Bantu peoples

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Approximate distribution of Bantu peoples divided into zones according to the Guthrie classification of Bantu languages
Total population
460 million
Regions with significant populations
Bantu languages (over 535)
Predominantly Christianity, traditional African faiths; minority Islam

The Bantu peoples are an ethnolinguistic grouping of approximately 400 distinct native African ethnic groups who speak Bantu languages. The languages are native to 24 countries spread over a vast area from Central Africa to Southeast Africa and into Southern Africa.[1][2]

There are several hundred Bantu languages. Depending on the definition of "language" or "dialect", it is estimated that there are between 440 and 680 distinct languages.[3] The total number of speakers is in the hundreds of millions, ranging at roughly 350 million in the mid-2010s (roughly 30% of the population of Africa, or roughly 5% of the total world population).[4] About 60 million speakers (2015), divided into some 200 ethnic or tribal groups, are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo alone.

The larger of the individual Bantu groups have populations of several million, e.g., the people of Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi (25 million), the Baganda[5] people of Uganda (5.5 million as of 2014), the Shona of Zimbabwe (17.6 million as of 2020), the Zulu of South Africa (14.2 million as of 2016), the Luba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (28.8 million as of 2010), the Sukuma of Tanzania (10.2 million as of 2016), the Kikuyu of Kenya (8.1 million as of 2019), the Xhosa people of Southern Africa (9.6 million as of 2011), and the Pedi of South Africa (7 million as of 2018).


Map of the major Bantu languages shown within the Niger–Congo language family, with non-Bantu languages in greyscale.

Abantu is the Xhosa and Zulu word for people. It is the plural of the word 'umuntu', meaning 'person', and is based on the stem '--ntu', plus the plural prefix 'aba'.[6]

In linguistics, the word Bantu, for the language families and its speakers, is an artificial term based on the reconstructed Proto-Bantu term for "people" or "humans". It was first introduced into modern academia (as Bâ-ntu) by Wilhelm Bleek in 1857 or 1858 and popularised in his Comparative Grammar of 1862.[7] The name was said to be coined to represent the word for "people" in loosely reconstructed Proto-Bantu, from the plural noun class prefix *ba- categorizing "people", and the root *ntʊ̀ - "some (entity), any" (e.g. Xhosa umntu "person" abantu "people", Zulu umuntu "person", abantu "people").

There is no native term for the people who speak Bantu languages because they are not an ethnic group. People speaking Bantu languages refer to their languages by ethnic endonyms, which did not have an indigenous concept prior to European contact for the larger ethnolinguistic phylum named by 19th-century European linguists. Bleek's coinage was inspired by the anthropological observation of groups self-identifying as "people" or "the true people".[8] That is, idiomatically the reflexes of *bantʊ in the numerous languages often have connotations of personal character traits as encompassed under the values system of ubuntu, also known as hunhu in Chishona or botho in Sesotho, rather than just referring to all human beings.[9]

The root in Proto-Bantu is reconstructed as *-ntʊ́. Versions of the word Bantu (that is, the root plus the class 2 noun class prefix *ba-) occur in all Bantu languages: for example, as bantu in Kikongo, Kituba, Tshiluba and Kiluba; watu in Swahili; ŵanthu in Tumbuka; anthu in Chichewa; batu in Lingala; bato in Duala; abanto in Gusii; andũ in Kamba and Kikuyu; abantu in Kirundi, Lusoga, Zulu, Xhosa, Runyoro and Luganda; wandru in Shingazidja; abantru in Mpondo and Ndebele; bãthfu in Phuthi; bantfu in Swati and Bhaca; banhu in kisukuma; banu in Lala; vanhu in Shona and Tsonga; batho in Sesotho, Tswana and Sepedi; antu in Meru; andu in Embu; vandu in some Luhya dialects; vhathu in Venda and bhandu in Nyakyusa.


Swahili, also known by its local name Kiswahili, is a Bantu language spoken by the Swahili people, who are found primarily in Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique (along the East African coast and adjacent littoral islands). Swahili has a high number of loanwords from other languages, mainly Arabic, as well as from Portuguese, English and German. Around fifteen percent of Swahili vocabulary consists of Arabic loanwords,[7] including the name of the language (سَوَاحِلي sawāḥilī, a plural adjectival form of an Arabic word meaning 'of the coast'). The loanwords date from the era of contact between Arab slave traders and the Bantu inhabitants of the east coast of Africa, which was also the time period when Swahili emerged as a lingua franca in the region.[8] The number of Swahili speakers, be they native or second-language speakers, is estimated to be over 200 million.[9]

Due to concerted efforts by the government of Tanzania, Swahili is one of three official languages (the others being English and French) of the East African Community (EAC) countries, namely Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. It is a lingua franca of other areas in the African Great Lakes region and East and Southern Africa, including some parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Malawi, Mozambique, the southern tip of Somalia, and Zambia.[10][11][12] Swahili is also one of the working languages of the African Union and of the Southern African Development Community. The East African Community created an institution called the East African Kiswahili Commission (EAKC) which began operations in 2015. The institution currently serves as the leading body for promoting the language in the East African region, as well as for coordinating its development and usage for regional integration and sustainable development.[13] In recent years South Africa,[14] Botswana,[15] Namibia,[16] Ethiopia,[17] and South Sudan[18] have begun offering Swahili as a subject in schools or have developed plans to do so.

Shikomor (or Comorian), an official language in Comoros and also spoken in Mayotte (Shimaore), is closely related to Swahili.


Origins and expansion[edit]

Bantu languages derive from the Proto-Bantu reconstructed language, estimated to have been spoken about 4,000 to 3,000 years ago in Central Africa (the area of modern-day Congo). They were supposedly spread across Central, East and Southern Africa in the so-called Bantu expansion, comparatively rapid dissemination taking roughly two millennia and dozens of human generations during the 1st millennium BC and the 1st millennium AD.[10]

Bantu expansion[edit]

Reconstructing the dispersal of Bantu-speaking populations.

Scientists from the Institut Pasteur and the CNRS, together with a broad international consortium, retraced the migratory routes of the Bantu populations, which were previously a source of debate. The scientists used data from a vast genomic analysis of more than 2,000 samples taken from individuals in 57 populations throughout Sub-Saharan Africa to trace the Bantu expansion. During a wave of expansion that began 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, Bantu-speaking populations – some 310 million people as of 2023 – gradually left their original homeland Central Africa and travelled to the eastern and southern regions of the African continent. [11][12]

During the Bantu expansion, Bantu-speaking peoples extirpated and 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 remaining in existence into the era of European contact.[13] Archaeological evidence attests to their presence in areas subsequently occupied by Bantu speakers. Researchers have demonstrated that the Khoisan of the Kalahari are remnants of a huge ancestral population that may have been the most populous group on the planet prior to the Bantu expansion. [14] Biochemist Stephan Schuster of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and colleagues found that the Khoisan population began a drastic decline when the Bantu farmers spread through Africa 4,000 years ago.[15] Bantu violence and racism toward Pygmy and Khoisan indigenous populations is still a frequent occurrence in modern times, according to UN reports. [16] [17][18][19][20][21][22]

Hypotheses of early Bantu expansion[edit]

1 = 2000–1500 BC origin
2 = c. 1500 BC first dispersal
     2.a = Eastern Bantu,   2.b = Western Bantu
3 = 1000–500 BC Urewe nucleus of Eastern Bantu
47 = southward advance
9 = 500 BC–0 Congo nucleus
10 = 0–1000 AD last phase[23][24][25]

Before the Bantu expansion had been definitively traced starting from their origins in the region Central Africa (Congo),[26] two main scenarios of the Bantu expansion were hypothesized: an early expansion to Central Africa and a single origin of the dispersal radiating from there,[27] or an early separation into an eastward and a southward wave of dispersal, with one wave moving across the Congo Basin toward East Africa, and another moving south along the African coast and the Congo River system toward Angola.[28]

Genetic analysis shows a significant clustered variation of genetic traits among Bantu language speakers by region, suggesting admixture from prior local populations. Bantu speakers of South Africa (Xhosa, Venda) showed substantial levels of the SAK and Western African Bantu AACs and low levels of the East African Bantu AAC (the latter is also present in Bantu speakers from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda). The results indicate distinct East African Bantu migration into southern Africa and are consistent with linguistic and archeological evidence of East African Bantu migration from an area west of Lake Victoria and the incorporation of Khoekhoe ancestry into several of the Southeast Bantu populations ~1500 to 1000 years ago.[29]

Bantu-speaking migrants would have also interacted with some Afro-Asiatic outlier groups in the southeast (mainly Cushitic),[30][31] as well as Nilotic and Central Sudanic speaking groups.

According to the early-split scenario as hypothesized in the 1990s, the southward dispersal had reached the Congo rainforest by about 1500 BC and the southern savannas 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, because of 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.[32]

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.[33] Linguistic evidence also indicates that the customs of milking cattle were also directly modeled from Cushitic cultures in the area.[34] 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.[35][36]

Based on dental evidence, Irish (2016) concluded: Proto-Bantu peoples may have originated in the western region of the Sahara, amid the Kiffian period at Gobero, and may have migrated southward, from the Sahara into various parts of West Africa (e.g., Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo), as a result of desertification of the Green Sahara in 7000 BCE.[37] From Nigeria and Cameroon, agricultural Proto-Bantu peoples began to migrate, and amid migration, diverged into East Bantu peoples (e.g., Democratic Republic of Congo) and West Bantu peoples (e.g., Congo, Gabon) between 2500 BCE and 1200 BCE.[37] Irish (2016) also views Igbo people and Yoruba people as being possibly back-migrated Bantu peoples.[37]

Later history[edit]

The Bantu Kingdom of Kongo, c. 1630

Between the 9th and 15th centuries, Bantu-speaking states began to emerge in the Great Lakes region and in the savanna south of the Central African rainforests. The Monomotapa kings built the Great Zimbabwe complex, a civilisation ancestral to the Shona people.[38] Comparable sites in Southern Africa include Bumbusi in Zimbabwe and Manyikeni in Mozambique.

From the 12th century onward, the processes of state formation amongst Bantu peoples increased in frequency. This was the result of several factors such as a denser population (which led to more specialized divisions of labor, including military power while making emigration more difficult); technological developments in economic activity; and new techniques in the political-spiritual ritualisation of royalty[vague] as the source of national strength and health.[39] Examples of such Bantu states include: the Kingdom of Kongo, Anziku Kingdom, Kingdom of Ndongo, the Kingdom of Matamba the Kuba Kingdom, the Lunda Empire, the Luba Empire, Barotse Empire,[40][41] Kazembe Kingdom, Mbunda Kingdom, Yeke Kingdom, Kasanje Kingdom, Empire of Kitara, Butooro, Bunyoro, Buganda, Busoga, Rwanda, Burundi, Ankole, the Kingdom of Mpororo, the Kingdom of Igara, the Kingdom of Kooki, the Kingdom of Karagwe, Swahili city states, the Mutapa Empire, the Zulu Kingdom, the Ndebele Kingdom, Mthethwa Empire, Tswana city states, Mapungubwe, Kingdom of Eswatini, the Kingdom of Butua, Maravi, Danamombe, Khami, Naletale, Kingdom of Zimbabwe[42] and the Rozwi Empire.[43]

On the coastal section of East Africa, a mixed Bantu community developed through contact with Muslim Arab and Persian traders, Zanzibar being an important part of the Indian Ocean slave trade. The Swahili culture that emerged from these exchanges evinces many Arab and Islamic influences not seen in traditional Bantu culture, as do the many Afro-Arab members of the Bantu Swahili people. With its original speech community centered on the coastal parts of Zanzibar, Kenya, and Tanzania – a seaboard referred to as the Swahili Coast – the Bantu Swahili language contains many Arabic loanwords as a result of these interactions.[44] The Bantu migrations, and centuries later the Indian Ocean slave trade, brought Bantu influence to Madagascar,[45] the Malagasy people showing Bantu admixture, and their Malagasy language Bantu loans.[46] Toward the 18th and 19th centuries, the flow of Zanj slaves from Southeast Africa increased with the rise of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. With the arrival of European colonialists, the Zanzibar Sultanate came into direct trade conflict and competition with Portuguese and other Europeans along the Swahili Coast, leading eventually to the fall of the Sultanate and the end of slave trading on the Swahili Coast in the mid-20th century.

According to the corpus of documents on the mission that the resident magistrate and civil commissioner of Namaqualand, Louis Anthing, undertook in 1862 to investigate reports of massacres of San bands in Bushmanland, Bantu and mixed-Bantu groups such as the Baster, Griqua, and Khoi had heavy involvement in the destruction of the San hunter-gatherer bands in the 19th century. The case study of Louis Anthing's mission to Bushmanland proves that there was indeed genocide in Bushmanland in the second half of the nineteenth century and an engagement with archival sources is essential to grasp the tragedy of the San in all its complexity.[47]

Bantu violence and racism toward Pygmy and Khoisan indigenous populations are still prevalent in the 21st century, according to UN reports. [48] The pygmy population has been a target of the Bantu, especially during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the Congo war.[49][50][51][52][53] Of the 30,000 Pygmies in Rwanda, an estimated 10,000 were killed and another 10,000 were displaced. They have been described as "forgotten victims" of the genocide.[54] From the end of 2002 through January 2003 around 60,000 Pygmy civilians and 10,000 combatants were killed and often cannibalized by Bantu populations in an extermination campaign known as "Effacer le tableau" during the Second Congo War. Systematic rape of Pygmy women as an act of genocide by Bantu men was widespread, according to reports by the NGO Observatoire congolais des droits de l'homme (OCDH).[55] According to the report, significant numbers of indigenous women were the victims of rape by Bantu men. As an example, it cited the village of Ngoua 2, some 200 km outside of Dolisie, capital of the southern department of Niari, where on average a Bantu man raped one indigenous woman each week. Human rights activists have made demands for these actions to be recognized as genocide.[56][57]

List of Bantu groups by country[edit]

Country Total population
(millions, 2015 est.)
% Bantu Bantu population
(millions, 2015 est.)
Zones Bantu groups
Democratic Republic of the Congo 77 80% 76 B, C, D, H, J, K, L, M Bakongo, Mongo, Baluba, numerous others (Ambala, Ambuun, Angba, Babindi, Baboma, Baholo, Balunda, Bangala, Bango, Batsamba, Bazombe, Bemba, Bembe, Bira, Bowa, Dikidiki, Dzing, Fuliiru, Havu, Hema, Hima, Hunde, Hutu, Iboko, Kanioka, Kaonde, Kuba, Komo, Kwango, Lengola, Lokele, Lupu, Lwalwa, Mbala, Mbole, Mbuza (Budja), Nande, Ngoli, Bangoli, Ngombe, Nkumu, Nyanga, Bapende, Popoi, Poto, Sango, Shi, Songo, Sukus, Tabwa, Tchokwé, Téké, Tembo, Tetela, Topoke, Ungana, Vira, Wakuti, Nyindu, Yaka, Yakoma, Yanzi, Yeke, Yela, total 80% Bantu)
Tanzania 51 95% c. 45 E, F, G, J, M, N, P Abakuria, Sukuma, Nyamwezi, Haya, Chaga, Gogo, Makonde, Ngoni, Matumbi, numerous others (majority Bantu)
South Africa 55 75% 40 S Nguni (Zulu, Hlubi, Xhosa, Southern Ndebele, Swazi), Basotho (South Sotho), Bapedi (North Sotho), Venda, Batswana, Tsonga, Kgaga (North Sotho),[58] total 75% Bantu
Kenya 46 60% 37 E, J Agikuyu, Abaluhya, ABASUBA, Akamba, Abagusii, Ameru, Abakuria, Aembu, Ambeere, Taita, Pokomo, Taveta and Mijikenda, numerous others (60% Bantu)
Mozambique 28 99% 28 N, P, S Makua, Sena, Shona (Ndau), Shangaan (Tsonga), Makonde, Yao, Swahili, Tonga, Chopi, Ngoni
Uganda 37 80% c. 25 D, J Baganda, Basoga, Bagwere, Banyoro, Banyankole, Bakiga, Batooro, Bamasaba, Basamia, Bakonjo, Baamba, Baruuli, Banyole, Bafumbira, Bagungu (majority Bantu)
Angola 26 97% 25 H, K, R Ovimbundu, Ambundu, Bakongo, Bachokwe, Balunda, Ganguela, Ovambo, Herero, Xindonga (97% Bantu)
Malawi 16 99% 16 N Chewa, Tumbuka, Yao, Lomwe, Sena, Tonga, Ngoni, Ngonde
Zambia 15 99% 15 L, M, N Nyanja-Chewa, Bemba, Tonga, Tumbuka, BaLunda, Balovale, Kaonde, Nkoya and Lozi, about 70 groups total.
Zimbabwe 14 99% 14 S Shona, Northern Ndebele, Bakalanga, numerous minor groups.
Rwanda 11 76% 11 J Banyarwanda
Burundi 10 78% 10 J Barundi
Cameroon 22 30% 6 A Bulu, Duala, Ewondo, Bafia Bassa, Bakoko, Barombi, Mbo, Subu, Bakwe, Oroko, Bafaw, Fang, Bekpak, Mbam speakers 30% Bantu
Republic of the Congo 5 97% 5 B, C, H Bakongo, Sangha, Mbochi, Bateke, Bandzabi, Bapunu, Bakuni, Bavili, Batsangui, Balari, Babémbé, Bayaka, Badondo, Bayaka, Bahumbu.
Botswana 2.2 90% 2.0 R, S Batswana, BaKalanga, Mayeyi 90% Bantu
Equatorial Guinea 2.0 95% 1.9 A Fang, Bubi, 95% Bantu
Lesotho 1.9 99% 1.9 S Basotho
Gabon 1.9 95% 1.8 B Fang, Nzebi, Myene, Kota, Shira, Punu, Kande.
Namibia 2.3 70% 1.6 K, R Ovambo, Kavango, Herero, Himba, Mayeyi 70% Bantu
Eswatini 1.1 99% 1.1 S Swazi, Zulu, Tsonga
Somalia 13.8 <15% <2.1 E Somali Bantu, Bravanese, Bajuni
Comoros 0.8 99% 0.8 E, G Comorian people
Sub-Saharan Africa 970[59] c. 37% c. 360

Use in South Africa[edit]

Unmarried Zulu women in Southern Africa

In the 1920s, relatively liberal South Africans, missionaries, and the native African intelligentsia began to use the term "Bantu" in preference to "Native". After World War II, the National Party governments adopted that usage officially, while the growing African nationalist movement and its liberal allies turned to the term "African" instead, so that "Bantu" became identified with the policies of apartheid. By the 1970s this so discredited "Bantu" as an ethnic-racial designation that the apartheid government switched to the term "Black" in its official racial categorizations, restricting it to Bantu-speaking Africans, at about the same time that the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko and others were defining "Black" to mean all non-European South Africans (Bantus, Khoisan, Coloureds and Indians). In modern South Africa, the word's connection to apartheid has become so discredited that it is only used in its original linguistic meaning.[6]

Examples of South African usages of "Bantu" include:

  1. One of South Africa's politicians of recent times, General Bantubonke Harrington Holomisa (Bantubonke is a compound noun meaning "all the people"), is known as Bantu Holomisa.
  2. The South African apartheid governments originally gave the name "bantustans" to the eleven rural reserve areas intended for nominal independence to deny indigenous Bantu South Africans citizenship. "Bantustan" originally reflected an analogy to the various ethnic "-stans" of Western and Central Asia. Again association with apartheid discredited the term, and the South African government shifted to the politically appealing but historically deceptive term "ethnic homelands". Meanwhile, the anti-apartheid movement persisted in calling the areas bantustans, to drive home their political illegitimacy.
  3. The abstract noun ubuntu, humanity or humaneness, is derived regularly from the Nguni noun stem -ntu in Xhosa, Zulu and Ndebele. In Swati the stem is -ntfu and the noun is buntfu.
  4. In the Sotho–Tswana languages of Southern Africa, batho is the cognate term to Nguni abantu, illustrating that such cognates need not actually look like the -ntu root exactly. The early African National Congress had a newspaper called Abantu-Batho from 1912 to 1933, which carried columns written in English, Zulu, Sotho, and Xhosa.

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Hottentots". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.