Why was it that land in precolonial Africa was so abundant, and people were so scarce? Some findings blame the tsetse fly. The pest, much like the mosquito, lives off the blood of people and animals and in the process transmits disease, in this case a parasite that causes sleeping sickness. To domesticated animals, on which the fly likes to feed, its bite is fatal. The tsetse's prevalence made it considerably harder for Africans to develop agriculture.

Temporarily removed animal and photography image
Hamer Village, Turmi, Ethiopia; Pin van Dario Vega op Ethnic | Pinterest

Using historical data on climate, a researcher measured the extent to which the insect must have thrived in different places. This was compared with anthropological records of precolonial African farming.

Places where the fly did better were associated with a decline in the likelihood that the local people kept domesticated livestock. That, in turn, made it harder to farm.

africa, development, and fly image

The tsetse fly is found only in Africa, so the research examined areas outside Africa with similar climates; it did not find the same pattern. That suggests that it was the fly itself that was holding back agriculture. Without the help of animals, farming becomes much less productive and is viable in fewer places. Those Africans surviving by foraging, meanwhile, would have had to spread out over large areas in order to feed themselves. Doing so may also have lowered the risk of infection.

Temporarily removed
Fula people

The tsetse's bite still smarts today. Thanks to the weak governments it engendered, economies in tsetse-infested areas have struggled to grow (although colonialism hardly helped). The more the flies thrive, the lower the current level of economic development.

Source: The Economist