Science | The secrets of the Bantu extension

Between a third and half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa speaks a Bantu language. For a long time it was believed that this linguistic success corresponded to the fascination with Latin in the past – and with English today. Genetic studies show that it is indeed a historically unmeasured migration that has caused the disappearance of dozens of hunter-gatherer societies for 2,000 years.

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Mathieu Perréault

Mathieu Perréault
The press

Bantu extension

4,000 years ago, farmers on the Cameroon-Nigeria border began migrating southeast along the coast and then east through the equatorial forest. 2000 years ago they came to Kenya, then to southern Africa. A third wave of migration – to the south and east – also took place between the XIand and XIVand Century, shortly before the arrival of the first Europeans.


Cymone Fourshey, historian specializing in East Central Africa at Brucknell University

“There are more than 500 Bantu languages,” says Cymone Fourshey, a historian specializing in East-Central Africa at Brucknell University in Pennsylvania. “We’ve talked a lot about the Bantu expansion, but we weren’t sure if there were real population movements. But we now know with genetics that there are close links between populations living in central, eastern and southern Africa. »

According to Akinwumi Ogundiran, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Bantu languages ​​are also the origin of very common intonations among African Americans. He has published several studies on the cultural connections between pre-colonial and contemporary Africa.


Akinwumi Ogundiran, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina

In particular, the predominance of Bantu languages ​​allows Bantu words to be used to denote concepts that unite all Africans. For example, the word “ubuntu” helps define the bonds that unite all of humanity.

Akinwumi Ogundiran, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina

The Bantu expansion wiped out dozens of hunter-gatherers over the centuries, either through assimilation or expulsion. “There appear to have been no wars related to the Bantu expansion,” says Mme Fourshey. I personally believe that on a cultural level there has been an interbreeding with the local population, but the prevailing idea in anthropology reflects the linguistic uniformity that we observe. »

Justinian’s plague

The idea of ​​a final wave of Bantu expansion just before the arrival of Europeans was controversial until recently because it might resemble the ’empty country’ myth propagated by English settlers in South Africa to justify their appropriation of the territory.


Seven Potters’ Heads from the Vand Century were found in Lyndeburg, South Africa in the 1960s and form one of the oldest traces of early Bantu expansion in the region.

A study was published last year in scientific advances showed that there was a demographic collapse between the IVand and VIIand century in the Congo. “We think it could be related to the Justinian plague that weakened the Byzantine Empire,” explains Étienne Patin, geneticist at the Pasteur Institute. He is co-author of the study Science to have definitively established genetic links between the various Bantu speakers of the continent.


Koen Bostoen, linguist at Ghent University

In southern Africa, according to Koen Bostoen, there is a gap of about 1,000 years in the typical archaeological traces of the Bantu-speaking population, who generally introduced agriculture to the regions they came to. This linguist from the University of Ghent, Belgium, is one of the most prolific authors in the study of the Bantus.

“But it’s not clear if it’s due to a lack of excavation efforts or if there was a population collapse like in Central Africa. I personally think there has been a continuous Bantu presence in southern Africa for 2000 years. In East Africa, 1,000 years ago, the Bantu created ecological niches where they did not previously exist, such as the highlands, notes Mme Fourshey.

A Portuguese catechism

  • The 16th Century Bantu Catechism


    The Bantu Catechism of the XVIand century

  • The 16th Century Bantu Catechism


    The Bantu Catechism of the XVIand century


The idea of ​​a Bantu civilization arose during the first Portuguese explorations in the XVI centuryand Century, when interpreters recruited from the west coast of Africa could communicate with people from the east coast. An early 17th century catechism of the Bantu Jesuitsand Century is also in the collection of the British Library in London.


Rebecca Grollemund, linguist at the University of Missouri

The most distant Bantu languages ​​have a distance comparable to that between English and French.

Rebecca Grollemund, University of Missouri linguist

“But Eastern Bantu speakers, for example, can usually understand each other as a Frenchman and an Italian, sometimes even as an Italian and a Spanish,” explains grudge mouth.


Pierre de Maret, anthropologist emeritus at the Free University of Brussels

Belgians are over-represented among specialists in Bantu expansion due to the colonization of the Congo. “The English and French had to study many civilizations, but we only had the Congo, so we bet everything on the Bantu,” explains Pierre de Maret, an anthropologist emeritus at the Free University of Brussels, who was one of the authors of the study scientific advances by 2021. About half of the doctoral students at the Bantu institutes in Belgium are African, but when they return to Africa they often occupy high government positions, according to Mr de Maret.

Photo from the British Library website

The 16th Century Bantu Catechism

Like the Austronesians

According to Mr. Patin, the Bantu expansion is unique in human history. “The only possible comparison is the Austronesian migration from Taiwan 5,000 years ago. But there is much more linguistic and cultural diversity among the different populations that result from the Austronesian migration. This migration wave in the Pacific and Indian Oceans reached Madagascar 1700 years ago and Easter Island 1300 years ago.

The Kingdom of Congo

Photo from Ghent University website

Ruins of a 17th-century church from the Kingdom of Kongo

One of the most important states in the Bantu-speaking area is the Kingdom of Kongo, which was founded in the XIVand century in Angola. “It was the first African Catholic kingdom if we exclude Ethiopia,” explains Mr. de Maret. Several Bantu states have existed for 1000 years, some as large as France. But there was no general political ensemble. Another important kingdom is Zimbabwe, which existed between the XIand and XIVand centuries.


The ruins of the capital of the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe

According to de Maret, one of the most important questions to study going forward is the reason for the lack of westward migration of the Bantu. The “Proto-Bantu” was born on the Cameroon-Nigeria border, but Nigeria is not Bantu. Another priority is to do other genetic analyses, such as B. those that led to the publication of Science from 2017, this time with other Bantu-speaking populations, believes Isabelle Ribot, a University of Montreal bioanthropologist who has worked on Proto-Bantu prehistoric sites in northwestern Cameroon.

Learn more

  • From 300 to 500 million
    Number of Bantu speakers in sub-Saharan Africa

    SOURCES: UN, Free University of Brussels

    1.1 billion
    Population in sub-Saharan Africa

    SOURCES: UN, Free University of Brussels

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