Shea butter, a vegetal fat derived from the nuts of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa), is a critical component of the diet for societies in the savanna belt of West Africa. This paper presents the results of an analysis of the longest continuous single site sequence of shea butter production and use yet known, spanning ca. 100–1500 CE, at the well-preserved archaeological site of Kirikongo, located in western Burkina Faso. Drawing on the ethnography of shea butter production, we argue that the high archaeological visibility of shea at Kirikongo results from the use of particular processing methods that created opportunities for carbonization. Through a systematic study of shea testae thickness measurements, we identify the exploitation of different shea tree populations by different households. After exploring several possible causes, including archaeological assemblage formation processes, environmental variability, and human manipulation, we conclude that these differences likely result from the management of shea trees within agricultural fields, as the shea testae recovered from older households with more established fields tend to be thinner and more regular than those from more recently established households. These results indicate that it may be possible to use shea testae from archaeological sites to reconstruct the history of agricultural field systems.
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Vol. 36 • No. 1