2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: African Geography

Map showing the approximate distribution of Bantu (dull yellow) vs. other Niger-Congo languages and peoples (bright yellow).
Map showing the approximate distribution of Bantu (dull yellow) vs. other Niger-Congo languages and peoples (bright yellow).

Bantu is a general term for over 400 different ethnic groups in Africa, from Cameroon to South Africa, united by a common language family (the Bantu languages) and in many cases common customs.


"Bantu" means "people" in many Bantu languages. Dr. Wilhelm Bleek first used the term "Bantu" in its current sense in his 1862 book A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages, in which he hypothesized that a vast number of languages located across central, southern, eastern, and western Africa shared so many characteristics that they must be part of a single language group. This basic thesis is still accepted by some people today, although the theory has been widely challenged since it was proposed - not least because a language may be spread by a relatively small number of human carriers.


Before the Bantu, the southern half of Africa is believed to have been populated by Khoisan speaking people, today occupying the arid regions around the Kalahari and a few isolated pockets in Tanzania. Pygmies inhabited central Africa, whereas Cushites and other people speaking Afro-Asiatic languages inhabited north-eastern and northern Africa. Northwestern Africa, the Sahara, and the Sudan were inhabited by people speaking Mande and Atlantic languages (such as the Fulani and Wolof) and other people speaking Nilo-Saharan languages.

There are two basic theories of Bantu origins. The first was advanced by Joseph Greenberg in 1963. He had analyzed and compared several hundred African languages and found that a group of languages spoken in Southeastern Nigeria were the most closely related to languages from the Bantu group. He theorized that Proto-Bantu (the hypothetical ancestor of the Bantu languages) was originally one of these languages that spread south and east over hundreds of years.

This was quickly challenged by Malcolm Guthrie who analyzed each Bantu language and found that the most stereotypical were those spoken in Zambia and in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This provided the alternate theory that Bantu speakers had spread from this location in all directions.

Bantu expansion

One common hypothesis of the Bantu expansion
One common hypothesis of the Bantu expansion

Some historians still accept a synthesis of the above named theories, although the enthusiasm with which the South African apartheid government exploited these ideas left them under something of a cloud.

The Bantu first originated around the Benue- Cross rivers area in southeastern Nigeria and spread over Africa to the Zambia area. Sometime in the second millennium BC, perhaps triggered by the drying of the Sahara and pressure from the migration of people from the Sahara into the region, they were forced to expand into the rainforests of central Africa (phase I). About 1000 years later they began a more rapid second phase of expansion beyond the forests into southern and eastern Africa. Then sometime in the first millennium new agricultural techniques and plants were developed in Zambia, probably imported from South East Asia via Austronesian-speaking Madagascar. With these techniques another Bantu expansion occurred centered on this new location (phase III).

By about AD 1000 it had reached modern day Zimbabwe and South Africa. In Zimbabwe a major southern hemisphere empire was established, with its capital at Great Zimbabwe. It controlled trading routes from South Africa to north of the Zambezi, trading gold, copper, precious stones, animal hides, ivory and metal goods with the Arab traders of the Swahili coast. By the 14th or 15th centuries the Empire had surpassed its resources and had collapsed, with the city of Great Zimbabwe being abandoned.

Bantu in South Africa

Black South Africans were at times officially called "Bantus" by the apartheid regime. The term "Bantu" is considered pejorative in South Africa.

Retrieved from ""