Bantu (“the people”) is a cultural-linguistic cluster of peoples originating around present-day Cameroon and Nigeria in West Africa. The prefix “ba” means “people,” while the stem “ntu” refers to “life force,” hence, “the people.” These African peoples migrated into much of central, southern, and eastern Africa over an approximate 2,000-year period. Rather than a mass exodus, sizable streams of people over a vast territory and equally large period constituted one of the largest migratory flows in human history. Though its origin in time remain unclear, the eastern branch of proto-Bantu plowed through present-day Zimbabwe and Mozambique to south Africa, while the western branch moved into present-day Angola, Namibia, and northwest Botswana. In the encounter between Bantu migrant farmers with iron working knowledge and localized communities, the outcome was usually co-existence, or the latter were incorporated into larger settlements and states that relied on farming, animal husbandry, and fishing. These societies used stone and iron tools, weapons, implements, and utensils. Iron was far superior to copper and bronze for making tools and weapons. Since iron ore was readily available in much of tropical Africa, iron working knowledge spread to most of the continent by the fifth century CE. With iron, the pro-Bantu hunted with bow and arrow and traps; collected honey and wax; fished with hooks, line, nets and baskets; paddled canoes, kept goats and cattle; molded pottery, water and storage pots, and cultivated root crops and palm. Nonetheless, Bantu migrants aided this process of spreading iron working knowledge, farming techniques and their language to central, southern and eastern Africa, where iron ore, timber or charcoal, and water sources were available. In this dispersal the Bantu language(s) became prominent in a region that constituted almost two-thirds of Africa below the Sahara Desert. Currently there are two main theories for the distribution of Bantu languages. The maps below provide an overview of those models.
Source for maps: Koen Bostoen, “Linguistics for the Use of African History and the Comparative Study of Bantu Pottery Vocabulary,” Antwerp Papers in Linguistics 106 (2004): 151-52 (used by permission of author).