Language creeps where it cannot go, and this indicates the spread of Bantu in Africa

Photo: Peter Coutros, Ghent University

With about five hundred languages ​​and more than 350 million speakers, Bantu is the largest language family in Africa. The spread from West Africa began six to four thousand years ago, and is classified as one of the most important demographic events on the entire continent. The cultural and biological landscape has changed dramatically since then.

In a new paper just published in the scientific journal Nature, researchers explain exactly how this spread occurred. The team of scientists – an interdisciplinary group of linguists, geneticists and biologists – discovered that Bantu speakers moved to the east but also to the south of the continent.

Rainforests and savannas

The southward migration in particular is very exceptional. Typically, immigrant communities settle in areas with a similar climate and environment. Several groups of Bantu-speaking people from West Africa did not: they crossed the highlands of Cameroon, the rainforests of central Africa and the savannas of the southwest of the continent.

The researchers also found that Bantu communities did not disperse en masse all at once, but rather migration occurred in waves. Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were now crucial: different migration routes converged there.

The research team based its findings on genetic data from 1,763 individuals, including 1,526 Bantu speakers from 147 different language communities in fourteen African countries. She also analyzed the ancient DNA of twelve individuals from the late Iron Age. This data was collected by a group of Ghent and Congolese researchers.

Intensive communications

The researchers also discovered that West African migrants entered into extensive contact with foreign-speaking populations already living in those areas, such as hunter-gatherers in the rainforests of the Congo and the Kalahari Desert. They say the researchers would not have arrived at these results if they had looked only at language data.

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Clinical biologist Joris Delange (UGent), who contributed to the study, says the genetic dataset the study relies on may serve a different purpose in the future. “It will also play a leading role in researching health issues facing different regions of Congo.”

Bantu languages ​​include Lingala, Swahili and Kikongo. It is also widely spoken today in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.

Source: Koen Postoin, Ghent University

Megan Vasquez

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