The Arrival of Bantu-Speaking Africans

South Africa Table of Contents

Bantu-speaking Africans, whose descendants make up the overwhelming majority of the present-day inhabitants of South Africa, had moved south of the Limpopo River by about 1,500 years ago. Farmers who combined knowledge of cattle-keeping and slash-and-burn (swidden) cultivation with expertise in metal-working, the Bantu speakers came from West Central Africa north of the Congo River near present-day Cameroon. Historians and archaeologists now argue that this movement took place not in any single great migration but rather in a slow southward shift of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa that resulted from the gradual drying up of the Sahara beginning about 8,000 years ago. The southward movement involved not the conquering hordes previously imagined but rather a moving frontier of farmers seeking new fields and pastures who interacted with pastoralists and hunter-gatherers, sometimes trading, sometimes incorporating people in client relationships, sometimes fighting for access to the same crucial resources. The farmers settled throughout southern Africa east of the 400-millimeter rainfall line and as far as the southwestern limits of cropping along the Great Kei River.

The Bantu-speaking farmers chose to minimize risks rather than to maximize production in their use of the environment. They kept large herds of cattle and invested these animals with great material and symbolic value. Cattle provided a means to acquire and to display considerable wealth, and they were used for significant social and political transactions, such as bridewealth compensation (lobola ) and tribute demands. Cattle were also valued for their milk and for their hides, but they were seldom killed for their meat except on ceremonial occasions. Hunting of game continued to provide a major source of protein, while additional supplies came from domesticated goats and sheep. Bantu speakers also cultivated a range of indigenous crops, including millet, sorghum, beans, and melons along with other grains and vegetables. Those close to the sea collected shellfish and fished. By utilizing such a great range of food sources, the farmers spread their risks in a difficult ecological system constantly subject to drought, disease, and crop failure.

Still, the accumulation of large herds and the cultivation of extensive fields produced greater concentrations of population and considerably more stratification among Bantu speakers than among their San and Khoikhoi neighbors. Archaeologists have found evidence of settlements established more than 1,400 years ago comprising several thousand people each. Toutswe, in eastern Botswana, consisted of a series of communities built on large flat-topped hills with fields cultivated below and cattle pastured locally. The residents smelted iron and engaged in extensive trade with people as far east as the Indian Ocean. Similar large communities emerged at least 1,000 years ago just south of the Limpopo River where Bambandyanalo and then Mapungubwe arose as significant early states (both situated at the intersection of the present-day borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa). Cultivating extensive fields and holding large numbers of cattle, the residents of these states also produced finely worked gold and copper ornaments, hunted for ivory, and engaged in extensive long-distance trade. They were generally presided over by chiefs who held considerable--although never total--power; elders always had to be consulted about major decisions. Compared with the smaller-scale communities of San and Khoikhoi, the Bantu-speaking societies were marked by greater degrees of stratification: of old over young, men over women, rich over poor, and chiefs over commoners.

There were, however, significant differences between the settlement patterns and the degree of political centralization established by Bantu speakers who settled inland and by those who lived closer to the coast. The inland Bantu speakers, termed Sotho-Tswana on the basis of their dialects, concentrated in greater numbers around water sources and trading towns. By the late sixteenth century, a series of powerful hereditary chiefs ruled over the society known as the Rolong, whose capital was Taung. The capital and several other towns, centers of cultivation and livestock raising as well as major trading communities, had populations of 15,000 to 20,000. By contrast, the Bantu-speakers termed Nguni, who settled on the coastal plains between the Highveld (see Glossary) and the Indian Ocean, lived in much smaller communities and had less hierarchical political structures. Moving their cattle often in search of fresh pastureland, they lived in small communities scattered across the countryside. In many cases, a community identified itself on the basis of descent from some ancestral founder, as did the Zulu and the Xhosa. Such communities could sometimes grow to a few thousand people, as did the Xhosa, the Mpondo, the Mthethwa, and others, but they were usually far smaller.

By 1600 all of what is now South Africa had been settled: by Khoisan peoples in the west and the southwest, by Sotho-Tswana in the Highveld, and by Nguni along the coastal plains. Portuguese travelers and sailors shipwrecked along the coast in the seventeenth century reported seeing great concentrations of people living in apparent prosperity.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress