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The Bantu Expansion

An Overview for College Students

The Word "Bantu"

The word "Bantu" (which means "people" in many Bantu languages) refers to a group of about 500 African languages and to their speakers, today numbering about 90 million people. The Bantu language most often taught in American Universities is Swahili, but there are many others. For example, the Nyoro (or Ba-Nyoro) of the Kingdom of Bu-Nyoro (in Uganda) are speakers of a Bantu language (called Lu-Nyoro). (Wikipedia link for Bantu languages.)

The Bantu Homeland

The first Bantu speakers seem to have lived in the area that is today Nigeria and Cameroon (roughly at the "notch" on the west side of Africa). Their early Neolithic adaptation involved yams and bananas, which may have originated in Malaysia. The more or less simultaneous development of (1) agriculture and of (2) iron-working (and the extensive trade it promoted) was once thought to be the underlying reason for the initial Bantu expansion out of the homeland area. However two relevant bodies of research seem to contradict this view:

  1. That the migration of Bantu speakers came after their development of agriculture seems to be confirmed by the fact that across Bantu languages there are cognate (historically related) words for many crops, including yams and oil-bearing palms, and for domestic goats. That would suggest the separation of these languages only after these crops became part of daily life.
  2. However other linguistic research suggests that the expansion, at least southward, must have begun before the development of iron-working, since many words for iron-working are not cognate across Bantu languages, so speakers probably split apart before iron was part of their world.

Obviously, a diffusion originating after the stabilization of the crops but before the production of iron does not agree well with the picture of these two changes being closely linked.

For this reason, researchers are now without a consensus explanation for the out-migration. One explanation suggests that it was cereal crops rather than crops in general that were significant for expansion.

What does seem clear is the approximate date: the first great expansion seems to have begun about 3500 years ago, or about 1500 BC. That would be shortly after the yam and banana complex arrived. Expansion seems to have been further vigorously stimulated when (1) cereal crops later came to be cultivated, introduced from southwestern Asia, and (2) iron came to be worked. Iron tools facilitated clearing trees and bushes for shifting "slash-and-burn" cereal agriculture (and for fuel of use in iron-working), and iron was the basis for valuable trade items. Perhaps most importantly, iron made strong weapons, facilitating expansion by well armed Bantus into lands occupied only by foraging peoples.

The process may therefore have been something like this:

  1. The cultivation of yams and bananas, probably diffusing from Indonesia, would have led to population increases, and, as elsewhere in the world, increasing population produced greater social complexity (and increasingly deadly warfare).
  2. Increasing population pressure would have been conducive to receptivity to other crops, including cereal crops, either imported or indigenously discovered, producing more population growth, more social complexity, and a need for new land to farm.
  3. An increase in the variety of crops meant the possibility of Bantu agriculture in areas that were not appropriate to the wet-land crops originally making up much of the Bantu repertoire. In other words, new crops both permitted and encouraged adaptations to new locations.
  4. African hardwood trees burn at higher temperatures than many species, making west Africa pre-adaptive to iron production once the techniques for working it become known. In the ancient world, African iron was therefore especially high-quality compared to iron made elsewhere.
  5. Therefore two factors conducive to the development of widespread trading networks were (1) the possibility of trading "high-quality" African iron both within Africa and into southwestern Eurasia, and (2) the wide range of different environments both in Africa and in southwestern Eurasia.
  6. Increasing resources and increasing population produced more pressure to expand into thinly populated, previously non-Bantu areas and greater ability to do so. Essentially the process continued until all "Bantu-friendly" ecological niches had been occupied.

The Sahel

The gradual Bantu expansion (or “migration”) progressed by two routes: One ran down the Atlantic coastal grasslands into what is today Angola. The other ran across the strip of thorn forest and grassland south of the Sahara and north of the central African jungles, a region known as the “Sahel” (originally an Arabic term for “coast,” referring with some irony to the edge of the expanding Sahara desert in what is today southern Mali, Niger, and Chad. A third route would have gone west parallel to the coast of the Gulf of Guinea through what is today Nigeria as far as Liberia and then northward.

Simplifying enormously, we can say that once early Bantu farmers were raising grain in addition to their earlier cultigens, they had an agriculture that was tolerant of dry regions, even, if necessary, savanna land.

Savannas are not ideal for agriculture — Iowa is. But the dry grass and shrub country of the savannas can support some crops. Today important Sahel crops are millet and peanuts (originally from South America). (Links: More About Savanna Environments, Wikipedia Article on the African Sahel.)

The southern portion of the Sahel merges into a strip of land, still un-forested, called the "sudan" (not the same as the country) that was actually very good agricultural land, but insufficient for the ever growing Bantu population.

Farmers were obviously not attracted either to the desert regions lying to the north or to the dense and pest-ridden forests of the Congo and adjacent lands.

Settling Everywhere

Reaching Eastern Africa by about 150 BC, the area of Bantu agriculturalists expanded slowly southward through the farmlands east of the great forests, and on further to the south. The two migrating streams of population — one down the west side of the continent and the other cross the Sahel and then down the east side —gradually wrapped around below the central forest region, and met again, probably in the southern part of the Congo where the forest gives out. That probably happened by about the beginning of the common era or a little after. By about AD 300 Bantu speakers occupied most of Africa south of the Sahara, establishing the major kingdom of Zimbabwe by AD 1000.

Like the people of Northeast Asia crossing the Bering Strait into the Americas without knowing that they were going anywhere in particular, the Bantu speakers spread across the continent in what was almost certainly not a self-conscious act, but merely a gradual "seepage" of populations seeking more or better farming and grazing land. Envision opportunistic farmers occasionally homesteading new fields, not trudging travelers.

This movement need not have been stimulated only by new discoveries or growing populations, of course. There was probably also pressure from the spreading of the Sahara desert into the Sahel lands, pushing the population ahead of its deadly desication, just as it continues to do today. (For useful maps, check the Wikipedia link for Bantu.)

Conquering Everybody

The areas into which the Bantu moved were not unoccupied. Even today one finds descendants of the displaced, non-Bantu-speaking, foraging populations. These include speakers of so-called "Khoisan" languages in the Southwest — especially Namibia and Botswana — and the Pygmy forest dwellers like the Aka and BaMbuti.) These peoples have in effect been pushed off of cultivable land into agriculturally marginal "refuge" areas of little interest to Bantu farmers. In recent centuries they have tended to dwell in interaction with and subordination to Bantus. Naturally all groups have intermarried now and then over the generations, and in modern times one might also argue that the long process of the spread of the Bantu way of life has now been completed as foraging has become virtually extinct. Further, African languages selected for official and school use in the southern half of the continent are nearly always Bantu.

A Career Awaits You

Finally, it is important to note that African history is made very complicated by the large number of peoples and languages involved, and by the absence until recent centuries of any indigenous written records except in the far north or along the coast of the Indian Ocean, where traders from Oman spread the use of Arabic script. (Swahili grew up as a trade language along the east coast of Kenya and Tanzania. Written Swahili has about the same time-depth as written English.) Thus the historical record leaves much still to be discovered.

Further, archaeology has not developed nearly as extensively in Africa as in many other parts of the world. Fundamental issues of chronology and population history are often still poorly established. You should expect wide differences among sources you consult about African history. (The world awaits your book!)

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