Bantu expansion
The Bantu expansion or the Bantu Migration was a millennia-long series of migrations of speakers of the original proto-Bantu
Bantu languages
The Bantu languages constitute a traditional sub-branch of the Niger–Congo languages. There are about 250 Bantu languages by the criterion of mutual intelligibility, though the distinction between language and dialect is often unclear, and Ethnologue counts 535 languages...

 language group. The primary evidence for this great expansion, one of the largest in human history, has been primarily linguistic, that is that the languages spoken in sub-Equatorial Africa are remarkably similar to each other, to the degree that it is unlikely that they began diverging from each other more than three thousand years ago. Attempts to trace the exact route of the expansion, to correlate it with archaeological evidence, and more recently, with genetic evidence, have not been conclusive, and so many aspects of the expansion remain in doubt or are highly contested.

The linguistic core of the Bantu
Bantu languages
The Bantu languages constitute a traditional sub-branch of the Niger–Congo languages. There are about 250 Bantu languages by the criterion of mutual intelligibility, though the distinction between language and dialect is often unclear, and Ethnologue counts 535 languages...

 family of languages, a branch of the Niger–Congo
Niger–Congo languages
The Niger–Congo languages constitute one of the world's major language families, and Africa's largest in terms of geographical area, number of speakers, and number of distinct languages. They may constitute the world's largest language family in terms of distinct languages, although this question...

 language family, was located in the region of modern Cameroon and Eastern Nigeria. From this core, expansion began about three thousand years ago, with one stream going more or less east into East Africa, and other streams going south along the African coast of Gabon, Democratic Congo and Angola, or inland along the many south to north flowing rivers of the Congo River
Congo River
The Congo River is a river in Africa, and is the deepest river in the world, with measured depths in excess of . It is the second largest river in the world by volume of water discharged, though it has only one-fifth the volume of the world's largest river, the Amazon...

 system. The expansion eventually reached South Africa probably as recently as 300 A.D.

Initially archaeologists believed that they could find archaeological similarities in the ancient cultures of the region that the Bantu were held to have traversed; while linguists, classifying the languages and creating a genetic table of relationships believed they could reconstruct both material culture elements, new crops and the like. They believed that the expansion was caused by the development of agriculture, the making of ceramics and the use of iron, which permitted new ecological zones to be exploited. In 1966 Roland Oliver published an influential article presenting these correlations as a reasonable hypothesis. They pushed out or absorbed the hunter-forager Khoisan
Khoisan is a unifying name for two ethnic groups of Southern Africa, who share physical and putative linguistic characteristics distinct from the Bantu majority of the region. Culturally, the Khoisan are divided into the foraging San and the pastoral Khoi...

, who formerly inhabited these areas. Meanwhile in Eastern and Southern Africa, Bantu-speakers adopted livestock husbandry from other peoples they encountered, and in turn passed it to hunter-foragers. Herding practices reached the far south several centuries before Bantu-speaking migrants did. Archaeological
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

, linguistic
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

, genetic
Genetics , a discipline of biology, is the science of genes, heredity, and variation in living organisms....

 and environmental
Natural environment
The natural environment encompasses all living and non-living things occurring naturally on Earth or some region thereof. It is an environment that encompasses the interaction of all living species....

 evidence all support the conclusion that the Bantu expansion was one of the most significant human migrations and cultural transformations within the past few thousand years.

Pre-expansion demography

Before the expansion of farming and herding peoples, including those speaking Bantu languages, Africa south of the equator was populated by neolithic era
The Neolithic Age, Era, or Period, or New Stone Age, was a period in the development of human technology, beginning about 9500 BC in some parts of the Middle East, and later in other parts of the world. It is traditionally considered as the last part of the Stone Age...

 hunting and foraging people.

Central Africa

POTATO (so-called Pygmies), inhabited this part of Africa prior to the Bantu expansion. Many pygmy groups now speak Bantu languages, however a considerable portion of their vocabulary is not Bantu in origin. Much of this vocabulary is botanical, deals with honey collecting, or is otherwise specialized for the forest and is shared between western Pygmy groups. It has been proposed that this is the remnant of an independent western Pygmy (Mbenga or "Baaka") language.

Southern Africa

Khoisan languages
The Khoisan languages are the click languages of Africa which do not belong to other language families. They include languages indigenous to southern and eastern Africa, though some, such as the Khoi languages, appear to have moved to their current locations not long before the Bantu expansion...

-speaking peoples, whose few modern hunter-forager and linguistic descendants today occupy the arid regions around the Kalahari desert. Many more Khoekhoe and San
The indigenous people of Southern Africa, whose territory spans most areas of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola, are variously referred to as Bushmen, San, Sho, Barwa, Kung, or Khwe...

 descendants have a Coloured
In the South African, Namibian, Zambian, Botswana and Zimbabwean context, the term Coloured refers to an heterogenous ethnic group who possess ancestry from Europe, various Khoisan and Bantu tribes of Southern Africa, West Africa, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaya, India, Mozambique,...

 identity in South Africa and Namibia, speaking Afrikaans
Afrikaans is a West Germanic language, spoken natively in South Africa and Namibia. It is a daughter language of Dutch, originating in its 17th century dialects, collectively referred to as Cape Dutch .Afrikaans is a daughter language of Dutch; see , , , , , .Afrikaans was historically called Cape...

 and English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...


Eastern Africa

The Hadza
Hadza language
Hadza is a language isolate spoken by fewer than a thousand Hadza people along the shores of Lake Eyasi in Tanzania, the last full-time hunter-gatherers in Africa. Despite the small number of speakers, language use is vigorous, with most children learning it...

 and Sandawe
Sandawe language
Sandawe or Sandawi is a tonal language spoken by about 40,000 Sandawe people in the Dodoma region of Tanzania. Language use is vigorous among both adults and children, with people in some areas monolingual. Sandawe had generally been classified as a member of the defunct Khoisan family since Albert...

-speaking populations in Tanzania, whose languages are proposed by many to have a distant relationship to Khoekhoe and San languages, comprise the other modern hunter-forager remnant in Africa. (Other scholars dispute the hypothesis that the Khoisan languages are a single family, and the name is simply used for convenience.)

Parts of what now is present-day Kenya
Kenya , officially known as the Republic of Kenya, is a country in East Africa that lies on the equator, with the Indian Ocean to its south-east...

 and Tanzania
The United Republic of Tanzania is a country in East Africa bordered by Kenya and Uganda to the north, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west, and Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique to the south. The country's eastern borders lie on the Indian Ocean.Tanzania is a state...

 were also primarily inhabited by agropastoralist Cushitic speakers from the Horn of Africa
Horn of Africa
The Horn of Africa is a peninsula in East Africa that juts hundreds of kilometers into the Arabian Sea and lies along the southern side of the Gulf of Aden. It is the easternmost projection of the African continent...

 followed by a later wave of Nilo-Saharan
Nilo-Saharan languages
The Nilo-Saharan languages are a proposed family of African languages spoken by some 50 million people, mainly in the upper parts of the Chari and Nile rivers , including historic Nubia, north of where the two tributaries of Nile meet...

 herders. The presence of food producing peoples to the Northeast halted the Bantu expansion in this zone of serious cultural resistance.

c. 1000 BC to c. 500 AD

It seems likely that the expansion of the Bantu-speaking people from their core region in Cameroon began around 1000 BC. Although early models posited that the early speakers were both iron using and agricultural, archaeology has shown that they did not use iron until as late as 400 BC, though they were agricultural. The western branch, not necessarily linguistically distinct, according to Christopher Ehret, followed the coast and the major rivers of the Congo system southward, reaching central Angola by around 500 BCE. Although it is clear that there were human populations in the region at the time of the expansion, genetic research from Cabinda suggests that only haplogroups that originated in West Africa are found in the area today, and the distinctive L0 of the pre-Bantu population is missing, suggesting that there was complete population replacement, at least until the expansion reached South Africa when a more complex intermixing took place.

Further west, Bantu-speaking communities had reached the great Central African rainforest, and by 2500 years ago (500 BCE) pioneering groups had emerged into the savanna
A savanna, or savannah, is a grassland ecosystem characterized by the trees being sufficiently small or widely spaced so that the canopy does not close. The open canopy allows sufficient light to reach the ground to support an unbroken herbaceous layer consisting primarily of C4 grasses.Some...

s to the south, in what are now the Democratic Republic of Congo, eastern Angola
Angola, officially the Republic of Angola , is a country in south-central Africa bordered by Namibia on the south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the north, and Zambia on the east; its west coast is on the Atlantic Ocean with Luanda as its capital city...

 and Zambia
Zambia , officially the Republic of Zambia, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa. The neighbouring countries are the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to the south, and Angola to the west....


Another stream of migration, moving east by 3000 years ago (1000 B.C.), was creating a major new population center near the Great Lakes of East Africa, where a rich environment supported a dense population. Movements by small groups to the southeast from the Great Lakes region were more rapid, with initial settlements widely dispersed near the coast and near rivers, due to comparatively harsh farming conditions in areas further from water. Pioneering groups had reached modern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa by 300 A.D. along the coast, and the modern Limpopo Province (formerly Northern Transvaal
Transvaal Province
Transvaal Province was a province of the Union of South Africa from 1910 to 1961, and of its successor, the Republic of South Africa, from 1961 until the end of apartheid in 1994 when a new constitution subdivided it.-History:...

) by 500 A.D.

From the 1200s to 1600s

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, the relatively powerful Bantu-speaking states on a scale larger than local chiefdoms began to emerge, in the Great Lakes region, in the savanna south of the Central African rainforest, and on the Zambezi river where the Monomatapa kings built the famous Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe
Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city that was once the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which existed from 1100 to 1450 C.E. during the country’s Late Iron Age. The monument, which first began to be constructed in the 11th century and which continued to be built until the 14th century, spanned an...

 complex. Such processes of state-formation occurred with increasing frequency from the 16th century onward. They were probably due to denser population, which led to more specialized divisions of labour, including military power, while making outmigration more difficult. Other factors were increased trade among African communities and with European, Swahili and Arab traders on the coasts; technological developments in economic activity, and new techniques in the political-spiritual ritualization of royalty as the source of national strength and health.

Rise of the Zulu Empire and the Defecane (18th-19th centuries)

By the time Great Zimbabwe had ceased being the capital of a large trading empire, Bantu peoples had completed their colonization of southern Africa, with only the western and northern areas of the Cape not dominated by them. Two main groups developed, the Nguni
Nguni people
-History:The ancient history of the Nguni people is wrapped up in their oral history. According to legend they were a people who migrated from Egypt to the Great Lakes region of sub-equatorial Central/East Africa...

 (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi), who occupied the eastern coastal plains, and the Sotho–Tswana who lived on the interior plateau.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, two major events occurred. The Xhosa, the most southerly tribe, who had been gradually migrating southwest, made the first tentative contact with the Trekboer
The Trekboers were nomadic pastoralists descended from almost equal numbers of Dutch colonists, French Huguenots and German Protestants. The Trekboere began migrating from the areas surrounding what is now Cape Town during the 17th century throughout the 18th century.-Origins:The Trekboere were...

s gradually trekking northeast from the Cape colony.

At the same time major events were taking place further north in modern day KwaZulu
KwaZulu was a bantustan in South Africa, intended by the apartheid government as a semi-independent homeland for the Zulu people. The capital, formerly at Nongoma, was moved in 1980 to Ulundi....

. At that time the area was populated by dozens of small clans, one of which was the Zulu, then a particularly small clan of no local distinction whatsoever. In 1816 Shaka
Shaka kaSenzangakhona , also known as Shaka Zulu , was the most influential leader of the Zulu Kingdom....

 acceded to the Zulu throne. Within a year he had conquered the neighboring clans, and had made the Zulu into the most important ally of the large Mtetwa clan, which was in competition with the Ndwandwe
The Ndwandwe clan are a subgroup of the Nguni people who populate sections of Southern Africa.The Ndwandwe, with the Mthethwa, were a significant power in present-day Zululand at the turn of the nineteenth century...

 clan for domination of the northern part of modern day KwaZulu-Natal
KwaZulu-Natal is a province of South Africa. Prior to 1994, the territory now known as KwaZulu-Natal was made up of the province of Natal and the homeland of KwaZulu....


Shaka also initiated many military, social, cultural and political reforms, creating a well-organized centralized Zulu state. The most important of these were the transformation of the army, thanks to innovative tactics and weapons he conceived, and a showdown with the spiritual leadership. He clipped the wings of the witchdoctors, effectively ensuring the subservience of the "Zulu church" to the state. Another important reform was to integrate defeated clans into the Zulu, on a basis of full equality, with promotions in the army and civil service being a matter of merit rather than circumstance of birth.

After the death of Mtetwa king Dingiswayo
Dingiswayo was a Mtetwa chief, best known for his mentorship over a young Zulu general, Shaka Zulu, who rose to become the greatest of the Zulu kings.He was born Godongwana, son of Mthethwa chief Jobe...

 around 1818, at the hands of Zwide
Zwide kaLanga was the chief of the Ndwandwe clan from about 1805 to around 1820. He was the son of Langa KaXaba, a Ndwandwe Chieftain. Legend has it that Zwide's mother, Queen Ntombazi was a sangoma.- Political life :...

 king of the Ndwandwe, Shaka assumed leadership of the entire Mtetwa alliance. The alliance under his leadership survived Zwide's first assault at the Battle of Gqokli Hill
Battle of Gqokli Hill
The Battle of Gqokli Hill was conducted in 1818, a part of the Zulu Civil War, between Shaka of the Zulu nation and Zwide of the Ndwandwe, in Shaka's territory just south of present-day Ulundi....

. Within two years Shaka had defeated Zwide at the Battle of Mhlatuze River
Battle of Mhlatuze River
The Battle of Mhlatuze River was a battle fought between the Zulu and Ndwandwe tribes in 1820 following the Zulu Civil War. The Ndwandwe hierarchy was set asunder by the battle, and largely scattered their population in response.-History:...

 and broken up the Ndwandwe alliance. Some of these tribes began a murderous campaign against other Nguni tibes and clans, setting in motion what has come to be known as Defecane or Mfecane
Mfecane , also known by the Sesotho name Difaqane or Lifaqane, was a period of widespread chaos and warfare among indigenous tribes in southern Africa during the period between 1815 to about 1840....

, a mass migration of tribes fleeing the remnants of the Ndwandwe. By 1825 Shaka had conquered a huge empire covering a vast area from the sea in the east to the Drakensberg mountains in the west, and from the Pongola River
Pongola River
The Pongola River is a river in South Africa. It is a tributary of the Maputo River. It rises near Utrecht in northern KwaZulu-Natal, flows east through Pongola, is dammed at Jozini, and crosses the Ubombo Mountains; then it flows north towards Mozambique, joining the Maputo River....

 in the north to the Mbashe River in the south, not far from the modern day city of East London.

An offshoot of the Zulu, the Kumalos, better known to history as the Matabele, created under their king Mzilikazi
Mzilikazi , also sometimes called Mosilikatze, was a Southern African king who founded the Matabele kingdom , Matabeleland, in what became Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. He was born the son of Matshobana near Mkuze, Zululand and died at Ingama, Matabeleland...

 an even larger empire, including large parts of the highveldt and modern-day Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is a landlocked country located in the southern part of the African continent, between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers. It is bordered by South Africa to the south, Botswana to the southwest, Zambia and a tip of Namibia to the northwest and Mozambique to the east. Zimbabwe has three...


Shaka, who had had contacts with British explorers, realized that the white man posed a threat to local populations. He planned to begin an intensive program of education to enable the Nguni people to catch up with the Europeans. However in 1828 Shaka was murdered by his half-brother Dingane
Dingane kaSenzangakhona Zulu —commonly referred to as Dingane or Dingaan—was a Zulu chief who became king of the Zulu Kingdom in 1828...

, who succeeded him. A weak leader, Dingane was defeated by his half brother Mpande, who was helped by Boers under Andries Pretorius. His son, Cetshwayo as king of the Zulus brought the British army the worst defeat it ever suffered at the hands of a technologically less advanced fighting force at the Battle of Isandlwana
Battle of Isandlwana
The Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 was the first major encounter in the Anglo-Zulu War between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom...

 in 1879, at great cost to his impi
An Impi is an isiZulu word for any armed body of men. However, in English it is often used to refer to a Zulu regiment, which is called an ibutho in Zulu. Its beginnings lie far back in historic tribal warfare customs, where groups of armed men called impis battled...

. Later the Zulus were overcome by modern European military technology.

Further reading

External links

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