Bantu languages are theorised to derive from the Proto-Bantu reconstructed language, estimated
to have been spoken about 4,000 to 3,000 years ago in West/Central Africa (the area of
modern-day Cameroon). They were supposedly spread across Central, Eastern and Southern Africa
in the so-called Bantu expansion, a comparatively rapid dissemination taking roughly two
millennia and dozens of human generations during the 1st millennium BC and the 1st millennium
AD, This concept has often been framed as a mass-migration, but Jan Vansina and others have
argued that it was actually a cultural spread and not the movement of any specific populations
that could be defined as an enormous group simply on the basis of common language traits.
The geographical shape and course of the Bantu expansion remains debated. Two main scenarios are proposed, an early expansion to Central Africa, and a single origin of the dispersal radiating from there, or an early separation into an eastward and a southward wave of dispersal, with one wave moving across the Congo basin towards East Africa, and another moving south along the African coast and the Congo River system towards Angola. Genetic analysis shows a significant clustered variation of genetic traits among Bantu language speakers by region, suggesting admixture from prior local populations.
According to the early-split scenario as described in the 1990s, the southward dispersal had reached the Central African rain forest by about 1500 BC, and the southern Savannahs by 500 BC, while the eastward dispersal reached the Great Lakes by 1000 BC, expanding further from there, as the rich environment supported dense populations. Possible movements by small groups to the southeast from the Great Lakes region could have been more rapid, with initial settlements widely dispersed near the coast and near rivers, due to comparatively harsh farming conditions in areas farther from water. Recent archeological and linguistic evidence about population movements suggests that pioneering groups would have had reached parts of modern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa sometime prior to the 3rd century AD along the coast, and the modern Northern Cape by AD 500.
Under the Bantu expansion migration hypothesis, various Bantu-speaking peoples would have assimilated and/or displaced many earlier inhabitants, with only a few modern peoples such as Pygmy groups in central Africa, the Hadza people in northern Tanzania, and various Khoisan populations across southern Africa retaining autonomous existence into the era of European contact. Archeological evidence attests to their presence in areas subsequently occupied by Bantu-speakers. Bantu-speaking migrants would have also interacted with some Afro-Asiatic outlier groups in the southeast (mainly Cushitic), as well as Nilotic and Central Sudanic speaking groups. Cattle terminology in use amongst the relatively few modern Bantu pastoralist groups suggests that the acquisition of cattle may have been from Central Sudanic, Kuliak and Cushitic-speaking neighbors.
Linguistic evidence also indicates that the customs of milking cattle were also directly modeled from Cushitic cultures in the area. Cattle terminology in southern African Bantu languages differs from that found among more northerly Bantu-speaking peoples. One recent suggestion is that Cushitic-speakers had moved south earlier, and interacted with the most northerly of Khoisan-speakers who acquired cattle from them, and that the earliest arriving Bantu-speakers in turn got their initial cattle from Cushitic-influenced Khwe-speaking people. Under this hypothesis, larger later Bantu-speaking immigration subsequently displaced or assimilated that southernmost extension of the range of Cushitic-speakers.
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