All across southern Africa, from Mt. Cameroon to the Kilimanjaro and from the Great Lakes to the Cape, live people who refer to themselves as ‘Bantu’. These Bantu people speak closely related languages sharing a common ancestor that was spoken no longer than 4000 years ago. Obviously there must have been a series of massive migration waves that brought the Bantu people and their languages to the far southern and eastern edges of the African continent.
The Bantu languages
The Bantu languages are a branch of the larger Niger-Congo family, which is the third largest language family in the world today, after Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan. The Niger-Congo languages were originally spoken only in West-Africa, along the Guinea coast and the Niger river valley, as this region shows the most internal diversity. The proto-Niger-Congo speakers may or may not have been agriculturalists, but their eventual adoption of agriculture must have contributed to their success. The Bantu branch appears to have been the easternmost group of the Niger-Congo family, as most modern scholars agree that its original homeland was located at the border of modern Nigeria and Cameroon.
Proto-Bantu was likely spoken around 2000 BC. The Bantu’s knowlegde of agriculture gave them an edge over their eastern and southern neighbors, who lived in the rainforest or on the savannah and followed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Around 1000 BC the proto-Bantu language began to spread and split up. The exact details of the early spread of the Bantu languages are controversial because there simply isn’t much evidence, archaeological or otherwise, one way or the other. However, based on the later distribution of Bantu groups it is safe to assume that there were two main routes. The first branch went east, across the savannah north of the Congo rainforest, the second went south along the Atlantic coast.
The Urewe civilization
One of the first civilizations associated with the Bantu, mainly because of it’s central location, is the Urewe civilization. This agricultural and early ironworking civilization thrived in the Great Lakes area (Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi) between roughly 600 BC and AD 600. The climatological conditions were highly favorable in that region at that time. The Urewe civilization had close contacts with the Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic peoples of East Africa and borrowed many loanwords and practices from them, mostly related to pastoralism. The Urewe civilization in turn left a strong impression on its neighbors.
Bantu displacement of natives
With the spread of Bantu languages, Bantu genes spread as well. The Y-DNA haplogroup associated with the Bantu, E1b1a, is of West-African origin and would probably have remained restricted to West-Africa if it weren’t for the Bantu migrations. Before the Bantu migrations, much of Southern Africa was inhabited by very ancient hunter-gatherer populations. Central Africa was inhabited by peoples related to the Pygmees, who mostly carried haplogroup B. When the Bantu farmers settled the savannah north of the Congo rainforest and took over the best lands, the local hunter-gatherers had to either join the Bantu farming communities or withdraw to more isolated places, like the Congo rainforest, where the ancestors of the Pygmees quickly adapted to their new environment. The Urewe civilization must have absorbed a lot of Nilotic and maybe even Afro-Asiatic populations of Eastern Africa and their western cousins, who had followed the Atlantic coastline, displaced hunter-gatherer populations related to the modern Khoisan (haplogroup A), who were forced to withdraw to the deserts and semideserts. Around AD 1 the western Bantu had reached Angola and the eastern Bantu, related to the Urewe civilization, had started migrating further south as well, along the Swahili coast, until they reached the Cape around AD 500.
More on the pre-Bantu populations
The question of the Bantu migrations makes one realize the complexity of Africa’s genetic makeup. Most textbooks and documentaries on genetics only talk about Africa when dealing with the question how people migrated out of Africa, ignoring about 50.000 years of African prehistory, but internal African migrations are at least as interesting as the Out-of-Africa migrations. Before the Bantu migrations, the genetic makeup of Africa was highly diverse. Haplogroups A and B were dominant from the Cape up to the Nile Valley, but these haplogroups themselves had a high level of internal diversity. Haplogroup A, for instance, is the original haplogroup of mankind, from which the rest split off. This means that there is about as much diversity within haplogroup A as there is in all other haplogroups combined. Haplogroup B was the first to split off from haplogroup A, but it mostly stayed in Africa. With the Bantu migrations, who carried the relatively modern haplogroup E1b1a, the genes of the southern Africans shifted more towards the West-African type.
Later Bantu history
Most kingdoms in southern Africa from AD 500 on were probably of Bantu origin. The Bantu’s of eastern Africa maintained contacts with Ethiopian, Arabian, Persian and Indian traders and formed several prosperous kingdoms along the Swahili coast that survived into the sixteenth century. Further south lay the Mutapa kingdom, with its monumental capital city of Great Zimbabwe, and at the Atlantic coast lay the Kingdom of Congo. Numerous Bantu kingdoms dotted southern Africa when the Europeans first tried to colonize the inlands and some of them still exist, in an informal form, today. The most noticeable early modern Bantu kingdom is the Zulu kingdom, that managed to hold its own against British and Dutch settlers during the nineteenth century. Modern Bantu history is tainted by the Apartheid period, in which the ethnic term Bantu was used to label the black inhabitants of South Africa and plans were made to confine these populations to so-called ‘Bantustans’. After decolonization and the fall of the Apartheid regime, however, the Bantu people have reasserted their political independence. The Bantu’s are to this day one of the largerst meta-ethnicities.
The main authorities on the Bantu migrations are Christophet Ehret and Jan Vansina. Listed below are some of their works:
- Christopher Ehret (1998) An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 400, James Currey, London.
- Christopher Ehret & Merrick Posnansky (eds.) (1982)The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
- Jan Vansina (1990) Paths in the Rainforest: Toward a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.