and the pandemic nature of iron deficiency in old civilisations (as it still is a major nutritional problem today). This flowed out of my visit to Ile Ife and seeing what the city and its customs can teach me about nutrition. I was learning about nutrition and meat preservation in ancient Africa.

One of the fruits used in every ceremony in Ife is the Kola nut. I wrote about it in “The Enigmatic Kola Nut“. It plays no part in the culinary tradition of the region, but it solidly placed oil-nuts from West Africa back on my radar and their relation to meat dished and the deep frying of meat in the oil extracted from it. I listed the nuts of interest in “The Oil-Nuts of West Africa” since these nuts’ pre-date the arrival of the peanut from South America, introduced into the region by the Portuguese in the 1500s. It was, after all, the ancient origins of meat traditions I was after.

My visit to Ife brought me face to face with the practice of human sacrifice as it was regularly practised there up to the end of the 1800s. Coming to grips with this grim reality is the subject of “Ile Ife (ile ife): Sacrifice, Religion, Nutrition and the Afrikaner.”

I started honing in on the ancient traditions in “Plant Oil in Ancient West Africa” when the trail of breadcrumbs left by the story of meat, led me to a dramatic discovery. Human sacrifice, palm oil and slavery came together in a set of historical facts that I have been completely unaware of. To be fair, I was vaguely familiar with some of the history, but the dramatic nature of my discoveries startled me! The story of meat taught me a lesson about humanity that changed the way I see history and different cultural traditions forever!

Palm Oil and West Africa

West Africa is the birthplace of palm oil production. It has a long history of cultivation and use in West Africa, dating back thousands of years. The oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) is native to the region and has been cultivated by indigenous communities for centuries. “Archaeological evidence shows that palm fruit and their oil already formed an integral part of West African diets 5,000 years ago.” ” 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.” (Von Hellermann, 2022)

Women prepare palm oil in Cote d’Ivoire. Photo by SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images (Von Hellermann, 2022)

Von Hellermann (2022) writes that “Palm oil was, and remains, a key ingredient in West African cuisine, including the simple dish of boiled yam, palm oil and Kanwa salt, and Banga soup” which I will investigate in detail.

I at once understood that the current Nigerian practice of boiling meat after which it is deep fried is probably millennia old. This action allows for fresh meat to be easily consumed up to four or five days after it was prepared in this way. Palm oil features in the production of Kilishi, the dried meat delicacy of West Africa comparable to the South African biltong. Frobenius (1913) in his landmark work, The Voice of Africa, gives a beautiful description of a visit to the Bida market. He chronicles baked products being deep-fried and oil featuring prominently in Kalishi and the equally favourite delicacy of suya. He writes about Killishi. “Slices of meat are well rubbed for some days in succession with oil and spices and laid in the sun all the time. This kind of sun-dried meat is in great favour and its Soja variety most of all. The very best cuts are taken for Soja, which is first roasted and then rubbed with aromatic herbs, etc.”

The African Slave Trade

Von Hellermann (2022) writes that “Palm oil has been known in Europe since the 15th century. It was Liverpool and Bristol slave traders who, in the early 19th century, began larger-scale imports. They were familiar with its multiple uses in West Africa and had already been buying it regularly as food for slaves being shipped to the Americas.” As we will see, it was upon the demise of the slave trade that traders switched from human trafficking to palm oil. Food replaced humans as the commodity of choice in international trade from this fertile region.

The tantalising link between palm oil production and the indigenous, local slave trade intrigued me. I have never given the reality of a vibrant slave trade within Africa much thought. Nor did I consider the supply side of the slave trade across the Atlantic. What I found in West Africa is not nearly the full story related to the supply of slaves to the international market, build upon a vibrant local trade, but it allows me, for the first time ever, to see humanity as a whole for what it was and what it can become! The story is one of hope and possibility!

It was during my visit to the holy African city of Ile Ife that I started to understand that slavery in West Africa was a common thing at one point. A statement Von Hellermann (2022) made about the mostly informal nature of palm oil plantations caught my attention. She said that “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.”

I immediately looked at the Kingdom of Dahomey, a West African kingdom located within present-day Benin that existed from approximately 1600 until 1904. According to Von Hellermann (2022), plant oil production was formalised in this kingdom.

I never heard about it, but at one point, this was the most well-known African Kingdom in Europe and I was eager to find out more. Right off the bat, I learn that the Kingdom of Dahomey was built upon slave labour and the slave trade before it became an important exporter of palm oil. (Polanyi, 1966)

Igbo men in the Oil Rivers area of present-day Nigeria bring calabashes full of palm oil to sell to a European buyer, c. 1900. Image © Jonathan Adagogo Green / The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY NC SA

From the first contact with Westerners with the Ewe/Aja peoples, the Portuguese in 1472 trade was in slaves and palm oil. Trade with the city of Allada in present-day Benin, neighbour to the West of Nigeria, remained principally in slaves for a time. “The real take-off in slave exports from Allada probably occurred with the Dutch entry into the Trade in the 1630s and ’40s, and later in the 1650s with the spread of sugar cultivation in the Caribbean. The Dutch were followed by the English from the 1660s and the French from the 1670s. From 1671, the main focus of the slave trade shifted from Allada to Whydah and by the end of the 17th century, the area of coast between the mouth of the Volta and Lagos was already characterised as the Slave Coast on European maps.” (Reid, 1986) This intrigued me. I was interested to learn more.

Reid (1986) did a comprehensive review of slavery and human sacrifice in the Kingdom of Dahomey. His paper is available for download in the reference section. Isaac Samuel (2022), writing for African History Extra, in his article “The Kingdom of Dahomey and the Atlantic World: a misunderstood Legacy” dealt with the same subject matter. Reid’s work is important and informative, but I cannot help to get the impression that he had a hard time remaining objective in his evaluation of all the facts.

Samual (2022), in my opinion, achieves objectivity more effortlessly. Both documents are highly informative and the differences of opinion between the two scholars do not detract from my main thesis namely that slavery was part and parcel of the social fabric of pre-colonial West Africa and that human sacrifice was key to the religious structure of the Kingdom of Dahomey, as it was to life in Ile Ife and probably in other nations at the time. (Related to the subject in Ile Ife, see my articles Ile Ife (ile ife): Sacrifice, Religion, Nutrition and the Afrikaner and The Ile Ife (ile ife) Notes – Restricted).

That there has been considerable influence from Ile Ife upon the religion practised in ancient Benin is without question. The religion of the Kingdom of Dahomey was, however Vodun (meaning spirit in the Fon, Gun and Ewe languages, also spelt Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Vudu, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.). It deserves great consideration, but it falls outside the scope of this article.

It was then the story of meat that led me to discover for myself the reality of the industrialisation of the supply side of slavery. It was industrialised in Africa, by Africans and the Kingdom of Dahomey featured prominently in the saga.

A second point of connection is that slavery existed in the Kingdom of Dahomey for many reasons as it existed across the region for more than one single purpose. In Dahomey, one of the reasons was to work in the palm plantations in the production of palm oil.

Before the Kingdom of Dahomey conquered the southern part of Benin including the important coastal region, there existed the Kingdom of Allada in the 1500s. Samual (2022) writes that “its capital, Grand Ardra, housed more than 30,000 people, it exported ivory, cloth, slaves, palm oil, into the Atlantic world.”

“By the late 17th century, slaves constituted the significant portion of Allada’s exports but the King’s share of the trade fell from 50% to less than 17% by volume, as private traders (both local and regional) provided the rest of the 83% among the approximately 8,000 slaves who left the region each year.” (Samual, 2022)

“These private traders may have procured their slaves from the wars that characterized the emergence of Dahomey (which was previously subordinate to Allada), or more likely, these private traders were caravans from the larger kingdom of Oyo which had a well-established slave trading system tapping into sources from further inland such as Borgu and Nupe, and which, after Dahomey’s rise, seems to have redirected its trade from the Ouidah port to its own ports.” (Samual, 2022)

At this point, he expands on the thoughts of Reid (1986) who paints the Kingdom of Dahomey as the major “industrialised supply side” of slaves for international trade. I favour the more complex picture painted by Samual, but still, the main thesis remains. Africans had as much a hand in the international slave trade as Europeans and Americans.

Human Sacrifice

Agaja secured direct access to the Atlantic for the Kingdom of Dahomey. Under his leadership, the territory of the Kingdom of Dahomey was expanded southwards between 1724 and 1727. This was crucial for the slave trade. Reid’s (1986) treatment of the Annual Custom, as it was called, is controversial. What seems not to be disputed is that it was established by Agaja. This event involved human sacrifice.

“Human sacrifice had a number of facets. At one level it was performed in honour of the ancestors – the “watering of the graves” in blood. At another, it was both symbolic of martial Dahomey victorious
and an assurance of future military success. But it was also highly functional in a military, slave-trading state.” (Reid, 1986) Samual presents it as if all the prisoners who legitimately had to receive the death penalty were executed at these rituals. I seriously doubt the historical correctness of this statement and the truth is probably less of Reid’s position, but far more than Samual’s.

A statement by a mid-19th-century observer quoted by Reid: ‘The king of Dahomey has no more power to prevent human sacrifice than the Prince of Wales has to forbid morning service on a Sunday'”. (Reid, 1986) Due to the religious connection to human sacrifice, I suspect this to be truthful. Reid writes that “Far from curtailing the custom, Gezo initially raised it in scale and importance to a hitherto unprecedented level, because human sacrifice was not merely a religious phenomenon, it was inextricably linked with Dahomean martial values. Under Gezo, the extension of human sacrifice was similarly linked with the restoration of military values and with success on the field of battle. The earliest manifestation of this was the commemoration of the military victory over Oyo by the institution of a new victorious Custom to the ancestors – the human sacrifice at the Kana Customs.” (Reid, 1986)

“The power and prerogative to dispense with human life was symbolic not only of the greatness of Dahomey in general, but of the monarch in particular. Human sacrifice was the supreme symbol of royal
autocracy. It was precisely its central ideological role which was to have such important political and ideological implications later in Gezo’s reign when economic developments compelled a radical reappraisal and redirection of Dahomean strategy.” (Reid, 1986) Samual agrees with this namely that human sacrifice was not arbitrarily decided upon by anybody. He makes the point that this power was vested in the king. My experience in Ile Ife taught me that this is probably not the full truth. I suspect that custom had as much to do with when human sacrifice took place. There is no dispute between any of these authors that human sacrifice was part of life in West Africa in the 1800s and earlier.

Following Slavery – Food Remains

Slavery and human sacrifice have been part of human history for millennia. There is hardly a place on earth and a nation that existed in prehistory that did not engage in it. The same is true of slavery. There are two important conclusions for me from this discovery.

One is the role of the British in the abolition of human sacrifice. It was the British in India who put a stop to the practice of Sati or suttee which is a historical practice in which a widow sacrifices herself by sitting atop her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. Likewise, it is said that the British decisively put an end to human sacrifice in West Africa as it did to slavery in its commonwealth. I am not blind to the atrocities committed by the English across the globe, but by the same token, movements within England of humanism and the concept of the equality of all humans are also values that developed from within Engish society. Similar developments are credited to the Indian culture and many others.

A Hindu tradition teaches us that God is the wickedness in the wicket and the good in the good. One seldom exists without the other. The worst of the past often creates the best of today. This is not an excuse for the bad of the past, but it gives us hope for today and tomorrow!

As there is no group of people on earth who can claim that human sacrifice and slavery were not part of its past, so there are no people on the face of the earth who can claim a monopoly in the development of “good!”

As a meat/ food historian, what is astounding to me is how the story of meat/ food elucidates both realities. It is after all meat that, as it were, took me by the hand and introduced me to slavery and human sacrifice in Africa. It also introduced me to the history of the most amazing oral tradition anywhere on the planet from the continent of Africa. This, alongside a culture of the most amazing food!

Samual (2022) references the historian Elisée Soumonni who, related to Dahomey, concludes that “the transition from slaves to palm oil was a relatively smooth process, and the ‘crisis of adaptation’ was successfully surmounted.” Food took the place of slaves and as we have done in Christianity, I celebrate the transition from the past of Africa without getting hung up on the road that got us to where we are today. The “road” I refer to is slavery and human sacrifice. It is history and there is nothing I can do about that, but look at where we are today! I celebrate that!

The Christian story of the birth and death of Jesus is itself a story of human sacrifice. We do not continually repent for the practice of slavery, genocide, incest, or rape perpetrated in the Bible often by “heroes of the faith!” Nor do we focus on the fact that the key event in Christianity is the sacrifice of a man (and God), Jesus, by his father, YHWH. We are able to move beyond the literalness of the historical narrative and out of that we focus on love and forgiveness and a new life!

In the end, the story of the Kingdom of Dahomey morphed into one of beautiful cuisine and delicious recipes, predicated upon the traditions forged on the soil of Benin. Slavery in Lagos gave way to regional conflicts, not fought by the military of different nations but by chefs as we see in the so-called Jollof wars of West Africa. Jollof rice, a staple in many West African countries, has been the subject of social media debates between Nigerians and Ghanaians as well as Nigerians and Cameroonians, each of them claiming expertise in the dish.

Today we celebrate the bravery of the warriors of the past and the dedication of the slaves who worked the plantations with the suya we enjoy at the many street cafes in Lagos. When South Africans and Nigerians argue about which dried meat tradition is the tastiest, Kilishi or Biltong? This is not just the Africa I love, but the grand march of humanity that I am thankful to be a part of! In all of this, I give thanks to the gods and the spirits of this great land, including my own ancestors and the spirit-of-meat who lead me through the corridors of history in the most amazing quest of discovery imaginable!

Join us on Facebook


Frobenius, Leo. (Originally published: 1913) The Voice of Africa, Being an Account of the Travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the Years 1910-1912

Polanyi, Karl (1966). Dahomey and the Slave Trade: An Analysis of an Archaic Economy. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Reid, J. (1986) Warrior Aristocrats in Crisis. Supervisor(s):, Law, Robin; Publisher: University of Stirling

Von Hellermann, P. (2022) Red gold: the rise and fall of West Africa’s palm oil empire. The Conversation.