The Bantu Expansion

Since we are still with migrations and the movement of people, I decided to get stuck in Africa for another blog update. Today I will speak about the Bantu expansion. Now I did not know about this until I actually had a look around, so due to my lack of knowledge of the subject, this may be one of my more technical updates. Nevertheless, I hope you find it informative and as interesting as I did.

In general terms the Bantu expansion is considered the first formative event in Africa. This migration took place due to the movement of Bantu language speakers which some experts believe to have lasted for thousands of years, so it was a long process and developed at various stages. The evidence that we have for this migration are mainly linguistic. This associates the branch of Niger-Congo Bantu dialect expanding along the areas of modern-day Cameroon and Nigeria around 3000 years ago. Once this synergy commenced, the Bantu proceeded with their expansion towards the eastern and southern territories within the African continent. The expansion reached central Angola c.500 BC. Then the direction of the flow of people seems to have changed towards the Great Lakes, with strong settlements by 500 AD. Furthermore, by c.300 AD Bantu speakers occupied most of Africa south from the Sahara. It is worth mentioning that this migratory tendency has been identified to be not self-conscious, or rather not entirely intentional, but rather circumstantial. This is suggested due to the somewhat erratic yet natural wave of expansion; always moving into areas which were not properly occupied.

Some scholars support the idea that there was a re-boot of the Bantu expansion some centuries later: between the 1200s and 1600s. This is the period when the Bantu speaking people of the Great Lakes area consolidated power and asserted their influence in neighboring lands due to an increase of population, producing more specialised labour and strengthening their military power. Thus, the seat of their rule formed at Zimbawe. Moreover, some experts contemplate the elongation of the Bantu expansion further into the modern period, supporting that the rise of the Zulu empire in the 18th and 19th centuries was related to the original migration process – but perhaps this is too much of a stretch, and I am personally not convinced of this fact.

The reasons for the movement area still uncertain, and they vary depending on who you may ask. It was traditionally understood that the Bantu migrated in order to conquer new lands and expand their area of influence. Nevertheless, linguists believe that the migration may actually be related to a societal change regarding agricultural developments, considering that there is evidence in the language development suggesting that the people in South Africa changed from being hunter-gatherers to farming communities with the arrival of the Bantu to this area. Archaeologists have supported the genesis of this expansion due to agricultural developments as well as the perfection of iron work and subsequent increase of trading activities. However, this does not add up with the linguistic evidence found in correlation to the migratory movements towards the south. According to Hambert, the early Bantu migrations could not be connected with the use and improvement iron technology as there are no words in the language that reflect these were used within society. Therefore Hambert believes the lack of words proves the lack of resource work, or at least to a meaningful degree. Instead, current research looks towards the rise and use of cereal crops as a possible determining factor for the expansion process.

Nevertheless, there is an incredible and fundamental issue regarding research on this subject and a coherent historiographical record for this subject which affects most pre-modern African history. This is the struggle to find relevant archaeological finds, or at least to gather a record substantial enough from were to extrapolate ideas and theorise what is supported by the practice. Moreover, there are plenty of chronological issues in what relates coherence due to the lack of written records produced by the Bantu, fact that only changed in recent centuries with the modernisation of the African communities due to European influence and intervention. That is the reason why the linguistic evidence are crucial in this study, as they are the only source that seems to have paced itself in a way that is at least identifiable to linguists and anthropologists.

So, if you are looking for an exciting, open field to get into, perhaps you should consider African studies and the Bantu cultures.


7 thoughts on “The Bantu Expansion

  1. Is there any evidence that climate change is a relevant cause of the Bantu migration? Or is that somehow tied in to the development of cereal grains.

    1. Hi Eleanor, thanks for the comment. From my quick research on the subject it seemed to be a migration due to military conquest and agricultural gain. Although I do not doubt that climate change may have had something to do with the subject. I have not looked into this topic for a while, but I think you present a very interesting point and it’s certainly worth giving it a follow up.

      Thanks a lot.

  2. I find that super interesting! I teach 6th grade social studies, and my district forces me to teach kids that one of the “possible” (never the word they remember!) causes of the Bantu migration were mostly related around not having enough arable farmland, which tracks with your (much more rigorous, I’m sure, knowing how curriculum writers operate) research, but they also make a huge deal about how it was a non-violent form of cultural diffusion.

    Did your research indicate that the military conquest of the Bantus caused them to flee, or that they had better military technology as well as farming technology?

    1. Hey Eleanor, I can’t actually say say I have found that. There are scholars who associate it with a better development of iron works? Which would suggest better tech. But it is very much contested.
      With regards to the military aspect, I haven’t found anything of the sort I am afraid.
      Actually I find it interesting you teaching this in the 6th grade! Where is that, the States by any chance?

      1. Yep! I teach in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. The Bantu Migration is the kickoff of the Africa unit, and how we introduce the concept of cultural diffusion. They get it again in 10th grade, this is just to give them a base.

        I actually came across your blog post doing research for one that just went live today, about why we teach about Africa for a whole marking period, if you’re interested.

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