A new study published in the journal Advances in science shows that Bantu-speaking communities in the Congo rainforest have experienced a large population decline from 1600 to 1400, probably due to a prolonged disease epidemic, and that significant migration did not begin about 1000 years ago.
These findings review the history of the population in at least seven present-day African countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola) and challenge the widespread belief that Central African-speaking peoples Bantu was a continuous process from about 4000 years ago until the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.
Ongoing debates over decolonization, the return of African cultural heritage, and anti-racism have also revived interest in European colonization of Central Africa, even if it was a relatively short period in the region’s long and arduous history.
Modern humans lived in the savannas of Central Africa for tens of thousands of years before appearing in Europe. Also in the rainforest in the Congo, our ancestors overcame many challenges long before the first European expedition passed, as shown again in this recently published study.
A unique interdisciplinary research method
As part of a disciplinary research project that examines the interrelationships between human migration, language spread, climate change, and early agriculture in pre-colonial Central Africa, the current study combines a comprehensive analysis of all available archaeological radiocarbon dates as a proxy for human comprehensive analysis of the diversity and distribution of pottery styles as a proxy for socio-economic development.
These well-dated archeological records were further compared in this study with genetic and linguistic evidence to gain new insights into the ancient settlement in the history of the Bantu-speaking population in the Congo rainforest.
According to archaeologist Dirk Seidensticker (UGent), one of the two leading authors, the multi-proxy approach developed in this study is unique in both empirical evidence and scientific method, using 1,149 dates of radiocarbon dating associated with 115 styles of pottery has recovered from 726 places in the Congo rainforest and surrounding areas:
“We are the first to integrate these three types of archaeological data collections on such a large scale and for such a long period and have shown that across Central Africa two periods of more intense human activity (800 CE BC to 400 AD) and 1000 ~ to 1900 AD) were separated by widespread population collapse between 400 and 600 AD. Thus, we can clearly delineate the periods known as Early Iron Age and Late Iron Age, each of which is characterized by distinctive pottery styles that first underwent widespread expansion phase followed by a regionalization phase with many more local pottery styles. Pottery is one of the few cultural heritage objects that has survived the ravages of time, this is an important step forward for the archeology of Central Africa.“
New insights into Bantu’s controversial expansion
The initial spread of Bantu-speaking people from their homeland on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon to East and South Africa, dating back to about 4000 years ago, is unique in the world due to its size, fast pace and adaptation to multiple ecosystems. This spread had a significant impact on the linguistic, demographic and cultural landscape of the continent.
Bantu languages make up Africa’s largest language family: about 1 in 3 Africans speak one or more languages in Bantu.
Historian linguist and Africanist Cohen Boston (UGent) is excited about how this new discovery prompts us to consider the expansion of Bantu, one of the most controversial issues in African history:
“African colonization of speech communities in Bantu is usually seen as a single, long-term and continuous macro-event. We tend to see today’s speakers in Bantu as direct descendants of those who originally inhabited the rainforest about 2700 years ago. Today’s languages in Bantu are developed directly from the ancestral languages of those early settlers.However, our results show that this initial wave of early Iron Age Bantu-speaking communities largely disappeared from the entire Congo rainforest region by 600 AD. may be nearly 1,000 years younger than previously thought.Scientifically, this introduces new challenges to our use of linguistic data to reconstruct the history of Africa.In general, our study shows that African societies faced serious catastrophes long before transatlantic trade with slaves and European colonization and had the resistance to overcome them, this is hopeful“
Prolonged epidemic as a cause of population collapse?
Paleobotanist and tropical forest ecologist Vanes Hubau (UGent and RMCA Tervuren), the other lead author, points out that the drastic decline in population around 400-600 AD. coincided with humid climates throughout the region and may therefore be promoted by an epidemic of prolonged illness:
We note the broad coincidence between the sharp demographic decline in the Congo rainforest and the Justinian plague (541-750). AD), which is considered one of the factors that led to the fall of the Roman Empire and the Axumite Empire in Ethiopia. It may have killed up to 100 million people in Asia, Europe and Africa.
We have no solid evidence that the population decline seen in our archaeological data is indeed due to a persistent vector-borne disease. However, the bacteria are yersinia pestis, which caused the Justinian plague, has a long presence in Central Africa.
One particular species, still found today in DRC, Zambia, Kenya and Uganda, has dominated Central Africa for at least 300 years and is the oldest living species closely related to the vine that caused the Black Death in 14and century Europe. Therefore, we consider the prolonged plague pandemic to be a plausible hypothesis for the observed over-regional population decline in 5and-6and century Central Africa.“
Vanes Hubau, Paleobotanist and tropical forest ecologist, University of Ghent
Seidensticker, D., etc. (2021) Population collapse in the Congo rainforest of 400 AD requires a reassessment of Bantu expansion. Advances in science. doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abd8352.