The typical concept of a migration is a large mass movement of a group of people at a particular point in time. This idea of migration is not transferable when discussing the migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. “Bantu” translates to “people” but this term is used to refer to an incredibly large language family. This paper will provide background information as to the lifestyle of the Bantu-speaking people during this time, possible reasons for their migration, and the effects their migration had. Furthermore, it will discuss the Kingdoms that arised from the increasing network of trade.
Before going into a discussion about the migration of the Bantu-speaking people, it is helpful to understand who these people were and their way of life. The Bantu-speaking people originally lived in the area of present-day Nigeria and Cameroon. More specifically, they were in the eastern part of Nigeria and southern Cameroon. The Bantu-speaking people were settled mostly along riverbanks in this region prior to their migration. The Bantu-speaking societies were strongly patriarchal. Chiefs headed the Bantu-speaking villages. The chiefs conducted different rituals as well as represented their communities when interacting with the neighboring villages. The layout of the Bantu-speaking villages is reflective of their clan basis. Cattle were an incredibly important part of tribal society. In the tribal societies of the Bantu-speaking people, cattle were the principle form of wealth and a man’s most treasured possession. Cattle were so highly regarded that the geographic and social center of village life was the cattle kraal. The huts would be clustered around the cattle kraal. The huts would form either a full or semi-circle around the kraal. The central hut in the village belonged to the chief wife.
An important aspect of the Bantu-speaking peoples lifestyle is they were largely agricultural. The Bantu-speaking peoples survival was heavily dependent upon agriculture. Their settlement near rivers provided a sustainable amount of water that would be necessary for an agricultural society. The Bantu-speaking people were mainly subsistence farmers. Subsistence farmers focus on only growing enough food that will feed themselves and their families. Every family in the Bantu-speaking peoples village had to produce enough for themselves and by their own labor. Individual ownership of the land was not a part of this agricultural society. The land belonged to the tribe as a whole but certain areas were delegated to certain families to use. The Bantu-speaking peoples cultivated a variety of crops. These included yams, gourds, castor beans, black-eyed peas, and the Voandzeia groundnut. While farming and agriculture was a predominant focus in the lifestyle of the Bantu-speaking people, they also hunted and gathered. A few Bantu-speaking tribes also fished. Hunting not only provided meat for the Bantu-speaking people, but it was also a form of sport and entertainment. The Bantu-speaking people would gather a variety of foods including caterpillars, mushrooms, and roots. Bananas were also introduced to the Bantu-speaking people prior to their migration. The bananas were quite beneficial to the society because it decreased the amount of labor required to support this product. The cultivation of bananas would eventually provide a more viable way of life away from the rivers for the Bantu-speaking people. The agricultural lifestyle of the Bantu-speaking people will become a factor in their eventual migration through sub-Saharan Africa.
The Bantu-speaking peoples were also involved with a variety of craftsmanship trades. The Bantu-speaking peoples created pottery, baskets, and made their own clothes. Each family was responsible for creating what they needed for themselves, just like with supplying their own food. An interesting aspect of clothes making was that this was the responsibility of the man. The male head of the house was responsible for making all clothing for himself and his family. Generally, one would assume this would fall into the category of woman’s work since that is what is mostly seen throughout history. Clothes were made out of skin. The skins used most often were oxen, cattle, and sheep. Leopard skin was also used. The leopard skin was strictly reserved for use by the chief and his family. Pottery was also seen in the lives of the Bantu-speaking peoples. There was suitable clay throughout the region the Bantu-speaking peoples lived, but if the clay was not suitable for pottery use then filler materials (sand, crushed sherds) are added. Color decoration was seen in the pottery of the Bantu-speaking peoples. To achieve a color-decoration, they would add ochres and graphite. Basketry was another craft in the Bantu-speaking societies. Basketry served a large range of purposes. Basket material was used as mats to serve food, mats to sleep on, containers, doors, hut walls, and even fences. The material used for baskets and other basketry material was grass and sedge stems. As with most basketry, the materials were weaved together.
Religion was not very dominant component in the societies of the Bantu-speaking peoples. The Bantu-speaking peoples did not speculate much about theories such as creation or life after death. The Bantu-speaking people did, however, have strong ties to their ancestors. This term used for this belief is animism which means the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena. The Bantu-speaking people believed that ancestors had the power to either help or harm their descendants. This belief in the power of the ancestors is similar to the beliefs in China about ancestral spirits. The Bantu-speaking people would make offerings of food and drink to their ancestors, and they would occasionally sacrifice different animals. If the Bantu-speaking peoples gave sufficient and proper attention to their ancestors, they would be regarded favorably and receive good fortune. However, if the Bantu-speaking peoples neglected to make offerings to their ancestors they would be punished.
The migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples through sub-Saharan Africa is quite different from the typical idea of a migration. A normal migration is seen as a mass-movement of a large group of people at a particular point in time. The migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples was actually an intermittent and incremental process of a gradual spread of Bantu languages and ethnic communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa. An interesting component of the migrations of the Bantu-speaking people is the areas they moved into. The areas that the Bantu-speaking people moved into were not unoccupied and there were already other tribes living on that land. The Bantu-speaking peoples pushed the previous inhabitants off the cultivatable land and moved them onto marginal agriculture areas that the Bantu-speaking people were not interested in. The Bantu-speaking people also did not completely eliminate the previous inhabitants from their lives. The Bantu-speaking peoples actually absorbed the local peoples into the already dominant Bantu agricultural societies.
A variety of ideas have been proposed as the reasoning for the migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples through sub-Saharan Africa. A main factor in the migration of the Bantu-speaking people that most people seem to agree with was a growth in the population. The lives of the Bantu-speaking people were already largely sedentary to begin with. With a society based in agriculture, the population growth was possibly related to the cultivation of bananas and yams. As a result there was a need of new land to farm in order to support the growing population. Another factor that may have also influenced the migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples into sub-Saharan Africa was iron. Iron tools allowed the Bantu-speaking peoples to more easily clear forests, cultivate and harvest plants, as well as hunt and slaughter animals. The Bantu-speaking peoples production of iron weapons and tools not only supported population growth, but also quickened their migrations through sub-Saharan Africa. Another reasoning as to the migration of the Bantu-speaking peoples was the changing climate. Around 2500 BCE, the Sahara was beginning to dry up. As a result, the over-grazing of the livestock animals and weakening agriculture environment forced the Bantu-speaking peoples to move south. There were two main routes that the Bantu-speaking peoples took when they migrated. One route went down the Atlantic coast and into present-day Angola. While this route stayed along the western portion of Africa, the second route went east and along the opposite coast.
The effects of the Bantu-speaking peoples migrations can mainly be seen through language. Today, the Bantu languages comprise more than 450 closely related languages and dialects. The expansion of the Bantu through sub-Saharan Africa led to the formation of numerous new speech and language communities. It could also be argued that another important effect of the migrations of the Bantu-speaking peoples is the spread of agricultural societies in subequatorial Africa. The expansion of the Bantu-speaking peoples throughout sub-Saharan Africa can be seen as a dispersion of technology, languages, and culture.
The Bantu were not fully developed in their political structure. Eventually they would create increasingly complex forms of government due to the population growth; however, initially their political structure consisted of established “stateless societies”. The Bantu society managed themselves mainly though family and kinship groups. Cattle were such a significant part of the Bantu culture. The chiefdoms developed were based on control the herd of cattle. This enabled them to gain social status within the community. This system operated on the basis of social power built through control over the labor of kin groups and dependents. As the population grew, the Bantu would realize that the political structure currently in place was useless in larger communities. Problems would arise from the increasing population such as lack of food and other resources. Bantu communities began to organize themselves militarily and this development encouraged more formal structures of government.
Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the empire located in eastern Botswana and South-eastern Mozambique . It was built by the Shona who settled in the area in 400 C.E. Settlement was possible due to plains of fertile soil to support farming and herding, and mineral rich territories to provide gold, iron, copper, and tin for trading and crafting. The region was known as an important religious and trading center. Religion helped bring the city’s rise to power. The Shona also eventually developed communities to complex, stratified societies. Eventually the population was divided by status and it ranged from elite leaders to their peasants. Since cattle were also an importance to the people of Great Zimbabwe, the wealth of Great Zimbabwe lay in cattle and gold. Trade of these two products was managed to sustain their wealth. The region was at the center of an international commercial system. The decline of Great Zimbabwe was probably due to the combination of overgrazing and drought caused the soil on the Zimbabwe Plateau to become exhausted. Trade of gold was probably another factor. In order to sustain the trade network of gold the people had to move. By 1500 the site of Great Zimbabwe was left deserted. However, after its decline the region became a spiritual center. It is one of the remaining traditions of Great Zimbabwe.
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