Armed with iron smelting technology the Bantu of west and central Africa dispersed across the continent, changing its linguistic and cultural landscape. A number of theories have been put forward to explain this migration.
Slow but steady
Need to move
"When people move they move for a reason. They move because the population has expanded. They move because the resources which support the population in the settlements have become more or less inadequate. They move because there are changes to the climate and they move for the sake of finding better areas in which to live." - Professor Leonard Ngcongco, University of Botswana
One theory is that there were waves of migration, one moving through the east of Africa and another making its way through the centre of the continent. In Zambia, there is evidence of at least three routes of migration - from the great lakes, from the Congo forest and from Angola.
There is evidence that the Bantu ancestors of the modern Swahili peoples mastered sailing technology and possessed canoes and boats so they could make their way along the Zambezi river.
Conquerors, colonisers or adventurers?
Most historians appear to believe that rather than arriving en masse like a conquering horde, the migrations were more sporadic with small pockets of people moving from one point to another.
It is not entirely clear how the Bantu reacted when they came upon existing communities but it is likely that there was considerable absorption, assimilation and displacement of other peoples during the migration period. The Bantu were armed with superior weapons and their iron implements allowed them to cultivate land and clear forests efficiently.
If they came as colonisers, then it is unlikely to be in the sense we understand the term today.
Historians believe there was social interaction and intermarrying and trade.
"Chief among the reasons for migration is environmental stress and population increase in West Africa, forcing people to move. It is important to realise that these people are not moving across the landscape like bugs bunny or the energiser bunny, but essentially they are moving slowly, gradually inhabiting areas that were good for farming and livestock raising." - Dr Chapirukha Kusimba, Field Museum, Chicago
The evidence for migration is based on three main areas of research. They are:
- Linguistic - A comparative study of languages spoken in some parts of eastern, central and southern Africa show similarities with the mother tongues originally spoken in West Africa. There are some 450 known languages in the Bantu family from Gikuyu in the north to Setswana in the south.
- Pottery - There is evidence of similar pottery technology in eastern, southern and western Africa. Iron Age farmers were skilled pot makers and decorated their pots with grooves and patterns. Related groups of peoples used similar styles of decoration.
- Iron - There is little or no evidence of iron working in east and southern Africa before the arrival of the Bantu suggesting that new technology was spread by the migrants.
The Bantu proved enormously successful at adapting to their new environments and it has been argued by some historians that they brought not only new methods of survival but the development of the system of statehood that we still find today.
But as with most areas of early African history there is a note of caution to be sounded when discussing the Bantu migration. There is even an argument for saying that it did not happen at all.
Did it happen?
"The question concerning whether or not the Bantu migration actually occurred will await further research. It's very easy to assume that we know so much. Actually we know so little because very little research has been done. So far there is a huge area in DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda where no field work has been done and these are areas that the Bantu peoples would have passed through."
- Dr Chapirukha Kusimba, Field Museum, Chicago