Genetics and Demographic History of the Bantu


Peoples speaking languages of the Bantu family are widespread in sub‐Saharan Africa, from the equatorial rainforest to the Cape of Good Hope. Their present‐day distribution is the result of a remarkable expansion, which started about 4000–5000 years ago in the borderland between Cameroon and Nigeria. The genetic distances among Bantu‐speaking populations are significantly lower than those between the Bantu and other ethnolinguistic groups from Africa, suggesting an actual movement of people, rather than cultural diffusion. However, this genetic homogeneity places a challenge to the reconstruction of their actual routes of dispersal, with existing hypotheses being mainly based on data from linguistics and archaeology. While the indigenous populations they encountered did not provide a major contribution to the Bantu gene pool at large, admixture studies reveal different patterns of social interaction, which range from Bantu dominance in the rainforest to a more levelled exchange in southern Africa.

Key Concepts

  • Most speakers of modern‐day Bantu languages share a distinctive genetic component.
  • The spread of the Bantu languages corresponds to a migratory movement, rather than to cultural diffusion.
  • The Bantu migrations correlate with the appearance of technological innovations and new subsistence strategies in western Central Africa.
  • The range of sampled populations and the resolution of the genetic analyses need to be increased to further explore the genetic relationships among different Bantu groups and infer the dispersal models that best explain them.
  • The best documented cases of admixture between Bantu and non‐Bantu populations are provided by studies that were undertaken in the Central African rainforest and the southern African Kalahari basin.

Keywords: Bantu; languages; human migrations; admixture; human population history

Figure 1. Distribution of non‐Bantu Niger–Congo (yellow), West Bantu (Orange) and East Bantu (red) languages. Language groups were assigned according to the affiliation of the most widely distributed languages in the respective countries. The star indicates the approximate origin of the Bantu expansion.
Figure 2. Geographical distribution of the genetic component associated with Niger–Congo‐speaking groups. The darker the tone is, the higher is the frequency of the genetic component (see scale). Lighter coloured regions include a comparatively high number of non‐Niger–Congo‐speaking populations. The map was drawn using data from Tishkoff et al.2009.
Figure 3. Models of Bantu dispersal. (a) Early split; (b) Late split. Based on information from maps published in Pakendorf et al.2011; Russell et al.2014, and Grollemund et al.2015.
Figure 4. Locations of sampled populations referred to in Figure. Colours indicate different language groups. Black: West Bantu; Orange: East Bantu; Green: Kx'a; Red: Tuu; Blue: Khoe‐Kwadi. Geographical location of populations based on Barbieri et al.2014a,2014b; Pickrell et al., 2014, and Marks et al.2015.
Figure 5. Admixture between Bantu‐speaking and indigenous populations of southern Africa. (a–c) Inferred proportions of Bantu‐related ancestry among indigenous populations. (d–f) Inferred proportions of indigenous‐related ancestry among Bantu populations. The geographical positions of sampled groups are shown in Figure. Graphic bars are coloured according to language groups as in Figure. Graphics were generated using data from Barbieri et al.2014a,2014b; Pickrell et al., 2014; Marks et al.2015.


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Further Reading

Campbell MC and Tishkoff S (2010) The evolution of human genetic and phenotypic variation in Africa. Current Biology 20 (4): 166–173.

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Schlebusch CM, Skoglund P, Sjödin P, et al. (2012) Genomic variation in seven Khoe‐San groups reveals adaptation and complex African history. Science 338 (6105): 374–379.

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Rocha, Jorge, and Fehn, Anne‐Maria(Nov 2016) Genetics and Demographic History of the Bantu. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0022892]