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New research pokes holes in idea of ‘Bantu expansion’ in West Africa

By Olivier Marbot
Posted on Tuesday, 13 April 2021 18:19

Congolese traders paddle a canoe laden with bananas down a remote stretch of the Congo River REUTERS/David Lewis

For more than a century, historians have supported the idea of a 'Bantu Expansion' that, starting in West Africa several millennia ago, spread across the southern half of the continent. But new research from an international team casts doubt on this version of events.

It is a relatively well-known story, or at least one that African history buffs thought they knew. Starting in 3000 BCE and over a period of several millennia, Africa experienced what experts have coined the ‘Bantu Expansion’, a massive migration movement that originated on the borders of modern-day Cameroon and Nigeria and eventually spread to eastern and southern Africa, extending its reach across half the continent.

From the Cameroon Grassfields to the African Great Lakes

The Bantu Expansion is considered to be the greatest migration event in Africa’s prehistory and its consequences are still visible today. Virtually half of all Africans are part of the Bantu-speaking ‘proto-language’ [ancestral language] that is found in countries like Gabon, the Comoros, Sudan and South Africa.

It was 19th century European linguists who put forward the theory that the Bantu languages descended from a common Proto-Bantu language and they went on to reconstruct the likely course of this linguistic community’s expansion. German scholars Wilhelm Bleek and Carl Meinhof were the first to call attention to the specific features shared by Bantu-derived languages by distinguishing them from the Xhosa language in South Africa, for instance.

American linguist — Joseph Greenberg — would go on to develop a classification system for African languages that supported the idea of a geographic expansion, while British colonial administrator — Henry Hamilton Johnston — drew up the first map outlining and dating the stages of this so-called expansion.

The term ‘Bantu’ has moreover rather negative overtones, sometimes of a most unpleasant nature. Bleek, who coined the term, was an avowed racist while Meinhof was a member of the Nazi party. During the apartheid era, ‘Bantu’ was synonymous with ‘black’ and the word continues to be considered highly ‘real Bantus’ while portraying the Tutsi people as ‘Nilotics’ from the north, or foreigners.

The work of these men has been used to establish and fine-tune the widely accepted current consensus, which posits that the ‘Bantu peoples’ (although we will see later on that this term is inappropriate) initially lived in an area west of the Congo Basin rainforest, around what is today known as the Grassfields region of Cameroon, and began moving elsewhere from 3000 BCE onwards.

Between 1500 BCE and 500 CE, they reached modern-day Angola and KwaZulu-Natal Province in southern Africa and the African Great Lakes region in eastern Africa, by crossing the vast Congo rainforest. Beginning around 500 CE, Bantu-speaking communities spread out in all directions from the African Great Lakes, reaching Sudan and pushing into Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This theory rests on the idea of a slow but continuous expansion.

Along a small river in the forest near Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo, April 02, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Nicolon

Neither an ethnic group nor a culture

This version of how sub-Saharan Africa was settled, while long accepted as fact, poses a few problems, however. For starters, it is based on the central, but controversial notion that there is a ‘Bantu people’. It has frequently been said, written and repeated that ‘There is no such thing as a Bantu people’, at least not in the sense in which some people use the term, i.e., as an ethnic group or as a culture.

Nowadays, researchers are more apt to use the carefully worded expression ‘Bantu-speaking community’ because that is indeed what they are studying: populations that are different from one another but that speak one of the 680 languages identified to date, that share a common root. To a certain extent, these populations also share some genetic similarities but this is not a hard-and-fast rule: Pygmies have adopted Bantu languages yet they are not descended from the West African communities that initiated migration.

The term ‘Bantu’ has moreover rather negative overtones, sometimes of a most unpleasant nature. Bleek, who coined the term, was an avowed racist while Meinhof was a member of the Nazi party. During the apartheid era, ‘Bantu’ was synonymous with ‘black’ and the word continues to be considered highly ‘real Bantus’ while portraying the Tutsi people as ‘Nilotics’ from the north, or foreigners.

Other regions of Africa nevertheless put a much greater emphasis on the idea of a ‘Bantu people’. This is the case in Gabon, where an initiative to create a Bantu cultural organisation called the Centre International des Civilisations Bantu (CICIBA), in Libreville, was undertaken. While ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to revive the initiative have been made on a regular basis.

A ‘widespread population collapse’

But most importantly, according to the latest findings published early this year by a multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, linguists and geneticists led by Professor Koen Bostoen — from Ghent University in Belgium — the idea of a continuous geographic expansion of Bantu-speaking peoples is downright wrong.

Since 2018, these researchers have been studying and radiocarbon-dating pottery fragments (which are among the few objects that stand the test of time) recovered from 726 sites throughout the Congo rainforest. After analysing the vessel shape and style of decoration of the artefacts, they radiocarbon dated them. They also examined human genetic data and used the latest techniques to assess what are known as paleodemographic fluctuations over the last 130 generations.

Their conclusion: the vast majority of the pottery remains that were recovered date back to either the Early Iron Age, i.e., a period around 800 BCE to 400 CE or the Late Iron Age beginning around 1000 CE. These two periods are separated by a sharp decline in human activity between 400 and 600 CE.

According to Bostoen and his team, the only possible cause for this drop-off in activity is a ‘widespread population collapse’. In the words of Dirk Seidensticker, an archaeologist whose expertise includes radiocarbon-dating pottery, “distinct breaks in material culture confirm the existence of two clearly distinct periods of settlement in the [Congo Basin] rainforest”.

Bostoen adds: “There was a strong decline in the number of pottery groups and this is observed throughout Central Africa, with pottery remains all but disappearing until around 1000 CE, when there is a marked increase of pottery finds. Another thing is that when comparing the pottery fragments from the two periods, which date back to the Early Iron Age and Late Iron Age, respectively, the styles are completely different.”

The team’s research gets a great deal more interesting when they start to suggest explanations for this sudden break. “We noted a drop in the number of objects produced in the middle of the first millennium CE, which has led us to infer a demographic bust,” Bostoen says. “Then, we tried to figure out what was behind the decline by tapping into our knowledge of that era: a period of drought brought about a reduction of forest cover, followed by an episode of much wetter, colder climatic conditions.”

The ‘Year without Summer’

During the Late Antique Little Ice Age, a cooling period that began in 536 CE and historians dubbed the “Year without Summer”, the world went quite literally dark. “There is now little doubt about the timing or magnitude of the events that so unsettled contemporaries: a cluster of volcanic eruptions,” writes the American historian Kyle Harper in his book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire.

What followed, he continues, was “an epic, once-in-a-few millennia cold snap” accompanied by “rising levels of rainfall”, “reduced crop yields”, “weakened immunity” and no doubt, “a demographic explosion of burrowing rodents”.

And in 541 CE, one of the worst pandemics in human history struck: the Justinianic Plague, named for the Byzantine emperor of Constantinople, Justinian I. This first major episode of bubonic plague – not to be confused with the Black Death pandemic that devastated the West in the 14th and 15th centuries – likely originated in China and went on to ravage the entire Mediterranean region, killing — by the account of the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea, who lived to tell the tale — up to half the population in the affected region.

For Bostoen’s team, the Justinianic Plague seems like a highly likely reason for the sudden demographic collapse in Central Africa. “It’s the most speculative part of our study,” says Bostoen, “so we don’t know for sure that it’s true. But it’s a plausible explanation, although further genetic analysis is needed to confirm our hypothesis.”

Whether or not the plague is the culprit behind the population collapse, the entire history of the settlement of the southern half of the African continent must be rewritten.

The expansion of Bantu-speaking communities did not happen in one fell swoop since prehistoric times, but at two different points in history. Certain ethnic groups, speaking related languages and living in neighbouring regions, probably do not share, as it was once thought, a common ancestor. And some communities, which believed that their roots could be traced back thousands of years, are in fact much younger than they ever imagined.

What does that change? A great deal in Bostoen’s opinion. “It has turned our view of pre-colonial history completely on its head. For so long, scholars didn’t think Africa had a history. Eventually, it was thought that African history was a sort of long, continuous timeline that was only interrupted by the arrival of Europeans, slavery and then colonisation.” The latest findings poke holes in this idea of a continuous timeline, among other things.

“Our research also shows that the great Central African kingdoms did not follow a linear path of progress. Some are much more recent than previously thought and so, what’s remarkable is that they managed to expand after a severe crisis and a population collapse,” Bostoen says. “Slavery and colonisation were not the first series of crises Central Africa faced. It has an action-packed and rich history. The region was able to get back on its feet without outside help.”

Bostoen readily admits that, at a time when the world is still grappling with the Covid-19 outbreak, it is no coincidence that he wanted to highlight the idea that a major pandemic could have caused a significant loss of population in the region.

“Our research demonstrates that Central Africa managed to recover from a pandemic and a sudden episode of climate change, which we of course see as cause for hope. That’s the big message we want to get across.”

Did the plague reach the Congo?

It is undisputed that the world experienced a cold spell starting in 536 CE and continuing until 575 CE, according to research carried out by the climate scientist Ulf Büntgen. It is equally undeniable that the bacterium Y. pestis — a ‘global killer’ with ‘fatality rates approach[ing] 100 percent’, as Harper explains in his book — caused worldwide devastation and helped bring about the fall of the Roman Empire beginning in 541 CE.

The question is whether an illness that mainly struck the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean world was able to make its way to Central Africa and wipe out Bantu-speaking populations during the first millennium CE. There is evidence to suggest that this was the case.

“We’re talking about the same period and we know that the plague also impacted Africa. Some people even say that it originated in Ethiopia. We know this is true because researchers have found evidence for the introduction of metallurgy and millet cultivation. Plus, there was trade between North and Central Africa. In addition, countries like the Congo and Zambia still harbour strains of plague that entered the continent in the Middle Ages,” Bostoen says.

In the collective work Afrique subsaharienne, un continent d’histoires [Sub-Saharan Africa: A Continent Full of History], the historian Iwona Gajda notes that the powerful Kingdom of Aksum — covering an area that is now Ethiopia — traded with South Arabia and the Roman Empire, whose ships sailed the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Aksum, much like Egypt, paid a steep price when the Justinianic Plague hit.

A few centuries later, trade routes starting in Ethiopia and Eritrea extended all the way to Mogadishu, Mombasa, Zanzibar and the Kingdom of Zimbabwe in the south and Lake Chad and Kano in the west, François-Xavier Fauvelle and Bertrand Hirsch write, in the same book. Did the plague follow the same route? We still do not know for certain but as Professor Bostoen puts it, “it’s a plausible explanation”.

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