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The growth of the equatorial and southern portion of Africa, once referred to as the Bantu expansion, began about 4000 BCE with the adoption of an agricultural way of life in West Africa. The eventual development of states and towns, as well as cultural, technological, and economic changes, progressed for thousands of years and still continues today.
- Early Agricultural Spread
- Equatorial Rain Forests
- The Spread Follows Rivers
- Batwa Relations with Their Bantu Neighbors
- Changes in the Equatorial Rain Forests
- Woodland Savannas and the Western Rift
- Agricultural and Technological Change
- Chiefdoms and States, 300–1100 CE
During the more than five thousand years from 4000 BCE to the beginning of the second century in the second millennium CE, sweeping transformations of economy, technology, culture, and society took shape stage by stage across the equatorial and southern regions of Africa. Historians of Africa used to treat this immensely complex history as if it were a single development, which they called the Bantu expansion, and that expression lingers on in some books. There is an element of truth in this designation: a major accompanying feature of this long history was the widening establishment of Bantu languages across the greater part of nearly half of Africa.
But the driving forces of change in that long sweep of time were a succession of transformations in lifeways—the shift from hunting and gathering pursuits to agriculture, the adoption of new technologies, the rise of specialized production for the market, and the eventual emergence, although not everywhere, of states and towns. The initial impetus for these transformations came from West Africa. Between 8000 and 5000 BCE, peoples speaking languages of the Niger-Kongo family, had independently developed a savanna-based agriculture, originally raising grain crops, black-eyed peas, African groundnuts (Vignasubterranea), and bottle gourds. Even earlier, in the tenth millennium, their ancestors had invented the first ceramics in world history. By the fifth millennium BCE, they supplemented cultivation with the tending of guinea fowl and goats. The addition of yams and oil palms to this system during the same era allowed Niger- Kongo peoples for the first time to spread from the savannas into the West African rainforests of the coastal hinterland.
Early Agricultural Spread
Equatorial Rain Forests
The first spread of West African planting agriculture into equatorial Africa came about in the fourth millennium BCE. Two Niger-Kongo communities from west central Cameroon initiated this era of change. Coastal Bantu people settled along the Atlantic littoral near the mouth of the Ogowe River, where their descendants still live today. The second group, the ancestral Nyong-Lomami Bantu, filtered at first into the areas around the Nyong and lower Sanaga rivers in modern-day Cameroon. With the one exception of the Coastal Bantu of the lower Ogowe River areas, all the far-flung Bantu languages of later times descend from the ancestral Nyong-Lomami tongue. Both groups brought with them an economy that combined fishing and hunting with the cultivation of yams, oil palms, black-eyed peas, African groundnuts, and gourds and the raising of goats and guinea fowl. They introduced the first pottery to the region, along with the technologies of boat building and polished-stone tool making.
Their settlements brought them into contact with the diverse Batwa hunter-gatherer societies, whose ancestors had inhabited the rain forest zones for thousands of years. (The Batwa are often called by the pejorative term Pygmies). The Batwa entered into trade relations with the newcomers, bartering surplus products from their forest hunting and gathering, such as honey and ivory, for the pottery and polished stone axes of the Bantu-speaking communities.
The Bantu-speaking farmers and fishers introduced a new kind of settlement and a new type of social structure to the rain forest regions. In contrast to the mobile bands of the Batwa, the Bantu communities resided in sedentary villages. Each village was the establishment of a particular clan or a particular lineage within a clan, although people of other lineages or clans might also reside in the village. Throughout the period down to early first millennium CE, hereditary lineage chiefs acted as the ritual leaders of these small independent communities. The Batwa, in contradistinction, recognized neither chiefs nor clans and lineages.
The Spread Follows Rivers
A second stage of agricultural expansion in the equatorial rain forest began in the early and middle centuries of the third millennium. Between 2800 and 2400 BCE, the Nyong-Lomami communities spread southeastward, following the major rivers deep into the rain forest zone. By the twenty-fifth century BCE their descendants had formed a long string of communities extending for hundreds of kilometers along the Sangha and Middle Kongo Rivers. Around 2500 BCE, even before this second period ended, a new direction of agricultural spread commenced among Nyong-Lomami people living around the confluence of the Sangha and Kongo Rivers. From these areas Nyong- Lomami communities spread south down the Lower Kongo River as far as the southern edges of the rain forest zone.
Finally, between 2100 and 1200 BCE, there ensued a fourth period of new settlements in the forest. The historian Kairn Klieman has described it as an era of filling in, because in this period Nyong-Lomami peoples moved with their economy and technology into many of the areas that lay between the major rivers. One offshoot of the Nyong-Lomami, the Savanna Bantu, spread out along the southern fringes of the rain forest. Other communities settled in the far western equatorial region between the Kongo River and the Atlantic coast, and still others spread into the farther northern and eastern parts of the equatorial rain forest.
Batwa Relations with Th eir Bantu Neighbors
The third and fourth periods of settlement brought more and more of the Batwa into direct contact with the Bantu farming-fishing communities. Nevertheless, major areas of rain forest remained occupied solely by Batwa, and most if not all Batwa still pursued a fully hunting and gathering way of life. Their material relations with Bantu communities continued to revolve around the trading of the occasional surplus products of their subsistence pursuits.
Most interestingly of all, this coexistence of two differing life ways had a potent religious dimension. The Niger-Kongo religion of early Bantu-speaking communities recognized three levels of spiritual power: a single Creator God of all things; territorial spirits, with powers limited to particular locales; and on the communal level, the ancestor spirits of each particular community. Most important to the Bantu were the ancestor spirits. The burial of the ancestors on one’s land and the veneration and giving of offerings to them secured one’s right to that land. As the farmers and fishers spread into new areas, where their ancestors had not lived, their own beliefs required them to seek accommodation with the Batwa. The Batwa, according to the Bantu view of things, were the first owners of the land. It was the Batwa whose ancestors had lived there, and it was they who knew how to deal with the spirits of the land. As a result the Batwa often came to play key roles in the rituals of the Bantu-speaking villagers. The villagers reinterpreted the Batwa spirits of the forest as territorial spirits, and in their origin myths they credited the Batwa with being the bringers of crucial environmental and technological knowledge.
Changes in the Equatorial Rain Forests
Late in the second millennium BCE a new kind of development, large villages, began to appear in several areas of the equatorial rain forest. Apparently, as Bantu farming populations grew, they began to rely to a growing extent on agriculture and less on hunting and fishing to feed themselves. As that happened, the small villages and hamlets of the first four periods of Bantu settlement in the rain forest grew, here and there, into villages with hundreds of people, often divided up into several different lineages and wards.
Between 1000 and 500 BCE even more fundamental changes in economy began to take shape across equatorial Africa. A central element in these changes appears to have been the spread of ironworking technology. Because iron ore deposits were unevenly spread, the adoption of ironworking led directly to a new kind of trade over long distances in the rain forest regions. Communities without iron resources turned to the specialized production of other kinds of goods in order to join in the new commercial relations. Many communities located right along the great rivers became fishing specialists, catching and drying fish for the market. In areas where the raffia palm grew well, local inhabitants began to weave raffia cloth not just for their own needs but to supply a growing market for fine cloth. The increased quantity and variety of goods, moving over long distances along the rivers, in turn created a demand for much larger boats. During the past thousand years communities in the hinterland of the rivers supplied this demand by becoming specialists in building long canoes from the great forest trees and selling these boats to the traders along the rivers, and this pattern is likely to have held true in the first millennium BCE as well.
Not least, the Batwa in many areas transformed their relationships with Bantu-speaking communities by themselves becoming specialist producers of forest products, including, among other goods, ivory, monkey and leopard skins, and honey and beeswax. Often, as a result, Batwa communities no longer fully supplied their own food needs, but instead supplemented their diet by trading for foods grown by the farmers. This kind of economic relationship enhanced the Batwa ability to participate in the new economy. At the same time, it also caused their fortunes to become much more closely intertwined with those of their farming and fishing neighbors.
Woodland Savannas and the Western Rift
Along the east and south of the equatorial rain forest, rather different trends of historical change predominated among Bantu peoples between 1200 BCE and 500 CE. Over the first eight centuries of this era two new fronts of population expansion and agricultural transformation opened up. All along the southern margins of the rain forest, a variety of peoples speaking Western Savanna and Central Savanna Bantu languages established themselves in the characteristic woodland savanna environments found there. These regions had somewhat lower yearly rainfall than the rain forest, but still enough rain to support extensive tree cover. The environment suited the raising of yams, the old staple of the early Bantu farmers, and the many perennial streams and rivers allowed for extensive fishing.
The second front of advance lay at the eastern edge of the Kongo Basin, along Africa’s great Western Rift. The Western Rift is a 1500-kilometer-long string of deep valleys, large lakes, and old volcanic mountain ranges separating the vast Kongo Basin from the savannahs of eastern Africa. The great variations of terrain and altitude create a mosaic of diverse environments in the Western Rift: grasslands in the bottomlands of the valleys, high-rainfall forests on the lower and middle mountain slopes, and savanna and dry woodlands, especially extending eastward from the rift. The Mashariki Bantu, the easternmost of the Savanna Bantu groups, arrived in this region around the end of the second millennium BCE. They spread at first into the highland forests, where high rainfall supported their accustomed ways of farming and fishing. Over the centuries from around 1000 to 400 BCE the Mashariki expanded north and south along the Western Rift, diverging into two large clusters of communities—the Kaskazi in and around modern Rwanda, and the Kusi farther south in areas not yet satisfactorily identified, but probably centered along the western side of Lake Tanganyika.
The Western and Central Savanna Bantu of these centuries continued the older pattern of their Nyong- Lomami ancestors—they spread the agricultural frontier into regions previous entirely inhabited by hunter-gatherers. The Kusi and the Kaskazi, in contrast, faced a very different challenge between 1000 and 400 BCE. In the mountain forests where they first settled, the previous inhabitants were Batwa food collectors similar in culture and economy to the Batwa of the Kongo Basin. But in the grasslands and savannas of the northern parts of the Western Rift, other, very different agricultural societies, whose crops and animals prospered in drier environments, preceded the Bantu. These peoples were heirs of the Sudanic agricultural tradition, the historical roots of which extend back to the southern and eastern Sahara of the ninth millennium BCE. Speaking languages of the Nilo-Saharan and Afrasian language families, they raised the African grains sorghum, pearl millet, and finger millet as their staples, and they herded goats and sheep and, in favorable areas, cattle.
In this encounter of diverse cultural and economic worlds, the Kaskazi and the Kuzi were the ones who made the crucial adaptations. As they gradually cleared more forest for their fields, they created more areas in which grain crops could be grown. The benefits of this opening for new agricultural practices tended to flow in one direction: finger millet and sorghum could be readapted to wetter conditions, once forest land was cleared. But yams, the crucial crops of the early Kaskazi and Kusi, required more rainfall than the drier savannas provided. So while the Kaskazi and Kusi were able over time to fit sorghum, finger millet, and other Sudanic crops into their agriculture, most of their Nilo-Saharan and Afrasan neighbors maintained their earlier practices with little change.
By the second half of the first millennium BCE, the Kaskazi and Kusi had evolved a new agricultural synthesis. It is clear that they still favored yams as their staple food, but their overall repertory encompassed a wide range of crops, some suited to wet environments and others to relatively dry climates; a varied kit of cultivating tools; and new techniques of field management. They had adopted the fire-hardened digging stick used by the Nilo-Saharan farmers in grain cultivation. The middle of the first millennium BCE was also the period of the invention of iron hoes, which made tilling the fields before planting much more efficient and made it much easier to harvest root crops such as the yam. Some of the Nilo-Saharans also became hoe cultivators, but not to the same extent as the Bantu communities.
Ironworking technology in the Western Rift dates as early as 1000 BCE, and it was from there that this new technology diffused westward to many Bantu of the equatorial rain forest. Nilo-Saharan peoples living along the Nile-Kongo watershed were the earliest iron users in this part of Africa. Kaskazi people learned ironworking from them by around the ninth and eighth centuries BCE, and the Kusi peoples farther south began to take up the technology after 500 BCE. The earliest iron items were most likely ornaments and small points and blades. Smiths began to forge larger blades for hoes, axes, adzes, and spears probably only from around 500 BCE onward.
Agricultural and Technological Change
The new developments in agricultural technology and production set off a new era of the expansion of Kaskazi and Kusi communities into an entirely new range of environments. From the fourth to the first century BCE, one group of Kaskazi peoples, whom historians call the Great Lakes Bantu, scattered out eastward from the Western Rift into several areas around Lake Victoria. Several different Kaskazi communities relocated to the well-watered woodland savannas and tablelands of far southern Tanzania. Other Kaskazi groups, who switched over entirely to cattle raising and grain cultivation, moved even farther south, to the dry open savannas of east central Zambia. Late in the period still other Kaskazi communities leapfrogged the dry central regions of East Africa and took up lands far to the east, in the better watered areas along the East African coast and around the mountains of northeastern Tanzania. During the same era the Kusi peoples moved into the areas surrounding Lake Malawi. In northern Tanzania and in the Great Lakes region, the incoming Bantu initially settled in environmental islands of wetter climate, with Nilo-Saharan and Afrasan neighbors in the nearby grasslands and drier savannas. In southern Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia, however, both Kaskazi and Kusi peoples expanded the agricultural frontier into areas previously occupied only by hunter-gatherers.
Between 100 BCE and 300 CE the second stage of this expansion took place. Kusi peoples scattered out southward from Malawi to Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the eastern side of South Africa. The Kaskazi at the same period grew in numbers, founding new settlements in the highlands of Kenya and in the coastal hinterlands and spreading more and more widely in western and southern Tanzania.
The effects of these developments were not restricted to Bantu-speaking communities. The keeping of sheep and cattle, in particular, appears to have spread southward ahead of the advance of the Kaskazi and Kusi. Sometime between 400 and 100 BCE several groups of Khoisan hunter-gatherers living in what is today northeastern Botswana took up the raising first of sheep and then of cattle. Combining their older hunting and gathering practices with a highly productive herding economy, one such people, the Khoikhoi, rapidly spread south after 100 BCE to the South African coast and then eastward to the Cape of Good Hope. In the same centuries, a related pastoral society, the Kwadi, spread livestock raising eastward to northern Namibia.
Equally significant, as the Kaskazi and Kusi peoples moved into new areas, knowledge of the African grain crops diffused westward from them to the Bantu communities of the woodland savannas. Adopting these crops, along with ironworking, between approximately 400 and 100 BCE, the Central and Western Savanna Bantu lessened their dependence on highrainfall environments and entered into a new era of population growth and expansion. Between 100 BCE and 300 CE, several different Western Savanna peoples followed river routes southward into the dry savannas of present-day western Zambia and interior Angola. The ancestral Southwest Bantu moved farthest south, settling along the Kunene and Okavango Rivers in the dry steppes of the far northern Kalahari region. There they took up cattle raising under the influence of their Kwadi neighbors. In the early centuries of the first millennium CE, several Central Savanna peoples also spread out with their now more varied crop repertoire, establishing themselves as far south as central and southern Zambia.
Chiefdoms and States, 300–1100 CE
As far as scholars can presently tell, nearly all Bantu-speaking societies retained the old Bantu pattern of belonging to localized clan and lineage polities down to the end of the first millennium BCE, with one probable exception. Among certain Great Lakes Bantu along the southeast side of Lake Victoria, there is indirect evidence that local intensive iron production may have enabled small wealthy kingdoms to develop for a time during the last couple of centuries BCE and first three centuries CE. Environmental collapse caused by the overcutting of forests to supply the smelting furnaces brought this period of political growth to an end by the fifth century CE. Wider-reaching political authority conceivably may also have accompanied the rise of large villages and long-distance trade in the first millennium BCE in the equatorial rain forest, but so far no evidence of such political structures has yet been found.
Between 400 and 1100, however, there is clear evidence in three different regions of the emergence of territorial chiefdoms or very small kingdoms. Among the Great Lakes Bantu, chiefdoms and tiny kingdoms emerged anew in several areas, both in the Western Rift and along the western shores of Lake Victoria. The first notable states took shape thereafter, in about 1000.
In the Kongo Basin chiefdoms became prominent along the major river arteries of commerce several centuries before 1100. The most striking material testimony of this development was the spread of a particular kind of chiefly or royal regalia, the flange-welded double bell, all around the Kongo Basin before 1000 and as far south as Zambia and Zimbabwe by 1100. The new political economy of this age surely rested on new elaborations of commercial relations, although the specific features of these relations remain unclear.
A third region of emerging chiefdoms and petty kingdoms, dating between 400 and 900, lay just south of the Limpopo River in northern South Africa. In the tenth century several royal families migrated northward with their followers across the Limpopo. Bringing with them the new concept of rule by kings and chiefs, they founded the first significant kingdoms at Shroda just north of the river and subsequently, in the eleventh century, at Mapungubwe just south of the Limpopo. In the first period, up to the ninth century, royal wealth in cattle was the material basis of the chiefdoms. From the tenth century onward, international demand (arriving via the Indian Ocean) for African gold and ivory ratcheted upward the scale and complexity of the political order and stimulated the emergence of urban centers, of which Shroda and Mapungubwe were the earliest. The Zimbabwe empire of the thirteen to fifteenth centuries arose on these foundations.
Away from the core regions of political and commercial growth, however, many older patterns of life persisted. In the equatorial rain forest, the last great spread of the agricultural frontier was that of the Bantu-speaking Mongo, who displaced the Batwa across the central Kongo Basin only between 400 and 1100 CE. In eastern and southern Africa, Bantu speakers have continued to expand into new niches down to the present century.
What scholars used to call the Bantu expansion was in fact a complex of varied and distinctive histories extending over five thousand years and across many different lands. That story is told here in barest outline, covering only the main linking themes of those multifaceted pasts.
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- Ehret, C. (2002). The civilizations of Africa: A history to 1800. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
- Klieman, K. (2003). The pygmies were our compass. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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