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Bantu peoples

Related subjects: African Geography

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Map showing the approximate distribution of Bantu (dark yellow) vs. other Niger-Congo languages (light yellow).

Bantu is the name of a large category of African languages. It also is used as a general label for over 400 ethnic groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, from Cameroon across Central Africa and Eastern Africa to Southern Africa. These peoples share a common language family sub-group, the Bantu languages, and broad ancestral culture, but Bantu languages as a whole are as diverse as Indo-European languages.


"Bantu" means "people" in many Bantu languages, along with similar sounding cognates. Dr. 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. Perhaps the most salient was the organization of many parts of speech in concordance with a set of noun categories, by means of inflected prefixes. Thus in isiZulu, a paradigmatic case for Bleek, the noun root -ntu is found in nouns such as umuntu (person), abantu (people), ubuntu (quality of being human, humaneness), and verbs and adjectives describing the nouns agree with them: Umuntu omkhulu uhamba ngokushesha (The big person walks quickly), Abantu abakhulu bahamba ngokushesha (The big people walk quickly).

Bleek's basic thesis of linguistic affinity has been confirmed by numerous researchers using the comparative method.


1. = 3000 - 1500 BC origin
2 = ca.1500 BC first migrations
        2.a = Eastern Bantu, 2.b = Western Bantu
3. = 1000 - 500 BC Urewe nuclus of Eastern Bantu
4. - 7. southward advance
9. = 500 BC - 0 Congo nucleus
10. = 0 - 1000 AD last phase
Early iron age findings in eastern and southern Africa

Current scholarly understanding places the ancestral proto-Bantu homeland near the southwestern modern boundary of Nigeria and Cameroon ca. 5000 years ago (3000 BC), and regards the Bantu languages as a branch of the Niger-Congo language family. This view represents a resolution of debates in the 1960s over competing theories advanced by Joseph Greenberg and Malcolm Guthrie, in favour of refinements of Greenberg's theory. Based on wide comparisons including non-Bantu languages, Greenberg argued that Proto-Bantu, the hypothetical ancestor of the Bantu languages, had strong ancestral affinities with a group of languages spoken in Southeastern Nigeria. He proposed that Bantu languages had spread east and south from there, to secondary centers of further dispersion, over hundreds of years.

Using a different comparative method focused more exclusively on relationships among Bantu languages, Guthrie argued for a single central African dispersal point spreading at a roughly equal rate in all directions. Subsequent research on loanwords for adaptations in agriculture and animal husbandry and on the wider Niger-Congo language family rendered that thesis untenable. In the 1990s Jan Vansina proposed a modification of Greenberg's ideas, in which dispersions from secondary and tertiary centers resembled Guthrie's central node idea, but from a number of regional centers rather than just one, creating linguistic clusters.

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 peoples. Some of them were ancestral to modern Central African forest peoples (so-called Pygmies) who now speak Bantu languages. Others were proto- Khoisan-speaking peoples, whose few modern hunter-forager and linguistic descendants today occupy the arid regions around the Kalahari desert. Many more Khoekhoe and San descendants have a Coloured identity in South Africa and Namibia, speaking Afrikaans and English. 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 (although the hypothesis that the Khoisan languages are a single family is disputed by many, and the name is simply used for convenience), comprise the other modern hunter-forager remnant in Africa. 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.

Bantu expansion

The Bantu expansion was a millennia-long series of physical migrations, a diffusion of language and knowledge out into and in from neighboring populations, and a creation of new societal groups involving inter-marriage among communities and small groups moving to communities and small groups moving to new areas. 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 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 year ago (500 B.C.) 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.) was creating a major new population centre 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 A.D. 300 along the coast, and the modern Northern Province (encompassed within the former province of the Transvaal) by A.D. 500.

Between the 13th and 15th 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. 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 labor, including military power, while making emigration 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.

The use of the term "Bantu" in South Africa

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 of recent times, 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, 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.
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