The word Bantu mainly refers to the linguistic classification of more than 200 different African languages. Many of the African peoples who became participants in the slave trade shared a common cultural bond in their linguistic origins. Bantu speakers, although diverse in culture and lifestyle, seem to share a common origin. Extending over most of subequatorial Africa, the Bantu-speaking peoples probably are descendants of the original peoples of Guinea, Nigeria, and present-day Cameroon. Linguistic evidence points to these regions as the origin of Bantu people. This paper seeks to explore the influence of the Bantu migration on the development of the African continent
The Bantu migration refers to the movement across the African continent of the various speakers of Bantu languages. Over several millennia, the Bantu have migrated in all directions, carrying the Iron Age into many areas of Africa. Anthropologists speculate that Bantu and semi-Bantu peoples migrated east and intermingled with Sudanese blacks. They had reached as far as Madagascar by 700 A.D., and the area the Bantu currently occupy includes approximately one- third of the African continent. Prior to their migration, approximately 2,000 years ago, the areas of central and southern Africa were dominated by the Pygmies and the San (Bushmen).
Starting in the second millennium B.C.E., they moved into the rain forest zones south and to the east, and then to the Savannah regions straddling the Congo River. The Congo and other rivers were an important path of migration. It took another 1500 years for the Bantu to migrate throughout the Savannah region. During this period they began to adopt agriculture, and possibly the growth in their populations led to a series of other migrations. During the first 1500 years C.E., they migrated to eastern and southern Africa. Anthropologist George Murdock postulates that the Bantu migration began as a result of their acquiring certain foods crops from Malaysia. These crops, which included banana, taro, and yam led to more and larger villages and the need for more territory.
As Bantus put iron spears and hoes to use, they increased their food supply, thus creating larger, healthier populations. The increase in population undoubtedly put additional strain on the available arable land, which was quickly exhausted by the slash-and-burn technique of the Bantu farmers. In addition, the influx of migrants seeking relief from the growing aridity of the Saharan regions put pressure on the Bantu. With plenty of available land southward, they began to migrate into central Africa along the Congo River. From there they apparently moved along the Zambezi and ultimately reached the eastern African coast and southern Africa, perhaps as early as the third or fourth century C.E. These migrations, each of which may originally have numbered only a few hundred people, continued over hundreds of years. The Pygmies, short brown-skinned people, inhabited central Africa, and were among the last purely hunting societies remaining after the Bantu migrations.
Evidence of iron-working dates to the sixth century B.C. in the upper Nile and to the fifth century B.C. in Nigeria. The Bantu people are enormously important in the history of Africa, as they were the first to introduce the smelting of iron and use of iron tools in many parts of Africa. The Nok (Cushites), who lived in the region between the Benue and Niger Rivers in present-day Nigeria, were apparently the first people in West Africa to use iron making technology. The Bantu peoples may have gained their knowledge of ironworking and the lost-wax process for bronze casting from the Cushites, who migrated west from the Nile Valley as their empire declined. It is also possible that ironworking among the Bantu occurred spontaneously through independent invention.
Superior iron technology enabled the Bantus to dominate groups in central and southern Africa. By the third century B.C., iron smelting had spread as far as Gabon and the Congo, which would seem to indicate that the Bantu took knowledge of metallurgy with them when they migrated south and east. Once the techniques of metallurgy were known, they spread quickly through sub-Saharan Africa and had reached as far south as the present day Transvaal region and KwaZulu/Natal by the third or fourth century.
Temperatures of above 1,500 degrees Celsius are needed to melt iron ore, and the Congo, with hardwoods that burned very hot, allowed for the production of particularly fine high-grade iron. The Congo became a leading center for iron production. Numerous smelting furnaces remain scattered throughout central and southern Africa, but as caches of iron ingots have not been found, it appears that the crude iron metal was immediately made into hoes, other implements, and weapons. This clearly implies that the migration of the Bantu gave them an opportunity to advance their iron smelting skills, as well as their farming as a result of improved farming tools.
Culture of the Bantu
With a few exceptions, such as the Pygmies in the equatorial forest, the Bantus successfully assimilated with other indigenous peoples. As a result, the Bantu language, like Indo-European in Eurasia or Nahuatl in Mexico, became the prototype of hundreds of central and southern African languages. Similarly, Bantu cultural and social mores spread throughout the territories. The Bantu diffusion was based not so much on military or even technological superiority; rather, it emerged from their creation of settled agricultural communities, which attracted and culturally overwhelmed the nomads and hunters of central and southern Africa. These numerous Bantu societies were the direct ancestors of the multitudinous ethnic groups that the Europeans encountered in the nineteenth century and are scattered from Nigeria in West Africa, north into the forest and south to the Congo, and to the Indian Ocean in East Africa.
The Bantu speakers altered the linguistic patterns of sub-Saharan Africa by spreading their language. As the Bantu migrated into eastern Africa, they encountered territories under Arabic influence. The Bantu languages, from the Niger-Congo language family, blend with Arabic, creating a new language called Swahili which become a widely spoken language among the peoples of East Africa.
The Bantu peoples had two sets of advantages: their agricultural skills, including raising livestock, and their metalworking skills. Since their iron was of good quality, it was of interest to people as far away as Eurasia. Eurasians knew how to cultivate a wide range of crops and therefore the Bantu were comfortable in a wide range of terrain. They also had common interests with both peoples who were either cereal-crop farmers or pastoralists, who herded livestock. All this laid the groundwork for the development of long-distance trading networks running between Africa and Eurasia. Copper and salt were two other goods in the Bantu trade mix. Routes running across the Sahara, up the Red Sea, and across the Indian Ocean tied Africa to the peoples of the Mediterranean, the Near East, and even the Indian subcontinent.
The Bantu were organized into villages based on family and kinship groups. These stateless societies were led by a family member who served as leader of the family or clan. Rulers and religious leaders constituted the elite of Bantu society. Property was held communally. The Bantu especially revered the spirits of their ancestors. Within Bantu villages, the most significant social group were age sets which composed members within a common age range and were expected to carry out the responsibilities appropriate for their age group.
Another aspect of trade and exchange in Africa at this point was its connection to the spread of Islam. The exchanges benefited both sides. The Muslim communities were often found in dispersed communities along trade routes. Trade also played a role in still another aspect of the Bantu peoples' development by increasing their wealth. Merchants brought exotic goods from far away into Bantu communities.
The Bantu speaking people have a long history and their culture is rich with diversity. They migrated from their ancestral land in West Africa, towards the south, settled in central and south Africa and collective occupying a third of the African continent. Their migration is credited with the spread of iron smelting, agriculture and assimilation of other cultures of sub-Saharan Africa. The ability of the Bantu speaking people to unite under the Bantu identity as they migrated despite the multilingual composition led to their great influence on the continent. The iron smelting prowess of the Bantu speaking people led to advancement of agriculture and trade with other communities.