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The First Bantu Speakers South of the Rainforest: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Human Migration, Language Spread, Climate Change and Early Farming in Late Holocene Central Africa

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - BantuFirst (The First Bantu Speakers South of the Rainforest: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Human Migration, Language Spread, Climate Change and Early Farming in Late Holocene Central Africa)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-12-31

The Bantu Expansion is unique among ancient dispersals of peoples and languages due to its combination of high amplitude, rapid pace and adaptation to multiple ecozones . The spread of Bantu-speaking people from a homeland region on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon towards Eastern and Southern Africa starting ~4000 years ago had a momentous impact on the continent’s linguistic, demographic and cultural landscape. The ~550 Bantu languages spoken today constitute Africa’s largest language family, and the gene pool of Bantu-speaking communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa still contain a dominant ancestral West African component. In the Congo rainforest of Central Africa, the intensification of settlements from the first millennium BC with pottery and large refuse pits, and with evidence of cultivation, husbandry, and later on metallurgy points to development of a more sedentary lifestyle contrasting to that of previous hunter-gatherers. The spread of this new material culture is generally viewed as the archaeological backdrop of the area’s penetration by the first Bantu speakers. Despite significant new data pertinent to the Bantu Expansion emerging from diverse disciplines, debate continues on the driving forces behind the large-scale migration of Bantu-speaking communities and their interaction with regional landscapes, especially during the earliest phases.

The Bantu Expansion is therefore one of the most controversial issues in African History that has sparked intense debate across several scientific disciplines since the 1950s. The patterns and the driving forces behind the initial migration of Bantu speakers across Africa are still hotly debated. Two widely accepted paradigms are that [1] it was a single migratory macro-event; and [2] it was a farming/language dispersal. Sadly, these popular paradigms are based on very limited empirical evidence.

That it is exactly why BantuFirst was conceived as a cross-disciplinary research project aiming at transforming our thinking on the Bantu Expansion by collecting new empirical evidence to gain a better understanding of the interconnections between human migration, language spread, climate change and early farming in Late Holocene Central Africa. The project unites researchers with outstanding expertise in Central African archaeology, archaeobotany and historical linguistics into one single team. Together they carry out evidence-based frontier research on the first Bantu-speaking settlements south of the equatorial rainforest in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo and Angola that are as yet still unexplored by archaeologists.

The BantuFirst project tries to develop this new paradigm-shifting narrative on the Bantu Expansion by focusing on the putative homeland area of one specific branch of the Bantu family, i.e. West-Coastal or West-Western Bantu. The core scientific expertise of the project team consists of historical linguistics, archaeology and archaeobotany, while palaeoenvironmental, archaeozoological and genetic data are regularly integrated through inter-university collaboration.

BantuFirst is a 5-year program (2018-2022) funded by a Consolidator’s Grant (n° 724275) of the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, which was granted to the project’s Principal Investigator, Prof. Koen Bostoen of Ghent University (UGent). It is hosted at the UGent Centre for Bantu Studies and involves close collaboration with the UGent Department of Archaeology, the Wood Biology lab of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (Belgium), the Institute of Archaeological Sciences of Goethe University in Frankfurt (Germany), the Human Evolutionary History in Africa lab of the Department of Ecology and Genetics at Uppsala University (Sweden), the University of Kinshasa (DRC), and the Institute of National Museums of Congo (DRC), among others.
Development and regular updating of project website

Extension of BantUGent documentation share

Two archaeological fieldwork missions to the DRC in 2018

One multidisciplinary fieldwork mission (linguistics, archaeology, genetics, ethnography) to the DRC in 2019

Six publications in international peer-reviewed journals pertaining to African archaeology

Three publications in international peer-reviewed journals pertaining to African linguistics

Participation in one major joint publication on aDNA in Africa in Sciences Advances

Four book chapters pertaining to Bantu languages and the Bantu Expansion

Two forthcoming publications in international peer-reviewed journals pertaining to African archaeology

Four forthcoming publications in international peer-reviewed journals pertaining to African linguistics

One MA thesis in African linguistics

Dissemination and outreach on several international conferences and through recurrent BantuFirst Research Seminars
New archaeological data from several provinces/regions in the DRC which were virtually unexplored before BantuFirst: Kwilu, Bandundu, Mai Ndombe and coastal region of the Kongo Central Province;

New understanding of the internal classification of the West-Coastal Bantu branch of the Bantu family and a relocation of its putative homeland much further east, i.e. between the Kamtsha and Kasaï Rivers;

Demonstration of a population collapse in the Congo rainforest from AD 400 urging a radical reassessment of the Bantu Expansion.
BantuFirst excavation at the school in Mukila in 2018 © D. Seidensticker
Excavation of iron kiln at Nguemba site in Kongo Central Province (DRC) in 2018 © B. Clist
Survey on agricultural fields within the area of Bandundu (DRC) in 2018 © K. Jungnickel
Recovery of a thin layer of lithics close to Bandundu (DRC) in 2018 © D. Seidensticker
Archaeological prospections in Parc National des Mangroves (DRC) in 2018 © B. Clist
Joseph Koni Muluwa, Koen Bostoen and Léon Mundeke during genetic sampling in 2019 (Kikwit, DRC) © SP
Sara Pacchiarotti and Freddy Impenge during linguistic fieldwork in 2019 (Idiofa, DRC) © K. Bostoen
Archaeological fieldwork at Muanda 6 in Kongo Central Province (DRC) in 2018 © B. Clist
gor Matonda Sakala and Isidore Nkanu inventorying archaeological finds in 2019 (Idiofa, DRC) © KB
Joseph Emboto and Flore Bollaert during linguistic fieldwork in 2018 (Mbankana, DRC)