In Africa there are three language groups. Bantus, Nilotes and Cushites. Several hundred ethnic groups speak Bantu languages and are scattered throughout a broad territory including Central Africa, Southeast Africa, and Southern Africa. Several hundred Bantu languages exist.

There are thought to be between 440 and 680 unique languages, depending on the meaning of “language” or “dialect.” The total number of speakers is in the hundreds of millions, with a mid-2010 estimate of 350 million (roughly 30 percent of the population of Africa, or roughly 5 percent of the total world population). The Democratic Republic of Congo alone has around 60 million speakers, grouped into 200 ethnic or tribal groups. The people of Rwanda and Burundi (25 million), the Shona of Zimbabwe (15 million as of 2018), the Zulu of South Africa (12 million as of 2005), the Luba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (7 million as of 2010), the Sukuma of Tanzania (9 million as of 2016), the Kikuyu of Kenya (8.1 million as of 2019), the Xhosa of Southern Africa (8.1 million as of 2011), or the Pedi of South Africa are some of the larger Bantu groups (5.7 million 2017).

The word Bantu, originated from a made-up name derived from the reconstructed Proto-Bantu phrase meaning “people” or “humans.” Wilhelm Bleek coined the term (as Bâ-ntu) in 1857 or 1858, and popularized it in his 1862 book Comparative Grammar. The term was derived from the plural noun class prefix *ba-, which categorizes “people,” and the root *nt – “some (entity), any” in a loosely reconstructed Proto-Bantu (e.g. Zulu umuntu “person”, abantu “people”, into “thing”, izinto “things”).

Bantu languages are thought to have descended from the Proto-Bantu reconstructed language, which was spoken in West/Central Africa between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago (the area of modern-day Cameroon). They were purportedly dispersed across Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa during the so-called Bantu expansion, which lasted around two millennia and dozens of human generations during the first and second millennia BC and AD. Although this concept has been portrayed as a mass migration, Jan Vansina and others have suggested that it was actually a cultural expansion rather than the movement of any distinct populations that could be described as an enormous group solely based on common linguistic qualities.  The Bantu expansion’s geographical shape and course are still contested.

There are two main scenarios proposed: an early expansion to Central Africa with a single origin of dispersal radiating from there, or an early separation into an eastward and a southward wave of dispersal, with one wave moving across the Congo basin towards East Africa and the other wave moving south along the African coast and the Congo River system towards Angola. Genetic study reveals a strong clustering of genetic features among Bantu language speakers by location, implying admixture from previous local populations.

Various Bantu-speaking peoples would have assimilated and/or displaced many earlier inhabitants under the Bantu expansion migration hypothesis, leaving only a few modern peoples, such as Pygmy groups in central Africa, Hadza people in northern Tanzania, and various Khoisan populations across southern Africa, to maintain autonomous existence into the era of European contact.

They were present in areas afterwards colonized by Bantu-speakers, according to archeological data.

Some Afro-Asiatic outlier populations in the southeast (primarily Cushitic), as well as Nilotic and Central Sudanic speaking communities, would have interacted with Bantu-speaking migrants.

  • Cattle terminology used by the few current Bantu pastoralist groups shows that cattle may have been acquired from Central Sudanic, Kuliak, and Cushitic-speaking neighbors. Additionally, linguistic evidence suggests that the customs of milking cattle were also directly modeled from Cushitic cultures in the area.


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