Historical Linguistics

The Bantu Expansion

The analysis of Bantu expansions provides an example of how historic linguistic methods have been used to consider broader questions of historical movements in general with complementary data other branches of anthropology.

Bantu languages are spoken over half the African continent extending from Cameroon in West Africa through the Congo region to the Coast of East Africa and the tip of South Africa. They include Kongo in Zaire, Swahili in Kenya, Zulu in South Africa and hundreds of other languages in over 20 countries. A close analysis of the cognates in their vocabularies reveals that, in spite of their wide distribution, Bantu languages are closely related and, at the extremes, are no more divergent than French, Spanish, and Italian. What forces could have been responsible for one of the most dramatic migrations in premodern times?

A survey of Bantu and related languages indicates that the most probable location of Proto-Bantu, the common origin language is in Nigeria/Cameroon in the northwest corner of the current distribution. Much of this region is open grassland and is within the zone of the earliest indigenous sub-Saharan agricultural tradition. Accordingly, prehistorians hypothesize that the Bantu expansion is related to the spread of agriculture, which was not practiced in the areas now occupied by Bantu. They furthermore suggest that this process was set in motion by a new crop complex, bananas and other crops from southeast Asia, that allowed the ancestral Bantu to occupy the previously uncultivated forest zone immediately to the south and east. A second theory rests on archaeological evidence of iron smelting in Nigeria, just prior to the time of Christ. This new technology would have both allowed the early migrants to penetrate and cultivate the tropical rain forest and given them a substantial advantage against any indigenous groups that might have retarded their advance.


This page concludes the unit on language and culture.