Skip to main content

Bantu in the Crystal Ball, II*

  • Jan Vansina (a1)

Interest in the question of Bantu expansion rose dramatically in the 1950s as historians, archeologists, and anthropologists all joined in the fray. This reflected both the rise of Africa in world affairs and the expansion of research in general. The scholars involved were typically a new breed of professionals, and as such more dependent than their predecessors on universities or research institutions. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London achieved overwhelming dominance from about 1950 until the late 1960s, so that opinions held by its staff found the widest audience. The new scholars also were, for the most part, anti-racist, sympathetic to African nationalisms, and of liberal or socialist persuasion. They tended to reject the notion of “conquest,” believing in gradual change rather than abrupt cataclysmic mutation, perhaps because they were repelled by their recent experiences during the war. As had happened earlier, these extraneous circumstances left a deep imprint on the speculations that were now proposed. Early in this period a new paradigm almost achieved consensus, but after 1968 this fell apart and during the last decade two new trends have appeared: the single-minded quest for a new paradigm and the search for better understanding through the study of analogous processes, coupled with a more radical skepticism.


    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Bantu in the Crystal Ball, II*
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Bantu in the Crystal Ball, II*
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Bantu in the Crystal Ball, II*
      Available formats
Hide All

The first part of this paper appeared in HA, 6(1979), 287-333.

Hide All


154. See Vansina Jan, “Bantu in the Crystal Ball, I,” History in Africa, 6(1979), 321–25. The social organization of Bantuists influenced the success of particular speculations, since such success is measured by the consensus of scholars, in turn strongly influenced by institutional realities.

155. Schebesta Paul, Die Bambuti-pygmäen vom Ituri, (Brussels, 1950); Bulck V. van, “Het probleem der Pygmeeëntaal volgens Schebesta,” Kongo-Overzee, 14(1948), 305–09.

156. Murdock G.P., Africa: Its Peoples and their Culture History (New York, 1959), 12.

157. Ibid., 45.

158. Ibid., 271-74.

159. Ibid., 279.

160. Ibid., 279, 300.

161. Ibid., 349-50.

162. Ibid., 306, 357, 373.

163. Ibid., 377.

164. Ibid., 383-86.

165. Ibid., 96-99, 277.

166. Clark D., “A Note of the Pre-Bantu Inhabitants of Northern Rhodesia,” South African Journal of Science, 47(1950), 8085; Oliver R. and Fagan B., Africa in the Iron Age: c. 500 B.C. to A.D. 1400 (London, 1975), 9496.

167. Clark , The Prehistory of Southern Africa (Harmondsworth, 1959), 21–22, 283.

168. Ibid., 283.

169. Ibid., 283-84.

170. Ibid., 303.

171. Ibid., 311-12.

172. Hiernaux J., Le début de l'age des métaux dans la région des grands lacs” in Mortelmans G. and Nenquin J., Actes du IV° Congrès panafricain de préhistoire et de l'étude du quaternaire (Tervuren, 1962), 382; Posnansky M., “Bantu Genesis,” Uganda Journal, 25(1961), 8693. Compare this with his slightly earlier Pottery Types in East Africa,” JAH, 2(1961), 183–85.

173. Posnansky , “Bantu Genesis,” 9192.

174. (London, 1959), 130-31.

175. Wrigley , “Speculations on the Economic Prehistory of Africa,” JAH, 1(1960), 196. The text dates from November 1958 and was presented to the African History Seminar at SOAS. Minutes AH/58/4.

176. Ibid., 202, and interventions in the SOAS seminar on 14 January and 18 February, 1959.

177. Ibid., 198, and SOAS seminar session 14 January 1959 for his source, Malcolm Guthrie.

178. SOAS seminar session.

179. Session of 28 January 1959, amplified in the sessions of 4 February, 11 February, 18 February, and 4 March.

180. Proto-Bantu had a term for iron, said Guthrie at the seminar on 28 January. Oliver's formulation of what became the London paradigm first occurred on 18 February 1959 at the seminar.

181. Concluding statement of the session of 4 March.

182. Huntingford G.W.B., “The Peopling of the Interior of East Africa by its Modern Inhabitants” in Oliver R. and Mathew G., History of East Africa, I (London, 1963), 58–93, esp. 8192.

183. (Harmondsworth, 1962), 29-32. There are some shifts in Oliver's position in later editions of this very influential textbook.

184. Guthrie , “Some Developments in the Prehistory of the Bantu Languages,” JAH, 3(1962), 273–82; idem, “Bantu Origins: A Tentative New Hypothesis,” Journal of African Languages, 1(1962), 9-21; idem, “A Two-Stage Method of Comparative Bantu Study,” African Language Studies, 3(1962), 1-24. Compare with his earlier Problèmes de génétique linguistique: la question du Bantou commun,” Travaux de l'Institut de Linguistique de l'Université de Paris, 4(1959), 8392.

185. Guthrie , “Some Developments,” 276.

186. Idem, “Bantu Origins,” 16.

187. Hem , “Some Developments,” 279–82.

188. Deschamps H., L'Afrique noire précoloniale, (Paris, 1962), 2931. As a Que sais-je? volume its impact in the Francophone world was great.

189. Cornevin , Histoire de l'Afrique, I, Des Origines au XVIe Siècle, (Paris, 1966), 377–78. Compare with his Histoire des peuples de l'Afrique noire, (Paris, 1960), 151–52, where he accepted Greenberg but saw the Bantu expansion as circumventing the forest, rather like Johnston or like some recent speculations. By 1966 the cause of Bantu expansion was seen to be the desiccation of the Sahara, a point taken from Clark , “The Prehistoric Origins of African Culture,” JAH, 5(1964), 181–82.

190. For instance see Rotberg R., A Political History of Tropical Africa (London, 1965), 5n2 and 52n66. The information there may date from 1962.

191. Oliver R., “The Problem of Bantu expansion,” JAH, 7(1966), 361–76, first delivered as a lecture in 1965 at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Cf. Oliver R., “Cameroun -- The Bantu Cradleland,” Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, 1(1979), 7.

193. Posnansky M., “Bantu Genesis: Archaeological Reflexions,” JAH, 9(1968), 111. See also his The Iron Age in East Africa” in Bishop W.W. and Clark D.J., eds, Background to Evolution in Africa (Chicago, 1967), 629–49, and Hiernaux J., La Diversité Humaine en Afrique Subsaharienne (Brussels, 1968). See Hiernaux , The People of Africa (New York, 1974), 175–89.

194. Hiernaux J., “Bantu Expansion: The Evidence from Physical Anthropology Confronted with Linguistics and Archaeological Evidence, JAH, 9(1968), 505–15.

195. Neither had up to then published a formal rebuttal. Meeussen was waiting for Guthrie's magnum opus to be completed and so probably was Greenberg. But meanwhile both had expressed their misgivings and objections orally.

196. Fagan B.M. and Oliver R., “Wenner-Gren Research Conference on Bantu Origins in Sub-Saharan Africa (Summary Report and Recommendations),” African language Review, 7(1968), 140–46; Grundemann T., “Wenner-Gren Conference on Bantu Origins,” Bulletin of the African Studies Association of the United Kingdom (1968), 19. Other information from my own conference notes.

197. Huffman T., “The Early Iron Age and the Spread of the Bantu,” South African Archaeological Bulletin, 25(1970), 321.

198. Clark J.D., The Prehistory of Africa (London, 1970), 210–14; idem, “African Prehistory” in D. Dalby, Language and History in Africa (London, 1970), 1-19 esp. 9-15. This volume contains papers presented at the African History Seminar of SOAS from 1967 to 1969. On Bantu expansion it also contains Guthrie's M.Contributions from Comparative Bantu Studies to the Prehistory of Africa,” 2049, and Mann's W.M.Internal Relationships of the Bantu Languages: Prospects for Topological Research,” 133–45, which prefigures A. Henrici's later and revolutionary findings.

199. Vansina J., “Inner Africa,” in Josephy A.M., ed., The Horizon History of Africa (New York, 1971), 261–66.

200. Ibid., 265.

201. Ehret C., “Cattle-Keeping and Milking in Eastern and Southern African History: The Linguistic Evidence,” JAH, 8(1967), 117.

202. Idem, “Bantu Origins and History: Critique and Interpretation,” Transafrican Journal of History, 2(1972), 1-10.

203. Greenberg J., “Linguistic Evidence Regarding Bantu Origins,” JAH, 13(1972), 189216.

204. (New York, 1968), 57-114; Gailey H., History of Africa from Earliest Times to 1800 (New York, 1970), 2931.

205. (Paris, 1970), 355-63.

206. Randles W.G.L., “La civilisation bantou: son essor et son déclin,” Annales: Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations 29(1974), 267–81.

207. Heine B., “Zur genetische Gliederung der Bantu-sprachen,” Afrika-Ubersee, 56(1973) 164–85; Henrici A., “Numerical Classification of Bantu Languages,” African Language Studies, 14(1973), 82104.

208. Heine B., “Gliederung,” 164–70.

209. Ibid., 172-75.

210. Ibid., 181-82.

211. Coupez A., Evrard E., and Vansina J., “Classification d'un échantillon de langues bantoues d'après la lexicostatistique, Africana Linguistica, 6(1975), 133–58. Data for the project had been assembled from 1954 onwards. The conclusions about migrations are exclusively Coupez's.

212. Ehret , “Patterns of Bantu and Central Sudanic Settlement in Central and Southern Africa, Transafrican Journal of History, 3(1973), 171.

213. Coupez A., “Classification,” 152.

214. Heine B., Hoff H., and Vossen R., “Neuere Ergebnisse zur Territorialgeschichte der Bantu,” in Möhlig W.J., Rottland F., and Heine B., Zur Sprachgeschichte und Ethnohistorie in Afrika (Berlin, 1977), 5770.

215. The main publication of this conference will be C. Bouquiaux, G. Manessy, and J. Voorhoeve, L'expansion bantoue. I have seen most of the linguistic papers, while some others, such as the anthropologists A. Kuper and P. Van Leynseele, or archeologists such as N. David, P. de Maret, and F. Van Noten kindly sent me copies of their papers, for which I am very grateful. Information about A40 and A60 from Dr. J. Voorhoeve, confirmed by others.

216. Bennett P., and Sterk J., “South Central Niger Congo: A Reclassification,” Studies in African Linguistics, 8(1977), 241–73.

217. Dalby D., “The Prehistorical Implications of Guthrie's Comparative Bantu,” JAH, 16(1975) 481502; 17(1976), 1-28. Since then Dalby has abandoned the idea of genetic relationships between languages altogether. See his Language Map of Africa and the Adjacent Islands (London, 1977).

218. Oliver and Fagan , Africa in the Iron Age, 7879.

219. Ibid., 32.

220. Guthrie , Comparative Bantu (4 vols.: Farnborough, 19671971) 1: no. 74/21, 74/25; 2: 83/24.

221. Guthrie , “Contributions from Comparative Bantu Studies to the Prehistory of Africa” in Dalby , Language and History, 28–30, 4445.

222. Oliver and Fagan , Africa in the Iron Age, 7375.

223. Maret P. de and Nsuka Y., “History of Bantu Metallurgy: Some Linguistic Aspects,” History in Africa, 4(1977) 4366.

224. Hiernaux J. and Gauthier A.M., “Comparaison des affinités linguistiques et biologiques de douze populations de langue bantu,” Cahiers d'études africaines, 66/67 (1977), 241–53.

225. Oliver R. and Fagan B., “The Emergence of Bantu Africa” in The Cambridge History of Africa, II, From c. 500 B.C. to A.D. 1050, (Cambridge, 1978), 342–409, 750–56.

226. Ibid., 357-59, 405-06.

227. Ibid., 358.

228. Oliver , “Cameroun,” 7.

229. Ibid., 10.

230. Ibid., 17. Metallurgy, he now surmises, derived from the Upper Uele. His argument is partly based on resemblances between newly-discovered pottery from that area and Early Iron Age pottery of Urewe ware as in Soper R.C., “Resemblances Between East African Early Iron Age Pottery and Recent Vessels from the North-Eastern Congo,” Azania, 6(1971) 233–41.

231. Derricourt R.M., “Classification and Culture Change in Late Post-Pleistocene South Africa” in Renfrew C., ed., The Explanation of Culture Change: Models in Prehistory (New York, 1973), 625–31.

232. Schmidt P., “A New Look at Interpretations of the Early Iron Age in East Africa,” History in Africa, 2(1975), 127–36.

233. Ibid., 133-35.

234. Phillipson D.W., “The Chronology of the Iron Age in Bantu Africa,” JAH, 16(1975), 321–42.

235. Idem, (London, 1977), 102-230. Summary of his ten stages of Bantu expansion, 227-30. See also idem, “Archaeology and Bantu Linguistics,” World Archaeology, 8(1976), 65-82; idem, “The Spread of the Bantu Language,” Scientific American, 236(1977), 106-14. Cf. also his The Early Iron Age in Eastern and Southern Africa: A Critical Reappraisal,” Azania, 11(1976), 124.

236. Idem, Later Prehistory, 172-79.

237. See, for instance, Maret P. de, Noten F. Van, and Cahen D., “Radiocarbon Dates from West Central Africa: A Synthesis,” JAH, 18(1977), 497501.

238. F. Van Noten, “The Early Iron Age in the Interlacustrine Region. The Diffusion of Iron Technology,” paper presented at the Viviers Conference.

239. N. David, “The Archaeological Background of Cameroonian History,” paper presented at the Viviers Conference.

240. Lunyiigo Lwanga, “The Bantu Problem Reconsidered,” Current Anthropology, 17(1976), 282–86.

241. Gramsley R., “Expansion of Bantu-speakers versus Development of Bantu Language and African Culture in situ: An Archaeologist's Perspective,” South African Archaeological Bulletin, 33(1978), 107–12.

242. P. de Maret, “Bribes, débris et bricolage,” paper presented at the Viviers Conference.

243. Möhlig W., “The Bantu Nucleus: Its Conditional Nature and Its Prehistorical Significance,” Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, 1(1979), 109–42. Earlier articles by Möhlig in the same vein are Guthries Beitrag zur Bantuistik aus heutiger Sicht,” Anthropos, 71(1976), 673715; Zur frühen Siedlungsgeschichte der Savannen-Bantu aus authistorischer Sicht” in Möhlig , Rottland , and Heine , Sprachgeschichte, 166–93. His “The Problem of a True Historical Classification of the Bantu Languages,” submitted to the African Linguistics Colloquium of Leiden in 1978 is expected in due course.

244. Kuper A and Leynseele P. Van, “Social Anthropology and the ‘Bantu Expansion’,” Africa, 48(1978), 335–52.

245. Greenberg J., The Languages of Africa (Bloomington, 1963), 38, calls it a “relatively recent movement” on the basis of the wide extension of Bantu languages and the relatively small differentiation among them. But strong conversion also exists among many Australian languages, which must have been spread over the whole of Australia millennia ago. See Dixon R.M.W., “The Nature and Development of Australian Languages,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 8(1979), 433. The rate of differentiation is not necessarily constant as, e.g., the development of English shows. On this point Johnston may be right; see the first part of this article, 312.

246. Möhlig , “Bantu Nucleus,” 123–26, 131–33.

247. Hiernaux, “Bantu Expansion.”

248. Hiernaux and Gauthier, “Comparaison.”

249. Ranger T., “Towards a Usable African Past” in Fyfe C., ed., African Studies Since 1945 (London, 1976), 21.

250. Casson L., “Who First Crossed the Oceans?” in Casson L., Mysteries of the Past (New York, 1977), 30, mentions the same onomatopoeia: (kuk) as Polynesian and Peruvian terms for “chicken.” On the other hand some onomatopoeia, such as those used for “bell” in Africa, are so numerous and variable that such terms may have value as proof because so very many possibilities exist. On fowl consider also the English cock, French coq, both very close to kuk!

251. Murdock , Africa, 2.

252. Ibid., 271.

253. Anttila R., An Introduction to Historical and Comparative Linguistics (New York, 1972), 386–87.

254. For the Mambese see Maeyer F. de, “Een eigenaardig geval van tweetaligheid op de taalgrens der Soeden- en Bantoetalen in Belgisch Kongo,” Kongo-Overzee, 9(1943), 173–75.

255. Anttila , Introduction, 173–74.

256. Winter J.C., “Language Shift Among the Aasax, a Hunter-Gatherer Tribe in Tanzania,” Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika, 1(1979), 175204.

257. Dalby , “Prehistoric Implications,” 487–89, 501.

* The first part of this paper appeared in HA, 6(1979), 287-333.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

History in Africa
  • ISSN: 0361-5413
  • EISSN: 1558-2744
  • URL: /core/journals/history-in-africa
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 84 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 59 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.