Bantu Languages. The greater part of Africa south of the equator possesses but one linguistic family so far as its native inhabitants are concerned. This clearly-marked division of human speech has been entitled the Bantu, a name invented by Dr W. H. I. Bleek, and it is, on the whole, the fittest general term with which to designate the most remarkable group of African languages.[1]

It must not be supposed for a moment that all the people who speak Bantu languages belong necessarily to a special and definite type of negro. On the contrary, though there is a certain physical resemblance among those tribes who speak clearly-marked Bantu dialects (the Babangi of the upper Congo, the people of the Great Lakes, the Ova-herero, the Ba-tonga, Zulu-Kaffirs, Awemba and some of the East Coast tribes), there is nevertheless a great diversity in outward appearance, shape of head and other physical characteristics, among the negroes who inhabit Bantu Africa. Some tribes speaking Bantu languages are dwarfs or dwarfish, and belong to the group of Forest Pygmies. Others betray relationship to the Hottentots; others again cannot be distinguished from the most exaggerated types of the black West African negro. Yet others again, especially on the north, are of Gala (Galla) or Nilotic origin. But the general deduction to be drawn from a study of the Bantu languages, as they exist at the present day, is that at some period not more than 3000 years ago a powerful tribe of negroes speaking the Bantu mother-language, allied physically to the negroes of the south-western Nile and southern Lake Chad basins (yet impregnated with the Caucasian Hamite), pushed themselves forcibly from the very heart of Africa (the region between the watersheds of the Shari, Congo and western Nile) into the southern half of the continent, which at that time was probably sparsely populated except in the north-west, east and south.

The Congo basin and the south-western watershed of the Nile at the time of the Bantu invasion would have been occupied on the Atlantic seaboard by West Coast negroes, and in the centre by negroes of a low type and by Forest Pygmies; the eastern coasts of Victoria Nyanza and the East African coast region down to opposite Zanzibar probably had a population partly Nilotic-negro and partly Hottentot-Bushman. From Lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa south-westwards to the Cape of Good Hope the population was Forest-negro, Nilotic-negro, Hottentot and Bushman. Over nearly all this area the Bantu swept; and they assimilated or absorbed the vast majority of the preceding populations, of which, physically or linguistically, the only survivors are the scattered tribes of pygmies in the forests of south-west Nile land, Congo basin and Gabun, the central Sudanese of the N.E. Congo, a few patches of quasi-Hottentot, Hamitic and Nilotic peoples between Victoria Nyanza and the Zanzibar coast, and the Bushmen and Hottentots of south-west Africa. The first area of decided concentration on the part of the Bantu was very probably Uganda and the shores of Tanganyika. The main line of advance south-west trended rather to the east coast of Africa than to the west, but bifurcated at the south end of Lake Tanganyika, one great branch passing west between that lake and Nyasa, and the other southwards.

Finally, when the Bantu had reached the south-west corner of Africa, their farther advance was checked by two causes: first, the concentration in a healthy, cattle-rearing part of Africa of the Hottentots (themselves only a superior type of Bushman, but able to offer a much sturdier resistance to the big black Bantu negroes than the crafty but feeble Bushmen), and secondly, the arrival on the scene of the Dutch and British, but for whose final intervention the whole of southern Africa would have been rapidly Bantuized, as far as the imposition of language was concerned.

The theory thus set forth of the origin and progress of the Bantu and the approximate date at which their great southern exodus commenced, is to some extent attributable to the present writer only, and has been traversed at different times by other writers on the same subject. In the nearly total absence of any historical records, the only means of building up Bantu history lies in linguistic research, in the study of existing dialects, of their relative degree of purity, of their connexion one with the other and of the most widely-spread roots common to the majority of the Bantu languages. The present writer, relying on linguistic evidence, fixed the approximate date at which the Bantu negroes left their primal home in the very heart of Africa at not much more than 2000 years ago; and the reason adduced was worth some consideration. It lay in the root common to a large proportion of the Bantu languages expressing the domestic fowl - kuku (nkuku, ngoko, nsusu, nguku, nku). Now the domestic fowl reached Africa first through Egypt, at the time of the Persian occupation - not before 500 to 400 B.C. It would take at that time at least a couple of hundred years before - from people to people and tribe to tribe up the Nile valley - the fowl, as a domestic bird, reached the equatorial regions of Africa. The Muscovy duck, introduced by the Portuguese from Brazil at the beginning of the 17th century, is spreading itself over Negro Africa at just about the same rate.

Yet the Bantu people must have had the domestic fowl well established amongst themselves before they left their original home, because throughout Bantu Africa (with rare exceptions and those not among the purest Bantu tribes) the root expressing the domestic fowl recurs to the one vocable of kuku.[2] Curiously enough this root kuku resembles to a marked degree several of the Persian words for "fowl," and is no doubt remotely derived from the cry of the bird. Among those Negro races which do not speak Bantu languages, though they may be living in the closest proximity to the Bantu, the name for fowl is quite different.[3] The fowl was only introduced into Madagascar, as far as researches go, by the Arabs during the historical period, and is not known by any name similar to the root kuku. Moreover, even if the fowl had been (and there is no record of this fact) introduced from Madagascar on to the east coast of Africa, it would be indeed strange if it carried with it to Cameroon, to the White Nile and to Lake Ngami one and the same name.