Wild food plants used by Baka people in southeast Cameroon

Prof. Dr. Tinde van Andel (Naturalis Biodiversity Center)

The Baka (Pygmies) are former hunter-gatherers, living in the tropical rainforest near Lomie, southeastern Cameroon. The goal of the van Andel et al. expedition (1 April-25 April 2019) was to collect botanical vouchers for the edible forest plants that were reported earlier during interviews by postdoc Dr. Sandrine Gallois on wild food collection and dietary preferences among Baka in the village of Le Bosquet. The fieldwork has been completed: we collected 104 botanical vouchers of wild edible plants from secondary and primary forest. We matched all Baka names mentioned during the previously conducted interviews, with the exception of four species. These are collected at the moment by Gallois herself, after she received field training in the collection, documentation and preservation of ethnobotanical specimens by the applicant.

Van Andel and Heger discuss with Baka field guides in the forest. Picture: S. Gallois.

We (van Andel, student Heger and Gallois) also collected several edible species that were not in the preliminary database. A total of 11 different wild yams were collected, and eight different Irvingia species. Our results show that the Baka make ingenious use of the Central African rainforest, characterized by large-fruited trees adapted to dispersal by large, ground-dwelling mammals (elephant, chimpanzees, gorilla’s, etc.). Many of these large fruit species, some with unpalatable flesh, are cut open to obtain the seed kernels, which can only be consumed by humans after long and complicated detoxification techniques, such as roasting, soaking in running water, smoke-drying, etc. These seed kernels are rich in proteins and fats, and form an important component in the Baka diet.

Student Heger interviewing Baka informant, van Andel pressing specimens in the background. Picture: S. Gallois.

We made sure to include field assistants of different age, gender and specializations (e.g., healers, hunters, grandmothers), which allowed us to document several types of ritual food: specific plant species only eaten by elephant hunters, post-menopausal women or small boys after their circumcision ceremony. Most of the wild food species are collected in primary forest, and we documented several edible species that have not been previously documented as eaten by humans in the literature (e.g., roots of Palisota barteri, stems of Anchomanes difformis and seven species of edible ferns). As all Baka are now somehow involved in agriculture, we could not make a distinction in wild plants use between farmers and true hunter-gatherers. However, the botanical variety of wild-gathered food plants remains very high, even though people now also spend time in cultivating cassava and bananas. Unfortunately, illegal logging of Baillonella toxisperma (Sapotaceae) and Diospyros (Ebenaceae) in the area deprives the Baka of some of their most valuable sources of edible fruits and oil. The Baka villagers requested our help in writing a book on their wild food plants, to which we agreed.

Fresh kernels of Klainedoxa gabonensis (Irvingiaceae) , one of the most frequently consumed wild seed species around Lomie. Picture: S. Gallois.

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