The Bantu people of the African continent include some 400 different ethnic groups that cover most of sub-Saharan Africa and speak a tongue from a common language group. The first time the word Bantu (meaning “people” in many Bantu languages) was used in its current sense was by Dr. Wilhelm Bleek in his book A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages (1862).

Up to that point, few linguists had tried to draw similarities between the different languages in Africa on such a wide scale. Much of what is known about Africa before the 11th century has been surmised by linguistic analysis, which, along with recent archaeology, has shown a clear picture of society and life in prehistoric Africa.

Before the spread of the Bantu much of central and southern Africa is believed to have been populated by the Khoisan-speaking people who still exist around the Kalahari Desert in modern-day Namibia and Botswana, and also in some isolated pockets of modern-day Tanzania.

There were (and still are) pygmies in Central Africa, and the northern and northeastern parts of Africa were dominated by people who spoke Afro-Asiatic languages, who have retained their identity from the Bantu. Gradually from the first millennium b.c.e. to the first millennium c.e., the Bantu spread out throughout much of the African continent.

The origins of the Bantu were first raised by Joseph H. Greenberg (1915–2001) in 1963, based on linguistic theories. Using dictionaries and work lists of these languages, he was able to isolate the 500 different distinct languages of the Bantu subgroup.

Many showed regional and geographical variations—including the names of crops and/or animals not found elsewhere in Africa— and Greenberg’s thesis was that there was an original language, which he called Proto-Bantu, from which the others were derived. As the languages spoken in the southeastern part of Nigeria, and along the border with Cameroon, contain more words similar to those used elsewhere in the continent, and that the Bantu languages spoken further away have more variations, he concluded that the Bantu had their origins along the modern-day Nigeria-Cameroon border.

However, the theories of Greenberg were quickly challenged by Malcolm Guthrie, whose research pointed to the Bantu language having originated in Zambia and the southern part of modernday Democratic Republic of the Congo.

If the origins of the Bantu are disputed, the reason for the migration of the Bantu throughout Africa is generally accepted. George P. Murdock (1897–1985), an American scholar, argued that it was influenced by the availability of crops. Murdock felt that it was the Bantu acquisition of crops from the East Indies—through trade with Madagascar—such as banana, taro, and yam, which helped a spread westwards from the first millennium b.c.e. onwards.

It was the cultivation of these crops, Murdock felt, that enabled the Bantu to start settling in the previously largely impenetrable tropical rain forest of central Africa, and from there southwards, establishing the civilization of Great Zimbabwe in the 10th century c.e. Others saw the migratory route, following the ideas of Greenberg, lay in the move east across the southern area of what is now the Sahara, into southern Sudan, and from there south past the Great Lakes.

If the Bantu originated in the area of southeastern Nigeria and the borders with Cameroon, they would have gradually spread eastwards to the Great Lakes, where, on Lake Victoria, the settlement of Katuruka has been dated to the fifth century b.c.e. A separate group also spread southwards through Gabon and the Congo and to modern-day Angola—the settlement at the Funa River, in modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo, dating from 270 b.c.e.

That group gradually spread south into modern-day Angola, while the eastern migration split south of Lake Victoria, with some heading for the coast and establishing a settlement near Kwale, near Mombasa. Another group moved south, along the eastern shores of Lake Nyassa, forming the civilization of Great Zimbabwe by the 10th century c.e., with a third group heading inland, into modern-day Zambia.

The result of this migration was that, by about 1000 c.e., the Bantu dominated central and southern Africa, except for much of modern-day South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. The survival of the Khoisan people in these places is pointed to as further evidence of this migration.

Knowledge about the divisions within Bantu tribes is known from archaeological evidence. The existence of tribal chiefs can be assumed from early settlements where wealth inequality was seen through the existence of larger and smaller residences.

Similarly the objects that were found, made from precious metals, and pots of intricate design, were too few to sustain an entire village with the view adopted by archaeologists that poorer members of Bantu tribes would have had wooden objects that have not survived. However, it is also clear that some tribes, such as the Kikuyu in modern-day Kenya, did not have hereditary chiefs but, rather, a person who assumed the role of an elder and was responsible for tax collection and family counseling.

Unlike the Khoisan and pygmies, the Bantu fought in conflicts and maintained armies. Many of the tribal chiefs maintained large numbers of wives and hence had many children who were often assimilated with commoners. The nature of the rule of the tribes has been surmised through linguistic evidence of the Bantu kinship terminology.

Although some groups, such as the Masai, use the standard patrilineal system, many others follow matrilineal traditions. In addition the Mayombe people of modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo believe that their “blood,” and hence their descent, goes through a woman, with villagers tracing the origin of their village to an ancestress.

This is also believed to be the system used by the Bantu in the Kongo (modern-day Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo). As a result the chief in wartime was often the husband of the senior woman, with the government operating through the female line.

Few archaeological remains have been found of early Bantu civilization, when compared to Europe of the same period. This may have been because of the Bantu use of wood for their buildings. Some 85 million Bantu people now exist in Africa, with most divisions of the Bantu being largely linguistic.

Although the term has been used for 150 years, because of its pejorative use by the apartheid government in South Africa—whereby blacks were designated as “Bantu”—it is not used much today except as a cultural term to describe the great migration that took place in ancient and medieval Africa.