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Section 1: Early Africa

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  • The Bantu Migration

    The Bantu expansion, or a postulated millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group, originated from the adjoining regions of Cameroon and Nigeria about 3,000 years ago, eventually reaching South Africa around 300 CE.

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

    Explain how the Bantu Migration impacted the Swahili cultures

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

    • The Bantu expansion is the name for a postulated millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group. The primary evidence for this expansion has been linguistic, namely that the languages spoken in sub-Equatorial Africa are remarkably similar to each other.
    • It seems likely that the expansion of the Bantu-speaking people from their core region in West Africa began around 1000 BCE. The western branch possibly followed the coast and the major rivers of the Congo system southward, reaching central Angola by around 500 BCE.
    • Further east, Bantu-speaking communities had reached the great Central African rainforest, and by 500 BCE pioneering groups had emerged into the savannas to the south, in what are now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Zambia.
    • Another stream of migration, moving east by 1000 BCE, was creating a major new population center near the Great Lakes of East Africa. Pioneering groups had reached modern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa by CE 300 along the coast, and the modern Limpopo Province (formerly Northern Transvaal) by 500 CE.
    • Before the expansion of farming and pastoralist African peoples, Southern Africa was populated by hunter-gatherers and earlier pastoralists. The Bantu expansion first introduced Bantu peoples to Central, Southern, and Southeast Africa, regions they had previously been absent from. The proto-Bantu migrants in the process assimilated and/or displaced a number of earlier inhabitants.
    • The relatively powerful Bantu-speaking states on a scale larger than local chiefdoms began to emerge in the regions when the Bantu peoples settled from the 13th century onward. By the 19th century, groups with no previous distinction gained political and economic prominence.

    Key Terms

    • Trekboers: Nomadic pastoralists descended from mostly Dutch colonists, French Huguenots, and German Protestants in the Cape Colony (founded in 1652). They began migrating into the interior from the areas surrounding what is now Cape Town during the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century.
    • KwaZulu-Natal: A province of South Africa that was created in 1994 when the Zulu bantustan of KwaZulu (“Place of the Zulu” in Zulu) and Natal Province were merged. It is located in the southeast of the country, enjoying a long shoreline beside the Indian Ocean and sharing borders with three other provinces and the countries of Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho.
    • Monomatapa: A Portuguese name for the Kingdom of Mutapa, a Shona kingdom, which stretched from the Zambezi through the Limpopo rivers to the Indian Ocean in Southern Africa, in what are the modern states of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, and parts of Namibia and Botswana, stretching well into modern Zambia. Its founders are descendants of the builders who constructed Great Zimbabwe.
    • The Bantu expansion: A postulated millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group. The primary evidence for this expansion has been linguistic, namely that the languages spoken in sub-Equatorial Africa are remarkably similar to each other.
    • Bantu languages: A traditional branch of the Niger-Congo languages. It is not known how many of them exist today, but Ethnologue counts 535 languages. They are spoken mostly east and south of present-day Cameroon, that is, in the regions commonly known as Central Africa, Southeast Africa, and Southern Africa.

    Bantu Migration: Background

    The Bantu expansion is the name for a postulated millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto- Bantu language group. The primary evidence for this expansion has been linguistic, namely that the languages spoken in sub-Equatorial Africa are remarkably similar to each other. Attempts to trace the exact route of the expansion, to correlate it with archaeological evidence and genetic evidence, have not been conclusive. Many aspects of the expansion remain in doubt or are highly contested. The linguistic core of the Bantu family of languages, a branch of the Niger-Congo language family, was located in the adjoining region of Cameroon and Nigeria. From this core, expansion began about 3,000 years ago, with one stream going into East Africa, and other streams going south along the African coast of Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola, or inland along the many south-to-north flowing rivers of the Congo River system. The expansion eventually reached South Africa as early as 300 CE.

    The Expansion

    It seems likely that the expansion of the Bantu-speaking people from their core region in West Africa began around 1000 BCE. Although early models posited that the early speakers were both iron-using and agricultural, archaeology has shown that they did not use iron until as late as 400 BCE, though they were agricultural. The western branch, not necessarily linguistically distinct, according to Christopher Ehret, followed the coast and the major rivers of the Congo system southward, reaching central Angola by around 500 BCE. Further east, Bantu-speaking communities had reached the great Central African rainforest, and by 500 BCE, pioneering groups had emerged into the savannas to the south, in what are now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Zambia.

    Another stream of migration, moving east by 1000 BCE, was creating a major new population center near the Great Lakes of East Africa, where a rich environment supported a dense population. Movements by small groups to the southeast from the Great Lakes region were more rapid, with initial settlements widely dispersed near the coast and near rivers due to comparatively harsh farming conditions in areas further from water. Pioneering groups had reached modern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa by 300 CE along the coast, and the modern Limpopo Province (formerly Northern Transvaal) by 500 CE.

    The map shows that the origin of Bantu speakers was near modern-day Cameroon sometime around 2000-1500 BC. The first migrations, which happened circa 1500 BC, moved the Bantu both to Eastern Africa and Western Africa. The Urewe nucleus of Bantu speakers was near modern-day Uganda sometime around 1000-500 BC. From there, the Bantu speakers move southward. The Congo nucleus of Bantu speakers was near modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo sometime around 500 BC - 0. From there, the Bantu-speakers moved southward sometime around AD 0 -1000.

    The Bantu expansion Map legend: 1 = 2000–1500 BC origin; 2 = ca.1500 BCE first migrations; 2.a = Eastern African,  2.b = Western African; 3 = 1000–500 BCE Urewe nucleus of Eastern African; 4–7 = southward advance; 9= 500 BCE–0 Congo nucleus; 10 = CE 0–1000 last phase.

     

    Effects of the Bantu Migration

    Archaeological, linguistic, genetic, and environmental evidence all support the conclusion that the Bantu expansion was a long process of multiple human migrations. Before the expansion of farming and pastoralist African peoples, Southern Africa was populated by hunter-gatherers and earlier pastoralists. The Bantu expansion first introduced Bantu peoples to Central, Southern, and Southeast Africa, regions they had previously been absent from. The proto-Bantu migrants in the process assimilated and/or displaced a number of earlier inhabitants that they came across, including Pygmy and Khoisan populations in the center and south, respectively. They also encountered some Afro-Asiatic outlier groups in the southeast, who had migrated down from Northeast Africa.

    In Eastern and Southern Africa, Bantu speakers may have adopted livestock husbandry from other unrelated Cushitic- and Nilotic-speaking peoples they encountered. Herding practices reached the far south several centuries before Bantu-speaking migrants did.

    Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the relatively powerful Bantu-speaking states on a scale larger than local chiefdoms began to emerge in the Great Lakes region, in the savanna south of the Central African rainforest, and on the Zambezi river where the Monomatapa kings built the famous Great Zimbabwe  complex. Such processes of state-formation occurred with increasing frequency from the 16th century onward. This was probably due to denser populations, which led to more specialized divisions of labor, including military power, while making outmigration more difficult. Other factors included increased trade among African communities and with European and Arab traders on the coasts, technological developments in economic activity, and new techniques in the political-spiritual ritualization of royalty as the source of national strength and health.

    By the time Great Zimbabwe had ceased being the capital of a large trading empire, speakers of Bantu languages were present throughout much of Southern Africa. Two main groups developed—the Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi), who occupied the eastern coastal plains, and the Sotho-Tswana, who lived on the interior plateau.

    In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, two major events occurred. The Trekboers were colonizing new areas of Southern Africa, moving northeast from the Cape Colony, and they came into contact with the Xhosa, the Southern Nguni. At the same time the area in modern-day KwaZulu-Natal was populated by dozens of small clans, one of which was the Zulu, then a particularly small clan of no local distinction whatsoever. In 1816, Shaka,
    one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu Kingdom, acceded to the Zulu throne. Within a year he had conquered the neighboring clans and had made the Zulu into the most important ally of the large Mtetwa clan, which was in competition with the Ndwandwe clan for domination of the northern part of modern-day KwaZulu-Natal.

    Currently,
    300-600 ethnic groups in Africa speak Bantu languages and are categorized as Bantu peoples. It is not known how many Bantu language exist today, but Ethnologue counts 535. They are spoken mostly east and south of present-day Cameroon, that is, in the regions commonly known as Central Africa, Southeast Africa, and Southern Africa. Parts of the Bantu area include languages from other language families.

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