In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bantu Expansion

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Archaeological Approaches
  • Critiques of Interdisciplinary Research
  • Correlating Data from Multiple Disciplines

African Studies Bantu Expansion
Kathryn M. de Luna
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0165


The Bantu languages, a closely-knit family of 440 to 680 languages (depending on how one distinguishes between a language and a dialect), are spoken across the southern third of the African continent, from the boundary between modern day Nigeria and Cameroon in the west, to southern Somali in the east, and as far south as the Cape. Today, some 300 million people—about a third of the continent’s population—speak a Bantu language. In terms of the number of languages, the number of speakers of those languages, and the extent of the territory throughout which the languages are spoken, Bantu is by far the largest branch to develop out of the Niger-Congo family, itself the largest language phylum in Africa. Though the dates are debated, the ancestral proto-language of all extant Bantu languages probably diverged from its Niger-Congo ancestors some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. At the heart of the Bantu Expansion is the question of how so many Bantu languages came to be spoken by so many people across such a broad territory in such a very short span of time by the standards of language history. Scholars have debated the origins of the Bantu languages and their expansion since the 19th century, though the similarities among Bantu languages were recognized far earlier. Though scholars now reject the conflation of language, culture, and race that characterized early Bantu studies, many of the questions that inspired early research remain unanswered. Scholars are still debating the relationships among Bantu languages, with implications for their historical development as well as the social history of their speakers. Indeed, the Bantu Expansion is an important chapter in precolonial African history, and historical linguistic evidence remains critical for the reconstruction of such early histories in Bantu-speaking Africa. The interdisciplinary character of scholarship on the Bantu Expansion led to many understandings of “Bantu,” from a linguistic category to a racial, ethnic, or genetic population, and even a material cultural tradition; but the uncritical conflation of linguistic, archaeological, and biological evidence in some research led certain scholars to reject the idea of the Bantu Expansion altogether, and research on the topic floundered in the late 20th century. Today, new computational methodologies for the classification of languages as well as the emergence of molecular anthropology for reconstructing demographic histories are reinvigorating research on the Bantu Expansion by bringing new evidence to bear on well-established questions and paradigms.

General Overviews

There are very few overviews of scholarship on the Bantu Expansion that are written for non-specialists, and many focus on situating that scholarship in the context of broader intellectual trends. Textbooks and reference works are often a better starting point. Vansina 1979 is certainly the best-known general overview, but it is very detailed, often technical, and not as accessible to non-specialists. The short, accessible excerpt in Klieman 2003 places the development of scholarship on the Bantu Expansion in the context of developments in academic thinking more generally. Dubow 1995 traces the impact of 19th century racial thinking on how scholars have studied the history of Bantu languages, peoples, and material cultures and has been a source of debate about the value of research on the Bantu Expansion (see also Critiques of Interdisciplinary Research). Schoenbrun 2001 similarly explains the legacy of the 19th century context of scholarship on the Bantu Expansion, but proposes a way to write such histories without falling into the intellectual traps of 19th century methodologies. Nurse 1997 and Eggert 1981, written by a linguist and an archaeologist, respectively, offer alternative perspectives on the development of scholarship on the spread of Bantu languages, their speakers, and their material cultures. Eggert 1981 captures the unease of the 1980s, as the first critiques were leveled at interdisciplinary Bantu Expansion research. Nurse 1997 reflects an emerging consensus on the value of regional historical studies and the difficultly of reconstructing a universal Bantu Expansion narrative. Doke 1945 and Doke and Cole 1961 are overviews from earlier points in time in the development of this field of scholarship. While a useful overview of research to date, Doke and Cole 1961 is also a representation of the state of the field as African history was emerging as a legitimate field of academic scholarship.

  • Doke, Clement M. Bantu: Modern Grammatical, Phonetical, and Lexisographical Studies since 1860. London: International African Institute, 1945.

    This is a short but broad overview of 80 years of Bantu linguistics research by a leading Bantuist of the early to mid-20th century.

  • Doke, Clement M., and D. T. Cole. Contributions to the History of Bantu Linguistics. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1961.

    This snapshot of Bantu linguistic research at mid-century includes valuable information on very early grammars and wordlists as well as classic examples of how the historical implications of Bantu linguistics were transformed into narratives about the history of early Bantu speakers and their migration into the southern half of the continent.

  • Dubow, Saul. Scientific Racism in Modern South Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    Though Dubow is concerned primarily with South African history, he traces how 19th century ideas about race, culture, and language shaped scholarship on the histories of Bantu languages and their associated populations and material cultures long after the racial paradigm was rejected; much of this scholarship connects to the Bantu Expansion. See especially chapter 3.

  • Eggert, Manfred K. H. “Historical Linguistics and Prehistoric Archaeology: Trend and Pattern in Early Iron Age Research of Sub-Saharan Africa.” Beiträge zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Archäologie 3 (1981): 277–324.

    Written after the Bantu Expansion conference of 1977 in Viviers, France, Eggert reviews and critiques the methods by which linguistic and archaeological research on the Bantu Expansion are connected.

  • Klieman, Kairn. “The Pygmies Were Our Compass”: Bantu and Batwa in West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 C.E. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.

    This selection from Klieman’s book on early the early history of Bantu speaking communities in West Central Africa provides a very concise overview of the scholarship on the history of the Bantu languages and the related problem of the Bantu Expansion. See pp. 20–26.

  • Nurse, Derek. “The Contributions of Linguistics to the Study of History in Africa.” Journal of African History 38 (1997): 359–391.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0021853797007044

    Nurse provides a clear overview of the comparative historical linguistic method, including matters of debate in Bantu Expansion scholarship as they relate to debates about Bantu language classifications. This article is also helpful for understanding how and why historians use language evidence to write regional precolonial histories.

  • Schoenbrun, David Lee. “Representing the Bantu Expansions: What’s at Stake?” International Journal of African Historical Studies 34.1 (2001): 1–4.

    DOI: 10.2307/3097284

    Among many problems of representation, Schoenbrun asks how historians can write about the histories of speakers of ancestral forms of Bantu languages (forms that are, arguably, academic heuristics) without falling into the trap developed by the 19th century thinkers, who invented the comparative historical linguistic method and equated language, race, and culture.

  • Vansina, Jan. “Bantu in the Crystal Ball.” History in Africa 6 (1979): 287–333.

    DOI: 10.2307/3171750

    This two-part article details a history of studies of the Bantu Expansion from the 19th century through the late 20th century (1970s) across several disciplines (the first part focuses on linguistics while the second draws in archaeology). This piece is valuable for its survey of research in European languages. Article continues in History in Africa 7 (1980): 293–325.

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