From New World Encyclopedia

Map showing the approximate distribution of Bantu (light brown) vs. other Niger-Congo languages and peoples (medium brown).

Bantu is a general term for over 400 different ethnic groups in Africa, from Cameroon, Southern Africa, Central Africa, to Eastern Africa, united by a common language family (the Bantu languages) and in many cases common customs. How they spread throughout such a wide area has been the focus of much study and theorizing. It is generally accepted that the Bantu-speaking peoples originated from West Africa around 4,000 years ago, although there is less consensus on the exact reasons for and course of their expansion. Prior to that time, the southern half of Africa is believed to have been populated by Khoisan speaking people.

After the Bantu expansion, many of the great kingdoms of South Africa were ruled by Bantu people, who tended to be highly resourceful and adaptable. Their kingdoms traded with the Europeans as they started to colonize Africa; however, the Europeans pressured the existing Bantu populations to move. Although Africans from all over the coastal regions of West Africa were captured and taken as slaves to North America, the Bantu people were among the most numerous. Bantu place names over a widespread area of Southern states reflect the presence of large numbers of Bantu, and indicate how Bantu Africans changed the landscape and culture of the white world which had enslaved them.

Today, Bantu-speaking people are primarily found in Rwanda, Angola, Burundi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, with some among other nations in the Southern part of Africa. With the exception of those in Somalia, brought north as slaves in the nineteenth century and many of whom became refugees as a result of the unrest and civil war since 1991, the Bantu comprise a diverse but stable population spread throughout many countries in Africa.


Bantu means "people" in many Bantu languages. Wilhelm Bleek first used the term "Bantu" in its current sense in his 1862 book A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages, in which he hypothesized that a vast number of languages located across central, southern, eastern, and western Africa shared so many characteristics that they must be part of a single language group. This basic thesis is still accepted by some people today, although the theory has been widely challenged since it was proposed – not least because a language may be spread by a relatively small number of human carriers.

Black South Africans were at times officially called "Bantu" by the apartheid regime. Today, however, Bantu is no longer in wide use as a description of black South African people. The Oxford Dictionary of South African English describes its use in a racial context as obsolescent and offensive because of its strong association with white minority rule and the apartheid system. However, Bantu is used without pejorative connotations in other parts of Africa.

The Bantu-speaking peoples of South Africa are roughly "divided" into four main groups: Nguni, Sotho, Vhavenda and Shangana Tsonga, with the Nguni representing the largest group.

Common among the two powerful groups of the Nguni and the Sotho are patrilineal societies, with which the leaders formed the socio-political units. Similarly, food acquisition was by cultivation and hunting. The most important differences were the strongly deviating languages, although both are Bantu languages, and the different settlement types and relationships. With the Nguni, settlements were villages widely scattered, whereas the Sotho settled in towns.



Main article: Bantu expansion
1. = 3000 - 1500 B.C.E. origin
2 = ca.1500 B.C.E. first migrations
        2.a = Eastern Bantu, 2.b = Western Bantu
3. = 1000 - 500 B.C.E. Urewe nuclus of Eastern Bantu
4. - 7. southward advance
9. = 500 B.C.E. - 0 Congo nucleus
10. = 0 - 1000 C.E. last phase [1] [2] [3]
Early iron age findings in eastern and southern Africa

Before the Bantu, the southern half of Africa is believed to have been populated by Khoisan speaking people, today occupying the arid regions around the Kalahari and a few isolated pockets in Tanzania; whereas Cushites, Nilotes and other people speaking Afro-Asiatic languages inhabited north-eastern and northern Africa. Northwestern Africa, the Sahara, and the Sudan were inhabited by people speaking Mande and Atlantic languages (such as the Fulani and Wolof) and other people speaking Nilo-Saharan languages.

It is generally accepted that the Bantu-speaking peoples originated from West Africa around 4,000 years ago. In several major waves of migration and dispersal they moved east (at first north of the tropical rainforest to the northern region of East Africa) and then south, coming to occupy the central highlands of Africa in the third wave. From there a final southwards migration took place into the southern regions of Africa, which is measurable from around 2,000 years ago. The final movement into the southern regions resulted in the displacement of the aboriginal Khoikoi and Khoisan peoples, resulting in some ethnic and linguistic mixing.

As the southern groups of Bantu speaking peoples migrated southwards two main groups emerged, the Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Swazi), who occupied the eastern coastal plains, and the Sotho-Tswana who lived on the interior plateau. The two language groups are easy to distinguish as the Nguni languages adopted clicks, whereas most Sotho-Tswana languages did not.

Sometime in the second millennium B.C.E., perhaps triggered by the drying of the Sahara and pressure from the migration of people from the Sahara into the region, they were forced to expand into the rainforests of central Africa (phase I). In the first millennium B.C.E., they began a more rapid second phase of expansion beyond the forests into southern and eastern Africa, and again in the first millennium C.E. as new agricultural techniques and plants were developed in Zambia. They utilized relatively advanced technologies for the Iron Age compared to the people they displaced; they also led to profound changes in some regions they entered, such as the area presently known as the Waterberg in about 450 C.E. in the extreme north of South Africa. For example, they brought cattle-raising to areas such as the Waterberg Massif and displaced natural grazers like white rhino and blue wildebeest.

By about 1000 C.E. the migration had reached modern day Zimbabwe and South Africa. In Zimbabwe a major southern hemisphere empire was established, with its capital at Great Zimbabwe. It controlled trading routes from South Africa to north of the Zambezi, trading gold, copper, precious stones, animal hides, ivory and metal goods with the Arab traders of the Swahili coast. Around this time there is evidence of coastal trading with Arabs, with the South East Asian region, and even with China. By the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries the Empire had collapsed, with the city of Great Zimbabwe being abandoned.

One common hypothesis of the Bantu expansion

Post-European Settlement

When the early Portuguese sailors (such as Vasco Da Gama and Bartholomew Dias) rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the 1400s very few Bantu speakers were found there. The predominant indigenous population around the Cape was made up of Khoisan peoples. Following Jan van Riebeeck's settlement at the Cape in 1652 European settlers — mostly Dutch, French Huguenots and Germans, known in the past as Boers (today referred to as Afrikaners) — began to occupy Southern Africa in increasing numbers. Around 1770 Boers migrating north encountered land permanently occupied by Bantu speaking peoples (in particular around the Fish River) and frictions arose between the two groups. This began a pattern in which the new (white) settlers used superior force to subdue and/or displace the Bantu speaking peoples they encountered, much as had been done with the aboriginal Khoisan peoples the Boers had previously encountered at the Cape.

From the late 1700s and early 1800s there were two major areas of frictional contact between the white settlers and the Bantu speaking peoples in Southern Africa. Firstly, as the Boers moved north inland from the Cape they encountered the Xhosa, the Basotho, and the Tswana. Secondly attempts at large coastal settlements were made by the British in Xhosa territory (now the Eastern Cape), and in Zululand (now KwaZulu-Natal).

At the time KwaZulu-Natal was populated by dozens of small Zulu-speaking clans. In 1816 Shaka ascended to the Zulu throne (at that stage the Zulu were merely one of the many clans). Within a relatively short period of time he had conquered his neighboring clans and had forged the Zulu into the most important ally of the large Mthethwa clan, which was in competition with the Ndwandwe clan for domination of the northern part of modern day KwaZulu-Natal. By many accounts Shaka used ruthless military force against his opponents, often adopting a scorched earth policy to destroy or displace civilian populations.

Shaka, who had had contacts with English explorers realized that the Europeans posed a threat to local populations, and had planned to begin an intensive program of education to enable the Nguni people to catch up with the Europeans. However in 1828 he was assassinated by his half brother Dingane, who succeeded him. A weak leader, Dingane was defeated by the Boers, however under his successors Mpande (another half-brother) and Mpande's son Cetshwayo the Zulu were able to rebuff Boer attempts to conquer them. Cetshwayo handed the British army the worst defeat it ever suffered at the hands of a non-European fighting force at the Battle of Isandlwana, before succumbing to modern European military technology.

Europeans in the age of the slave trade sometimes justified enslavement of Africans by pointing out that slavery already existed on that continent. However, while forms of bondage were ancient in Africa, and the Muslim trans-Saharan and Red Sea trades were long-standing, the Atlantic trade interacted with and transformed these earlier aspects of slavery. Powerful African leaders would control the slave industry and deal with the Europeans in order to further their wealth and status with foreigners. A large number of Bantu people were enslaved and brought to the Americas. Slaves were employed to be servants, concubines, soldiers, administrators, and farmers. Entire villages were captured and made to pay tribute to the head of state, or were shipped off to the east coast of the United States. These people were considered property by their owners, and often were separated from their family forever.

With the growing settlement of white peoples in southern Africa came social, economic, and political forces that had profound effects on the Bantu speakers. Whereas the British policy was "divide and conquer," the Boer policy could be characterized as "outright domination." In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were several uprisings against settlers, one of the most notable being the Bhambatha rebellion in Natal.

The establishment of political boundaries in Southern Africa, as had happened elsewhere in Africa, was arbitrary to the local population. For example, Tswana-speaking peoples live on both sides of the Republic of South Africa/Botswana border; half of the land occupied by the Swazi was given to the Boers (and is now part of South Africa) at the time Swaziland was declared a British Protectorate; a division of the land occupied by the Basotho were constrained to the Protectorate of Basutoland (now Lesotho) to the least viable agricultural land; the Swati were denied access to traditional lands at Maputo by the Portuguese colony in what is now Mozambique.

Somali Bantu

Somali Bantu woman working in the fields

The Somali Bantu (also called Jarir, Jareer, Wagosha or Mushunguli) are an ethnic minority group in Somalia, primarily residing in the city of Jowhar. They are the descendants of people from various Bantu ethnic groups in what is today Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique who were brought to Somalia as slaves in the nineteenth century. The Somali Bantu call themselves simply Bantu. Like the Somali, most of them speak the Somali language, only a minority has retained their own identity and language. The majority are Muslims, but many have also retained animist traditions. Contrary to the Somali, who are mainly nomadic herders, the Bantu are mainly sedentary farmers. They may have darker skin than the lighter skinned Somalis, and rounder facial features.

Twentieth century Bantu

In the 1920s, relatively liberal white South Africans, missionaries and the small black intelligentsia began to use the term "Bantu" in preference to "Native" and more derogatory terms (such as "Kaffir") to refer collectively to Bantu-speaking South Africans. After World War II, the racialist National Party governments adopted that usage officially, while the growing African nationalist movement and its liberal white allies turned to the term "African" instead, so that "Bantu" became identified with the policies of apartheid. By the 1970s this so discredited "Bantu" as an ethno-racial designation that the apartheid government switched to the term "Black" in its official racial categorizations, restricting it to Bantu-speaking Africans, at about the same time that the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko and others were defining "Black" to mean all racially oppressed South Africans (Africans, Coloureds, and Indians).

Examples of South African usages of "Bantu" include:

  1. One of South Africa's politicians, General Bantubonke Harrington Holomisa (Bantubonke is a compound noun meaning "all the people"), is known as Bantu Holomisa.
  2. The South African apartheid governments originally gave the name "bantustans" to the eleven rural reserve areas intended for a spurious, ersatz independence to deny Africans South African citizenship. "Bantustan" originally reflected an analogy to the various ethnic "-stans" of Western and Central Asia. Again association with apartheid discredited the term, and the South African government shifted to the politically appealing but historically deceptive term "ethnic homelands." Meanwhile the anti-apartheid movement persisted in calling the areas bantustans, to drive home their political illegitimacy.
  3. The abstract noun ubuntu, meaning "humanity" or "humaneness," is derived regularly from the Nguni noun stem -ntu in isiXhosa, isiZulu and siNdebele. In siSwati the stem is -ntfu and the noun is buntfu.
  4. In the Sotho-Tswana languages of southern Africa, batho is the cognate term to Nguni abantu, illustrating that such cognates need not actually look like the -ntu root exactly. The early African National Congress of South Africa had a newspaper called Abantu-Batho from 1912-1933, which carried columns in English, isiZulu, Sesotho, and isiXhosa.


The Bantu were not territorially-minded like the Europeans, but rather group-related. As long as sufficient land was available, they had only very vague conceptions of borders. Borders were natural features such as rivers or mountains, which were not by any means fixed.

Until very recently, the Bantu-speaking peoples were often divided into different clans, not around National federations, but independent groups from some hundreds to thousands of individuals. The smallest unit of the political organizational structure was the household, or Kraal, consisting of a man, woman or women, and their children, as well as other relatives living in the same household. The man was the head of the household and often had many wives; and was the family's primary representative. The household and close relations generally played an important role. Households that lived in the same valley or on the same hill in a village were also an organizational unit, managed by a sub-chief.

Chiefdomship was largely hereditary, although chiefs were often replaced when not effective. With most clans the eldest son inherited the office of his father. With some clans the office was left to the oldest brother of the deceased chief, and after his death again the next oldest brother. This repeated until the last brother died. Next was the eldest son of the original chieftain; then the oldest one of the brothers as the leader. The chief was surrounded with a number of trusted friends or advisers, usually relatives like uncles and brothers, rather than influential Headmen or personal friends. The degree of the democracy depended on the strength of the chieftain. The more powerful and more influential a chieftain was, the lesser the influence of his people. Although the leader had much power, he was not above the law. He could be criticized both by advisers as well as by his people, and compensation could be demanded.


The Bantu languages (technically Narrow Bantu languages) constitute a grouping belonging to the Niger-Congo family. This grouping is deep down in the genealogical tree of the Bantoid grouping, which in turn is deep down in the Niger-Congo tree. By one estimate, there are 513 languages in the Bantu grouping, 681 languages in Bantoid, and 1,514 in Niger-Congo.[4] Bantu languages are spoken basically east and south of the present day nation of Nigeria, in the regions commonly known as central Africa, east Africa, and southern Africa. Parts of this Bantu section of Africa also have languages from outside the Niger-Congo family.

The word Bantu was first used by Wilhelm Bleek (1827-1875) with the meaning 'people', as this is reflected in many of the languages of this group. A common characteristic of Bantu languages is that they use a stem form such as -ntu or -tu for 'person', and the plural prefix for people in many languages is ba-, together giving ba-ntu "people." Bleek, and later Carl Meinhof, pursued extensive comparative studies of Bantu language grammars.

By the sixteenth century, Bantu-speaking peoples occupied much of the eastern regions of southern Africa, practicing agriculture and herding. They created iron and copper weapons and adornments, practiced free trade with their neighbors. Related languages were spoken, such as Tswana, Sotho, as well as the Nguni languages such as Zulu and Xhosa.

Food acquisition

Bantu farmers near Kismaayo

The food acquisition of the Bantu was primarily limited to agriculture and hunting, where generally the women were responsible for agriculture and the men drew for the hunt. Except with the Tsonga (and partially the Mpondo), fishing was of surprisingly little importance. The diet consisted of corn (introduced from South-East Asia), meat (mostly wild game and beef), vegetables; and milk, water and grain beer (which contained very little alcohol compared with European beer).

The Bantu had a number of taboos regarding the consumption of meat. No meat of dogs, apes, crocodiles, or snakes could be eaten. Likewise taboo was the meat of some birds, like owls, crows, and vultures.


All Bantu groups commonly had clear separation between the tasks of the women and those of the men. Among the Sotho, villages were sometimes comprised of as many as 200 people, but the Nguni were made up of a few extended families. Men served as artisans, hunters, and herdsmen; women did the farming and housework, and sometimes organized their labor communally.

House types

The Bantu lived in two different types of houses. The Nguni used the Beehive house, a circular structure of long poles, which was covered with grass. The huts of the Sotho, Venda, and Shangana Tsonga used the Cone and Cylinder house. A cylindrical wall was formed out of vertical posts, which was sealed with mud and cow dung. The roof was built from tied-together poles. The floor of both types is compressed earth.


Magic takes a major central role in Bantu belief, with good and bad influence. The Bantu believed in the separation from body and spirit after death. They often saw a manifestation of the souls of deceased ancestors in ceremonies. The Afro-Brazilian Quimbanda cult is a New World manifestation of Bantu religion and spirituality.

Contemporary Bantu

Currently the Bantu are known more as a language group than as a distinct ethnic group. Swahili is the most widely spoken Bantu language and is considered the main language of around 50 million people living in the countries along the east coast of Africa. They live primarily in the regions that straddle the equator and continue southward into southern Africa where it is believed they migrated to. The modern Bantu-speaking peoples of Africa are mostly Muslim, and lead a variety of different lifeways, from traditional farmers to contemporary city folk.


Somali Bantu refugee children in Florida, 2007

It is estimated that the Bantu of Somalia number around 600,000 (out of a total population of 7.5 million). During the Somali Civil War, many Bantu were evicted from their lands by various armed factions of Somali clans. Since they had only few firearms, they were especially prone to the violence and looting by armed people and militias. Tens of thousands of Somali Bantu fled war and famines in Somalia and went to refugee camps in neighboring Kenya, like Kakuma and Dadaab. Most of them declared that they did not want to return to Somalia. Around 12,000 Somali Bantu have been resettled to the United States with the help of the UNHCR.

In 2000, the US classified the Bantu as a priority and began preparations for resettlement to select cities throughout the country, among those it is known that Salt Lake City, Utah received about 1,000 of the refugees. Other cities in the Southwest, such as Denver, Colorado, and Tucson, Arizona, received a few thousand as well. In New England, Manchester, New Hampshire and Burlington, Vermont have received influxes of Bantus numbering in the hundreds. Plans to resettle the Bantu in smaller towns were abandoned after local protest. The resettlement patterns are in contrast to regular Somalis, who are concentrated in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Columbus, Ohio, Washington, DC, Atlanta, San Diego, Boston, Seattle, and with a few in Maine.


  1. The Chronological Evidence for the Introduction of Domestic Stock in Southern Africa Texas State University. Retrieved December 17, 2007.
  2. Neil ParsonsA Brief History of Botswana. Retrieved December 17, 2007.
  3. On Bantu and Khoisan in (Southeastern) Zambia (in German) Retrieved December 17, 2007.
  4. Raymond G. Gordon, Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. (Dallas, Tex.) online edition: Language Family Retrieved December 17, 2007.


  • Bleek, Wilhelm. A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages. Gregg International, 1968. ISBN 978-0576114585
  • Clark, J. Desmond. The Prehistory of Africa. Thames and Hudson, 1970.
  • Gordon, April A. and Donald L. Gordon. Understanding Contemporary Africa. Lynne Riener Publishers, 2006. ISBN 978-1588264664
  • Guthrie, Malcolm. Comparative Bantu. Farnborough: Gregg International Publishers Ltd. Vols. 1–4, 1968. ISBN 978-0576114684
  • Schapera, I. The Bantu Speaking Tribes OF South Africa. London: Routlege & Kegan Paul, 1959.
  • Shillington, Kevin. History of Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN 978-0333599570
  • Werner, Alice. Myths And Legends Of The Bantu. NuVision Publications, 2007. ISBN 978-1595478481

External links

All links retrieved September 20, 2023.


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