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  • Femi Abodunde

The Spread of Farming Culture from West Africa


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 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 Their 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.


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 high rainfall 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.


From the book "Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History",Editors William H. McNeill, Jerry H. Bentley and David Christian,  Berkshire Publishing Group LLC U.S.A, 2010, Excerpts from the pages 30-34. \

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