World History 1 141 - 9.2.2 The Bantu Migrations

The word “Bantu” is a modern term invented by linguists who have studied the languages of Africa. The word is made up of the common stem “ntu” and the plural prefix “ba” which put together literally means “people.” It describes a large and geographically widespread subfamily of African languages that make up part of the larger Niger-Congo language family. There are well over four hundred known Bantu languages spoken today across a large portion of the southern half of Africa (Figure 9.12). Linguists believe that these similar languages derived from an ancient parent language often described as “proto-Bantu.”

A colorful map of Africa is shown. The water surrounding it is in ombre shades from white to blue, from north to south. The northwest portion of the continent, parts of the north, the eastern horn, and some small areas just north of the middle of the continent are highlighted lime green to represent “Afro-Asiatic.” Areas highlighted red toward the middle of the country represent “Nilo-Saharan.” Most of the middle and southern portion of the country are highlighted purple representing “Niger-Congo.” The island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa is highlighted yellow representing “Austronesian.” A bright green area representing “Indo-European” is located at the southern tip of the continent. Small areas throughout all of Africa are highlighted off-white along with a large area in the north representing “sparsely populated.”
Figure 9.12 This map shows the distribution of language groups in Africa that resulted from ancient migrations. The Bantu subfamily is part of the Niger-Congo family and extends from western Africa to the far south. (credit: modification of work “Languages of Africa map” by “Seb az86556”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

Theories about the spread of the Bantu speakers have changed over the last several decades. For example, it was once believed that the spread occurred relatively recently, meaning over the last several centuries. It was also assumed that the process took the form of conquering bands of Bantu speakers who subjugated or even annihilated those they came into contact with. We know now that the process began several thousand years ago and proceeded in a piecemeal fashion as small groups of Bantu speakers spread across the larger area, integrating and intermarrying into the largely hunter-gatherer communities they met.

It is generally accepted today that the original proto-Bantu speakers emerged and lived in the area between modern-day Nigeria and Cameroon in West and Central Africa. A Neolithic people, the proto-Bantu were farmers who subsisted by cultivating pearl millet and yams and extracting oil from the abundant palm and bush candle trees of the region’s luxuriant rainforests. Gradual changes in weather patterns caused the rainforests to recede and, together with increasingly seasonal (rather than constant) rainfall, opened tracts of savanna between forested areas. Over time, these open patches merged to form the Sangha River Interval, a 200-mile-wide grassland running north–south between modern-day southeastern Cameroon, southern Central African Republic, and northern Republic of Congo. This grassland corridor allowed the previously forest-dwelling Bantu to move southward, through what had once been impenetrable tropical rainforest.

The expansion of the Bantu speakers beyond that region and across other parts of sub-Saharan African likely began between 3000 and 2000 BCE and is referred to as the Bantu migrations (Figure 9.13). Although scholars debate the precise timing, motivation, and directions of these migrations, linguistic evidence and archaeological traces of pottery and ironmaking technology suggest there were multiple waves. The earliest seems to have consisted of two phases: an initial eastern stream or “early split,” and a somewhat later western “rivers and coasts” stream. In both phases, pioneering groups moved gradually and sporadically, first proceeding eastward across the northern reaches of the Congo Forest and arriving in the Great Lakes region of East Africa around 1500 BCE.

A map of Africa is shown along with portions of the Middle East to the east with the continent in gray and the waters in blue. A black dot with the number “1” printed inside is located in west central Africa representing “2000–15000 BCE origin.” Two arrows project out from the dot – one heading southeast labeled “2a” representing “Eastern African” and one heading south labeled “2b” representing “Western African.” A black dot with the number “3” representing “1000-500 BCE Urewe nucleus of Eastern African” is located in the east center of Africa inland from the coast and has three arrows projecting out – one heading east labeled “6,” one heading south labeled “7a,” and one heading west labeled “4,” all representing “Southward advance.” A black arrow runs along the southeastern coast of the continent and is labeled “7b” representing “Southward advance.” Another black arrow runs along the southwestern coast and is labeled “5” representing “Southward advance.” The key also shows the number “2” representing “ca. 1500 BCE first migrations.”
Figure 9.13 Two streams of ancient Bantu migration originated in the Bantu homeland, located in West and Central Africa: (1) an eastward “early split” (2a) and a southward “western” expansion (2b). In later waves of migration, Bantu groups moved on from the Great Lakes region (3) in a generally southward advance (4–7). (credit: modification of work “Map showing the Bantu expansion” by Derek Nurse und Gérard Philippson/“Botev”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Dominated by the Urewe culture, the Great Lakes region was one of the oldest centers of iron smelting in Africa. It was likely from the Urewe that the Bantu learned the iron-forging techniques that enabled them to later produce carbon steel. The Urewe also produced the earliest East African Iron Age pottery, called Urewe ware. Confidently dated to between the second and fifth centuries CE, Urewe ware is found in the Great Lakes region and is recognizable by the distinctive indentation on the bases of its bowls and pots, which gives it the name “dimple-based” pottery. Kwale ware, a related style, has been discovered in the region to the east of the Rift Valley, in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Kwale ware appears to be an offshoot of the earlier Urewe ware and dates to the Early Iron Age, around the third century. Archaeologists and historians have traced the southward thrust of the eastern stream of Bantu in the third and fourth centuries by uncovering Iron Age slag sites and related styles of pottery in Malawi and Mozambique.

As small clusters of Bantu advanced into modern Kenya and Tanzania, some turned toward Congo, while other groups pushed southward in the direction of southern East Africa. By the seventh century, Bantu communities stretched from the extreme southern reaches of Somalia in the north to Natal and Eastern Cape in present-day South Africa. Along the way, they created key cultural elements that were the bases for later civilizations, including the Swahili speakers of the East African coast.

The western stream of Bantu migration progressed considerably more slowly than the eastward stream, advancing south along the West African coast into modern Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with small groups branching off to follow the Congo River system inland as early as 1500 BCE. Early Iron Age farm settlements dating from around the second century CE have been uncovered in southwestern Congo, near Kinshasa, but some of the most impressive and revealing evidence of Iron Age Bantu settlements comes from the savanna woodlands around Lake Kale in southeastern Congo. Here, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of extensive copper and iron smelting, with copper used for trade and to fashion jewelry, while iron was forged into tools and weapons. The westward stream penetrated deeper into the south-central African interior, where Kalundu and Dambwa pottery, Early Iron Age styles specific to this flow of Bantu, have been identified in the Zambezi valley. This evidence dates to the same period of southward expansion that has been linked to the eastward early split Bantu.

It was not until the early centuries of the Common Era that the western stream penetrated Angola in the far southern extreme of West Africa. Around this time, East Africa witnessed a third phase of Bantu expansion, with groups moving through and settling in parts of modern Mozambique, Botswana, and eastern South Africa. It appears that all three streams of Bantu migration—the western stream, the early split, and its later southward-bound branch—converged on the Zambezi valley (Figure 9.13). By 500 CE, all parts of the vast tropical rainforest had been settled by Bantu farming communities. Populations of Bantu-speaking peoples could now be found throughout southern Africa, from the savanna woodland south of the Congo forest and that of northern Namibia in the west, to the Great Lakes region of East Africa, western Tanzania, and eastern Botswana in the east, to the Transvaal high veld, Natal, and Eastern Cape in the south.

Link to Learning

As the Bantu migrated, did they arrive as conquerors, colonizers, or explorers? Listen to the BBC’s “The Story of Africa” and learn more.

The Bantu were among the earliest groups to benefit from the diffusion of farming, herding and animal keeping, and advanced metalworking technologies, and they dispersed across the continent changing its linguistic and cultural landscape along the way. Pioneers originating in West and Central Africa advanced sporadically as small groups of people moving from one point to another. During the earliest centuries of expansion, groups of Bantu arrived in regions that were only thinly populated by groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers. The land was unsettled, enabling the Bantu to select the best sites for their farms, and because there was no need to clear thick forest or adopt new techniques to suit a difficult environment, their expansion across the subcontinent proceeded relatively rapidly. New generations could simply move to new areas. Initially, then, Bantu farm settlements were typically confined to fertile river valleys and regions with favorable rainfall—which helps explain why they moved toward the southeast, a path that avoided the much drier southwest.

The situation changed, however, as the birth of each new generation put pressure on a given area’s limited resources. Growing needs necessitated further expansion, and as the Bantu advanced into the rainforest—their path helpfully cleared with new iron tools—they began to adjust their cultivation techniques to a variety of conditions. Although it may seem so, the tropical rainforest is not—and has never been—a uniform ecosystem: its topography and climate vary greatly from river valleys and swampy regions to dense forest canopies and plateaus, and across highlands and lowlands. Each of these environments requires different cultivation techniques, knowledge the Bantu acquired only after their gradual occupation of all parts of the rainforest and centuries of experimentation and adaptation. Their efforts were so effective that by the sixth century CE, Bantu farming communities had settled in virtually all parts of the tropical rainforest.

But the Bantu did not stop at the rainforest. Rather, they continued to drift southward and eventually emerged into the southern savanna, where they found an environment not unlike the grasslands they had encountered north of the rainforest. Like the rainforest, southern Africa was also lightly populated by foragers and hunter-gatherers, leaving vast swaths of land open for the Bantu farmers to inhabit. They expanded into this region seeking new land, a migratory process repeated by generations of their successors. Initially, the diffusion of the Bantu speakers south of the rainforest followed an easterly direction and hugged the southern and eastern edges of the rainforest. When they began to settle around Lake Victoria, the Bantu acquired cattle. From there, a general dispersal into eastern and southern Africa began.

Although the areas into which the Bantu migrated were only sparsely populated, interactions with the peoples who already lived there were unavoidable. It is not entirely clear what these meetings were like, but evidence suggests that interactions were complex and included elements of cultural absorption and assimilation as well as displacement, often at the same time. Early on, the Bantu moved in relatively small numbers, so there were no large-scale displacements of hunter-gatherer societies. It was some time before the Iron Age farmers came to dominate their Neolithic contemporaries.

At first, there was enough room for both societies to coexist in relative harmony. Oral tradition and linguistic evidence indicate that the Bantu intermingled with some of these populations, including rainforest-dwelling peoples such as the Twa and the Khoekhoe herders of South Africa. Had it not been for the rainforest dwellers, the Bantu may have had a far more difficult time adjusting to the environment. Indeed, Bantu oral tradition holds that it was rainforest dwellers like the Twa who taught them to adapt. It is also likely that the Bantu acquired their cattle—or at least their cattle-herding techniques—from the Khoisan, a cattle- and goat-herding people who preceded them in southern Africa. In fact, many of the words in the southern Bantu language that relate to cattle and cattle-herding practices are derived from Khoisan. This linguistic heritage is reinforced by the presence today of Khoisan “click” sounds in certain Bantu languages, particularly those of the south.

Yet displacements did occur. The peoples who dwelled in the rainforest had all descended from a common population, but the arrival of the more technologically advanced Bantu farmers caused them to scatter into separate groups. On entering San territory, for example, the Bantu farmers displaced the previously dominant San and Khoekhoe peoples, the first inhabitants of South Africa. Forced from their home territories by the Iron Age farmers, the San and Khoekhoe embarked on their own widespread migrations. The Bantu were not dominant everywhere in southern Africa, however. In the drier, sandier areas of the western Kalahari Desert and Namibia, Khoisan speakers remained the dominant group until more recent times.

Overall, the Bantu migrations had a significant impact on Africa’s economic and cultural practices. As they migrated, the Bantu encountered different groups whose adaptations to their environments had produced innovations in plant and animal husbandry and metalworking. The Bantu borrowed and adapted these over a generations-long expansion across and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, forging a package of common cultural advances that they gradually diffused among the peoples in the areas they settled. In the long term, the Bantu laid a common cultural framework throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. This enabled them to forge complex settled societies that later became the bases of large African states, such as medieval Great Zimbabwe, that could dominate whole regions.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax