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The Bantu expansion was a millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto-Bantu language group. This group is hypothesized to have originated from modern day Cameroonmarker. A diffusion of language and knowledge spread among neighbouring populations, and a creation of new societal groups involving inter-marriage spread to new areas and communities. The expansion is taken to have begun after the introduction of agriculture, which would indicate a date of ca. 3000-2500 BC for the early expansion within West Africa, followed by first eastwards and southwards migrations beyond West Africa from about 1500 to 1000 BC.

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. They pushed out the hunter-forager Khoisan, who formerly inhabited these areas. Meanwhile in Eastern and Southern Africa, Bantu-speakers adopted livestock husbandry from other peoples they encountered, and in turn passed it to hunter-foragers. Herding practices reached the far south several centuries before Bantu-speaking migrants did. Archaeological, linguistic, genetic and environmental evidence all support the conclusion that the Bantu expansion was one of the most significant human migrations and cultural transformations within the past few thousand years.

Pre-expansion demography

Before the expansion of farming and herding peoples, including those speaking Bantu languages, Africa south of the equator was populated by neolithic hunting and foraging people. Some of them were ancestral (related) to modern Central African forest peoples (so-called Pygmies) who now speak Bantu languages.

Southern Africa

Others were proto-Khoisan-speaking peoples, whose few modern hunter-forager and linguistic descendants today occupy the arid regions around the Kalaharimarker desert. Many more Khoekhoe and San descendants have a Coloured identity in South Africa and Namibia, speaking Afrikaans and English.

Eastern Africa

The small Hadza and Sandawe-speaking populations in Tanzania, whose languages are proposed by many to have a distant relationship to Khoekhoe and San languages, comprise the other modern hunter-forager remnant in Africa. (Other scholars dispute the hypothesis that the Khoisan languages are a single family, and the name is simply used for convenience.)

Over a period of many centuries, most hunting-foraging peoples were displaced and absorbed by incoming Bantu-speaking communities, as well as by Ubangian, Nilotic and Central Sudanic language-speakers in North Central and Eastern Africa. While earliest archaeological evidence of farming and herding in today's Bantu language areas often is presumed to reflect spread of Bantu-speaking communities, it need not always do so.


1500s BC to 1000 AD

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.) in the west, Bantu-speaking communities had reached the great Central African rainforest, and by 2500 years ago (500 B.C.) pioneering groups had emerged into the savannahs to the south, in what are now the Democratic Republic of Congomarker, Angolamarker and Zambiamarker.

Another stream of migration, moving east by 3000 years ago (1000 B.C.) , 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 A.D. along the coast, and the modern Limpopo Provincemarker (formerly Northern Transvaalmarker) by 500 A.D.

From the 1200s to 1600s

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 savannah south of the Central African rainforest, and on the Zambezi river where the Monomatapa kings built the famous Great Zimbabwemarker complex. Such processes of state-formation occurred with increasing frequency from the 16th century onward. They were probably due to denser population, which led to more specialized divisions of labour, including military power, while making outmigration more difficult. Other factors were increased trade among African communities and with European, Swahili 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.

The rise of the Zulu Empire and the Defecane (18th-19th centuries)

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 18th and early 19th 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.

Shaka 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. He clipped the wings 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 Shaka had defeated Zwide at the Battle of Mhlatuze River and broken up the Ndwandwe alliance. Some of these tribes began a murderous campaign against other Nguni tibes and clans, setting in motion what has come to be known as Defecane or Mfecane, a mass migration of tribes fleeing the remnants of the Ndwandwe. By 1825 Shaka 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 Rivermarker in the north to the Mbashe River in the south, not far from the modern day city of East Londonmarker.

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 highveldt and modern-day Zimbabwemarker.

Shaka, who had had contacts with English explorers, realized that the white man posed a threat to local populations. He planned to begin an intensive program of education to enable the Nguni people to catch up with the Europeans. However in 1828 Shaka 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 as king of the Zulus brought the British army the worst defeat it ever suffered at the hands of a technologically less advanced fighting force at the Battle of Isandlwanamarker in 1879, at great cost to his impis. Later the Zulus were overcome by modern European military technology.

See also


  1. after Derek Nurse und Gérard Philippson: The Bantu Languages. Routledge, London 2003.
  2. # J. Vansina: New Linguistic Evidence and ‚The Bantu Expansion‘. Journal of African History (JAH) 36, 1995;
  3. Ehret (1998)
  4. Newman (1995)
  5. Ehret (1998)
  6. Shillington (2005)

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