Bantu expansion

From New World Encyclopedia
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 nucleus of Eastern Bantu
4. - 7. southward advance
9. = 500 B.C.E. - 0 Congo nucleus
10. = 0 - 1000 C.E. last phase

The Bantu expansion was a millennia-long series of physical migrations across Africa. This involved the diffusion of language and of knowledge between neighboring populations. New societal groups were also formed as a result of inter-marriage among communities, as well as by absorbing individuals into the group. Bantu-speakers developed novel methods of agriculture and metalworking which allowed people to colonize new areas with widely varying ecologies in greater densities than hunting and foraging permitted. Meanwhile in Eastern and Southern Africa Bantu-speakers adopted livestock husbandry from other peoples they encountered, and in turn passed it to hunter-foragers, so that herding reached the far south several centuries before Bantu-speaking migrants did. Archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence all support the idea that the Bantu expansion was one of the most significant human migrations and cultural transformations within the past few thousand years. It was Bantu who built the city of Great Zimbabwe. isiZulu is a Bantu-language. The Zulu, who fought a series of wars against the British, inflicting a famous defeat on them in January, 1878, established their Zulu Kingdom in what is now South Africa in the nineteenth century. Other Bantu polities also governed large geographical territories at various periods in time. The Bantu have made significant contributions, linguistically and culturally, to the history of Africa. Their various empires, states and smaller groups established trade links, often existed peacefully with stable and complex systems of governance involving consultation and community (male) participation. There is some evidence that group membership was cross-tribal since loyalty to the group, or to the king, took priority over kinship, in addition to inter-marriage across tribal boundaries.

1500s B.C.E. to 1000 C.E.

It is unclear when exactly the spread of Bantu-speakers began from their core area as hypothesized ca. 5000 years ago. By 3500 years ago (1500 B.C.E.) in the west, Bantu-speaking communities had reached the great Central African rainforest, and by 2500 years ago (500 B.C.E.) pioneering groups had emerged into the savannahs to the south, in what are now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Zambia. Another stream of migration, moving east, by 3000 years ago (1000 B.C.E.) 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 C.E. along the coast, and the modern Limpopo Province (formerly Northern Transvaal) by 500 C.E.

From the 1200s to 1600s

Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries relatively powerful Bantu-speaking states on a scale larger than local chiefdoms began to emerge, in the Great Lakes region, in the savannah south of the Central African rainforest, and on the Zambezi river where the Monomatapa kings built the famous Great Zimbabwe complex, which housed some 40,000 people Zimbabwe and means “house of stone.” The empire of the Monomatapa lasted from 1250 to 1629. The Shona people are descended from the builders of the House of Stone. When Europeans discovered this in the sixteenth century (when the ruins were visited by Portuguese explorers and traders) they began to theorize that it had been built by Arabs, or by the Phoenicians since they could not entertain the possibility that Africans were capable of building such a structure. Such processes of state-formation occurred with increasing frequency from the sixteenth century onward. They were probably due to denser population, which led to more specialized divisions of labor, including military power, while making outmigration more difficult, to increased trade among African communities and with European, Swahili and Arab traders on the coasts, to technological developments in economic activity, and to new techniques in the political-spiritual ritualization of royalty as the source of national strength and health.

Bantu kings

Bantu kingship was often regarded as divine. Emphasizing the king’s authority, this view of kingship could become despotic but there is also evidence that, in places, the Bantu developed a more collective understanding of leadership. The “group” took priority over “individuals” so that anyone who acknowledged the chief, regardless of lineage, could join the “group.” The king was advised not only by elders but by a meeting of all members of the group, which could question anyone accused of a crime and have a say in how those found guilty should be punished. In this way, the group was governed by the group.[1]

The rise of the Zulu Empire and the Defecane

By the time Great Zimbabwe had ceased being the capital of a large trading empire Bantu peoples had completed their colonization of southern Africa, with only the western and northern areas of the Cape not dominated by them. 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 eighteenth and early nineteenth century two major events occurred. The Xhosa, the most southerly tribe, who had been gradually migrating south west made the first tentative contact with the Dutch Trekboers gradually trekking northeast from the Cape colony.

At the same time major events were taking place further north in modern day KwaZulu. At that time the area 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 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.

He also initiated many military, social, cultural and political reforms, creating a well organized centralized Zulu state. The most important of these were the transformation of the army, thanks to innovative tactics and weapons he conceived, and a showdown with the spiritual leadership, clipping the wings, claws and fangs of the witchdoctors, effectively ensuring the subservience of the "Zulu church" to the state.

Another important reform was to integrate defeated clans into the Zulu, on a basis of full equality, with promotions in the army and civil service being a matter of merit rather than circumstance of birth.

After the death of Mtetwa king Dingiswayo around 1818, at the hands of Zwide king of the Ndwandwe, Shaka assumed leadership of the entire Mtetwa alliance. The alliance under his leadership survived Zwide's first assault at the Battle of Gqokli Hill. Within two years he had defeated Zwide at the Battle of Mhlatuze River and broken up the Ndwandwe alliance, some of whom in turn began a murderous campaign against other Nguni tribes and clans, setting in motion what has come to be known as Defecane or Mfecane, a mass migration of tribes fleeing tribes fleeing the remnants of the Ndwandwe fleeing the Zulu. By 1825 he had conquered a huge empire covering a vast area from the sea in the east to the Drakensberg mountains in the west, and from the Pongola River in the north to the Bashee river in the south, not far from the modern day city of East London.

An offshoot of the Zulu, the Kumalos, better known to history as the Matabele created under their king, Mzilikazi an even larger empire, including large parts of the Highveld and modern day Zimbabwe.

Shaka, who had had contacts with English explorers realized that the white man 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. He handed the British army the worst defeat it ever suffered at the hands of a non-European fighting force at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, at great cost to his impis, before succumbing to modern European military technology. After defeating the Zulus in the Anglo-Zulu Wars, the British annexed Zululand in 1887. The office of Paramount Chief continued to exist under the colonial administration, and later in South Africa but with mainly ceremonial function. The term “Paramount Chief” was used by the British so that only the British monarch would have the title of King (or Queen). From 1950, KwaZuku was a “bantustan” or homeland under Apartheid, of which all Bantu were declared citizens. This was abolished in 1994 and is now within the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Eraly Zulu resistance to the British inspired the later anti-Apartheid struggle. Even in defeat, the Zulu's reputation for courage and military prowess survived, and earned respect.


The Bantu expansion across the huge continent of Africa is itself a remarkable story. This has left behind a significant linguistic legacy, so that over vast stretches of the Continent Bantu-related languages are the lingua-franca which have facilitated trade and communication across tribal divides. Swahili, for example, is commonly spoken in East Africa. One of the most researched and famous archeological sites in Africa, Great Zimbabwe, owes itself to the Bantu spirit that trekked across the continent, traded and established a series of polities for themselves for protection and to promote prosperity. According to the various Bantu empires, kingdoms, states and even smaller groupings were "noted for their complex, well integrated, stable organization, a hierarchical structure of offices with clearly defined rights and duties.” Specialization enables the development of “inter-tribal trade” and of a system of markets which still operate in parts of Africa.[2] The legacy of the Bantu is another component in reconstructing a history of Africa that populates the continent, before European colonization, with polities, civilizations and people whose lives were not, to cite Thomas Hobbes “nasty, brutish and short” but were lived in safety, in stable and often peaceful conditions. Jaffe (1952) argues that the picture of pre-colonial Africa was much more multi-racial and less tribal than the picture that Europeans thought they saw.


  1. Jaffe. 1953. Three Hundred Years: A History of South Africa, chapter two, “The Khoo-Khoin and the Bantu,” Cape Town: New Era Fellowship. Written under the penname of Mnguni, it offered an alternative to the story that was being told during the Van Riebeeck Festival that was celebrating 300 years of "white civilization" in South Africa. It can be seen as an example of "writing back," that is, when someone whose history has been written by others "writes back" to correct misrepresentation, or to counter racially or politically motivated bias.
  2. Harris, 1946, p. 410.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chami, F. A. "Graeco-Roman Trade Link and the Bantu Migration Theory." ANTHROPOS -FREIBURG-. 94:1/3 (1999): 205-214. ISSN 0257-9774.
  • Chigwedere, A. S. Birth of Bantu Africa. Harare, ZW: Books for Africa, 1982. ISBN 978-0949933027
  • Ehret, Christopher, and Merrick Posnansky. The Archaeological and linguistic reconstruction of African history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982. ISBN 978-0520045934.
  • Fage, J. D., and Roland Anthony Oliver. Papers in African prehistory. Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1970. ISBN 978-0521074704
  • Harris, J. S. “Education in the Belgian Congo.” The Journal of Negro Education. (Summer, 1946): 410-436.
  • Vansina, Jan. "I. New Linguistic Evidence and 'The Bantu Expansion'." Journal of African History. 36:2:173 (1995). ISSN 0021-8537.


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