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READ: The Spread of Farming in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Bantu Migration

Humans perfected foraging in Africa, but many turned to farming when the right tools, and the right crops, became available.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. When did the Bantu migration begin, and by what time did it extend across the “trunk” of Africa?
  2. What technologies spread through the Bantu migration?
  3. How does archaeology help us determine the routes and dates of the Bantu migration?
  4. How does linguistics (the study of language) help to establish routes and dates of the Bantu migration?
  5. How does the study of genetics help to establish routes and dates of the Bantu migration?
  6. What are three theories for how language, technology, and people moved through the Bantu migration, according to the author?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. This article presents three theories for how Bantu technologies and society spread so far. What kind of evidence is available to support these theories? Which theory do you think is the most likely? Which one do you think the author wants you to believe?
  2. The Bantu migrations transformed communities, networks, and production and distribution across sub-Saharan Africa. Think about the language you speak. How do you think it spread? How do you think its spread reshaped the world?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Spread of Farming in Sub-Saharan Africa: Bantu Migration

Painting of a farming village. Villagers do various types of work: some are tending to their crops, and children are playing a game. There are several living structures behind a stone wall.
By Tony Maccarella
Humans perfected foraging in Africa, but many turned to farming when the right tools, and the right crops, became available.

Connections across a wide region

One of the most fascinating stories in the history of agriculture involves the Bantu migrations across the sub-Saharan regions of Africa. This is a part of the world whose people passed information down through a rich oral tradition, but left very little in writing until the Middle Ages. Researchers have found ways to trace the movement of Bantu-speaking peoples that began possibly as early as 2000 BCE. Evidence suggests that they moved rapidly across the continent, south and east, sometime between 2000 BCE and 1000 CE. By about 1200 CE, "Bantu-ness" was a cultural and technological network across the vast trunk of Africa. Bantu expansion reached almost all the way to the southern tip of the continent. The result was a great web of trade, cultural exchange, and shared technology across this wide region.
A sculpted artwork of the head of a figure, featuring elaborate carvings.
The Lynderburg head, one of several sculptures from early Bantu-speaking peoples in southern Africa. The decorative motifs show a great continuity with Bantu figures and decorations across large areas of Africa. By Rexford Nkansah, African Center, Cape Town, CC BY 3.0.
One reason the movements of ancient West African peoples are so fascinating is the timing. The agricultural revolution that transformed much of Afro-Eurasia starting at about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago seems to have begun much later in most of sub-Saharan Africa. But why? Cattle herding emerged as an early technology in northern Africa—perhaps earlier than anywhere else in the world—yet farming seems to have come much later. We do have some evidence of farming in the northwestern area of modern-day Cameroon—originally home to Bantu-speaking peoples—as early as 7000 BCE. Foragers, however, seem to have dominated most of the other regions until at least 2000 BCE. Archaeologists have unearthed pottery, iron tools, and settlements—all pretty good evidence of agriculture. These artifacts radiated south and east from the Bantu homeland and date to between 2000 BCE and 1000 CE. These technologies, along with the agricultural and pastoral people that used them, then spread out across most of Africa. (Yes, pottery and iron tools are technologies.) But why and how did these technologies move to create this vast network across the continent?
The Bantu language group shown on a map of the African continent. Bantu languages are shown to cover a large part of the African continent.
The Bantu language group is made up of about 500 related languages. It stretches across much of central and southern Africa today. By WHP, CC BY-NC 4.0.
Arrows on a map show the ways the Bantu languages spread.
The Bantu language group is made up of about 500 related languages. It stretches across much of central and southern Africa today. By WHP, CC BY-NC 4.0.

Evidence from different academic disciplines

Maps of the Bantu migrations, like the one above, appear frequently in history books and on the Internet. Their bright arrows show a path of Bantu-speaking peoples moving south along the coast and east along the Congo and Zambezi rivers. These routes finally converge on the southeast coast of the continent. But on closer examination, the arrows are often very general, and different maps often show different pathways. It's hard to know what information is reliable. The good news is that there is excellent evidence for the movement of Bantu technologies and culture. It comes from a variety of disciplines and types of sources.
Let's look at the northwestern region of modern-day Cameroon among the ancient settlements of Bantu-speaking populations of western Africa. Here, archaeologists have found potsherds (pieces of broken pottery) dating back to 5000 BCE. Since pottery-making is associated with sedentary lifestyles, this evidence supports a theory that sub-Saharan agriculture could have begun in this region. T. N. Huffman, an archaeology professor in South Africa, clarifies that "Ceramic style can be used to recognize and trace the movements of people" (Huffman 108). Archaeologists analyze the age of potsherds found at other dig sites throughout the continent. That creates data that can be used to map the spread of agriculture. We can see where it started in western Africa, and then how it radiated out in two distinct directions, south and east.
Meanwhile, researchers in the field of linguistics have gathered their own evidence about the spread of the Bantu language. Linguists analyze modern Bantu-based languages, like Swahili. That is, rather than using ancient pieces of pottery, this discipline looks at how people speak right now to find clues about the past. They work to establish a chronology for the development of various branches along the Bantu language tree. Although culture can spread from one place to another through ideas and technology, language spreads with the physical movement of people speaking it. That's why linguists theorize that the Bantu-speaking peoples of western Africa migrated south and east, between 2000 BCE and 1000 CE. K. Rexova, a linguist in the Czech Republic, has suggested that "A fairly homogenous population of Bantu speaking people had spread from the northwest of the equatorial forest in Cameroon and Nigeria throughout central, eastern and southern Africa" (Rexova 189).
More recently, geneticists have used some new techniques to analyze the DNA of modern speakers of Bantu languages, like Swahili in southeastern Africa. Geneticists then determine which populations share genetic code with the original Bantus of western Africa. That data enables them to compare the percentages of shared code among all the modern peoples in the region. Using this information, researchers have been able to develop a chronological family tree. Carlotta De Filippo, an Italian geneticist confirms that, "Our analyses primarily indicate that the dispersal of Bantu languages was coupled with the movement of people, as demonstrated by the lower genetic distances among Bantu populations when compared with those between Bantu and all the other major ethno-linguistic groups" (De Filippo 3262). The evidence has led her and other geneticists to theorize that Bantu-speaking people left western Africa and migrated south and east over a period of a couple thousand years between 2000 BCE and 1000 CE. And in case you forgot what happened in the last paragraph, the linguistic evidence showed the same thing! That means both genetic and linguistic evidence seem to support what archaeologists believe about the spread of agriculture through sub-Saharan Africa.

Theories about the Bantu migration

All of this evidence, however, raises at least as many questions as it answers. Bantu migration is a puzzle, but to study it opens a terrific discussion about the movement of people, technology and culture in these ancient times. How did the vast Bantu network that we see across the trunk of the continent by 1200 CE actually come into being? Three theories have emerged: migration, adoption and diffusion. They aren't mutually exclusive—they may all be right to a certain extent—but they are quite different.
There are still disputes about which of these theories is correct, or how they might all be part of the same story. Genetic evidence, for example, might suggest that migration occurred at a high rate in a particular location. In contrast, archaeological evidence might support the adoption or rejection of Bantu technology in a nearby location. But there are still many more questions to answer.
Migration theoryDiffusion theoryAdoption theory
Large groups of people moved, in waves, from the Bantu homeland in West Africa. They brought with them technologies that allowed them to open up and cultivate land that had been forest, rocky soil, or swamp – iron, crops, pottery, and cattle being chief among them. That allowed them to claim this territory and displace or assimilate with the foragers who lived there beforehand.Bantu-speakers in West Africa moved into new areas in very small groups, usually just families. But they brought with them the Bantu technology and language package—iron, crops, cattle, pottery, and more. These pioneers then shared their more advanced technologies (and, in the process, their languages) with the locals. These locals as a result began speaking their languages as well as living lifestyles that were more like the Bantu-speakers.Bantu language and technology moved while the people largely stayed put. Neighbors of Bantu-speakers adopted some of their technologies such as iron, pottery, cattle, and crops, but rejected others. The next group of people then saw their neighbors had adopted some of these technologies, and they chose the ones that suited them as well. Their languages changed in the process because they adopted the words for these technologies. But the people making the change were generally not migrants, but rather locals!
Table 1: Theories about the Bantu migration

More questions to answer

The story of the agricultural revolution in sub-Saharan Africa is incomplete. Based on evidence from multiple academic disciplines, theorists continue to debate the migration routes of Bantu-speaking farmers from western Africa. Some even question whether they migrated at all. Why, for instance, did Bantu farmers move from their homeland while their foraging ancestors did not? Was it as Leonard Ngcongco of the University of Botswana has suggested, that "people move … for a reason. They move because the population has expanded. They move because the resources which support the population in the settlements have become more or less inadequate. They move because there are changes to the climate and they move for the sake of finding better areas in which to live" (BBC).
What seems certain is that farming in the region began near the modern-day border of Cameroon and Nigeria somewhere between 5000 and 2000 BCE. Eventually farming replaced foraging as far away as the Swahili Coast by about 1000 CE. Beyond that, researchers can only debate. Perhaps historians, along with archaeologists, linguists, geneticists and other researchers, will find answers to these questions as new evidence emerges. Once these scholars assemble their conclusions into a single cohesive theory, it may help explain the spread of agriculture and language across the African continent.
Author bio
Tony Maccarella holds an MA in curriculum and instruction and has been teaching history since 1982. He has served as an AP European History Reader and Table Leader since 2002, and has published several books for improving research and writing skills in AP history classes. Tony currently teaches history at Saddle River Day School where he also serves as the Head of Upper School.

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