Oil palms are native to western Africa, but most groves were—contrary to what you’ll often read—not wild. For nearly 500 years, European writing about oil palms talked about “forests,” but oil palms are not true forest species. In places wet enough to support what most of us imagine is a real rainforest, deciduous giants shade out oil palms. The “forests” and “groves” depicted below were in fact secondary growth, following human agriculture. As one early-20th century botanist argued, they’re better understood as orchards in need of some pruning, rather than wild forest environments.
Oil palms overgrown with brush were fallow. When men wanted to harvest, they cleared brush and pruned palm fronds. Most cultivated palms were found near, or even within, farm fields. Africans practiced this kind of “agroforestry” for centuries.
Photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not well equipped to document flat, tree-filled landscapes. These photos show glimpses of oil palms and their surroundings. Take note of the sheer height of mature palms: climbing these trees to cut fruit was the single biggest obstacle to making palm oil before the plantation arrived.
One of the places oil palms grow without human help is along waterways, where flooding and high water keeps taller trees at bay. Palm-lined shores, like this one on the west end of the Lagos lagoon, gave Europeans the impression that the whole landscape was covered in palms.
It’s difficult to reconstruct historic landscapes without good maps and photographs, but the sources we do have—including oral traditions—make it clear that most useful oil palms (that is, ones that fruited and could be harvested) grew only near villages, and in old village sites abandoned for forest-fallow rotation. In the photo below (taken in Southeastern Nigeria), a small stand of oil palms can be seen in the center of the village. The outskirts are composed of “palm bush,” giving way to forest in one direction, and a mixture of scrub and grassland in the other.
Maps, like this 1910 French map of oil palms in West Africa, give only the vaguest clues about palm density and palm coverage. The shaded areas here only indicate where palms could be found. Europeans often assumed these areas were covered in oil palm “forests” but this was far from the truth.
This map, also from about 1910, shows oil palm distribution in the Gold Coast (modern Ghana). Once again, it shows places where palms could be found, not contiguous forests of oil palm. (This map also shows the climate range of oil palms: palm density declines as you move northward into drier regions. In the true savannah, shea nuts other fire- and drought-resistant species are more common, though occassional clusters of oil palms can be found as far north as Mali.)