How the term ‘Bantu’ tripped up my genetic genealogy journey

This post is the last in a series of issues, challenges, and barriers I’ve faced in understanding African Genetics and my autosomal, YDNA and mtDNA results.

The first post in this series, Can we really make assumptions about African American DNA admixtures? (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2016/03/02/can-we-really-make-assumptions-about-african-american-dna-admixtures), covered how science and genealogy TV shows aren’t in a position to make generalizations about what is or isn’t typical/common when it comes to admixtures in African and African-descended people.

The second post, Why I struggle with ‘West Africa’ as a genetic classification (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/why-i-struggle-with-west-africa-as-a-genetic-classification), covers why I think the ‘West African’ classification some DNA analysis tools provide is meaningless.

In this post, I’m going to outline how the term ‘Bantu’ really tripped me up when it came to understanding and interpreting parts of my DNA testing results.

I remember the first time I saw ‘Bantu’ as a genetic description. I was pretty excited to see it alongside some of the other African tribes I matched. I’d never heard of the Bantu before, so I duly added it to the list of tribes I wanted to research.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it? What followed was a week of utter confusion.

The problem was straightforward. I was looking for a Bantu tribe. It never occurred to me that Bantu was a language, or more actually, a family grouping of similar languages found in central and southern regions of the African continent. Now, you would think it would be easy to feet out the difference between a tribal name and the name of a language. And you would be 100% correct to think that. However, the reality of educating yourself online via a myriad of sources is bound to confuse.

At first, I kept coming up with articles and blog posts about ‘Bantus’ as though this was a tribe. And I couldn’t work it out because that would mean the Bantus would be one truly enormous tribe.  By tribe, I mean of group of people – a society – with shared customs, traditions, beliefs, history, etc. I also kept seeing sub-groups of this apparent tribe of people. These were tribes I was already familiar with. I knew they were distinctly different from one another. Indeed, they were in polar opposite parts of Africa. So how the heck could they be the same overall tribe? That’s the question I kept asking myself.

What was missing was a simple word…”speaking”. “Bantu-speaking”. That’s when the penny dropped. Bantus weren’t one people. This wasn’t a single tribe. This was a language.  The confusion didn’t stop here. Of course it wouldn’t!

The Bantu family of languages are spoken in a very large area of the African continent.

Map showing the distribution of Bantu vs. other African languages. The Bantu area is in orange.

Map showing the distribution of Bantu vs. other African languages. The Bantu area is in orange.

This area includes most of Africa from southern Cameroon, eastward to Kenya, and southward to the southernmost tip of the continent. Twelve Bantu languages are spoken by more than five million people, including Rundi, Rwanda, Shona, Xhosa, and Zulu. Nor is there is a single Bantu language. There are about 250 Bantu languages (Derek Nurse, 2006, Bantu Languages, in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics).

The approximate locations of the sixteen Guthrie Bantu zones, including the addition of a zone J around the Great Lakes.

The approximate locations of the sixteen Guthrie Bantu zones, including the addition of a zone J around the Great Lakes. You can read more about the Bantu languages via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_languages

The Bantu languages descend from a common Proto-Bantu language, which is believed to have been spoken in what is now Cameroon in West Africa an estimated 2,500–3,000 years ago (1000 BC to 500 BC).

The spread of the Bantu language family in Africa:

The spread of the Bantu language family in Africa: 1 = 2000–1500 BC origin,  2 = ca.1500 BC first migrations, 2.a = Eastern Bantu, 2.b = Western Bantu,  3 = 1000–500 BC Urewe nucleus of Eastern Bantu, 4–7 = southward advance, 9 = 500 BC–0 Congo nucleus, 10 = 0–1000 AD last phase.         You can read more about this via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_peoples

Other sources put the start of the Bantu Expansion closer to 3000 BC.  The speakers of the Proto-Bantu language began a series of migrations eastward and southward, carrying agriculture with them. This Bantu-speaking expansion came to dominate Sub-Saharan Africa east of Cameroon, an area where Bantu speaking peoples now constitute nearly the entire population.

The technical term Bantu, meaning “human beings” or simply “people”, was first used by Wilhelm Bleek (1827–1875), to reflect many of the languages of this group.

Defining cultures and people by language would be like defining a large group of Europeans by one language – Latin (otherwise referred to as Romance Languages). These Latin-based languages are referred to as “romance languages” because they originate from a language spoken by Romans. It’s a language family grouping, just like Bantu-speaking. Romance languages evolved from Latin. To give you an idea, the biggest Romance languages are: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian.

Could you imagine a DNA test returning the classification “Romantic or Romance-Language”? I’m smiling at this thought. And the answer is absolutely not.  Europeans would be in an uproar.

The more deeply I read about Bantu-speaking peoples, the more additional pennies began to drop.

niger-congo_map

There are Bantu-speaking tribes who are genetically closer to non-Bantu speaking tribes than they are to tribes who speak a form of Bantu.

Let’s take the Hutu and Tutsi of Rwanda, for example. Both are bantu-speaking. The Hutu are generally recognized as the ethnic majority of Rwanda. The Hutu are a Bantu group that had arrived in the region earlier, during the Bantu expansion. The Tutsi, however were identified by the Hutu as originally being a foreign group that settled amongst and intermarried with the Hutu. The relationship between the two modern populations is, in many ways, derived from the perceived origins and claim to “Rwandan-ness”. A shared language didn’t stop the bloody conflicts and genocide in Rwanda. Clearly, while the Hutu and Tutsi speak the same Bantu language, they do not see themselves as a single people. 

In comparison to the Hutu, the Tutsi have three times as much genetic influence from Nilo-Saharan populations (14.9% ) as the Hutu (4.3% ) perhaps demonstrating a Nilo-Saharan (language classification) speaking origin that supports their nomadic herding past, as opposed to the Hutu who were primarily Bantu farmers.[1]  A more recent study (Trombetta et al. 2015) found 22.2% E1b1b in a Tutsi sample from Burundi, but 0% in the Hutu and Twa of Burundi.[2] Particularly with genetic markers associated with Southern Cushitic people and East African nomadic herding tribes.[3] To put it simply, while they share the same language, the Hutu and the Tutsi have a different genetic mix.

This makes sense. Imagine you’re from one of the Frankish (early French) Celtic  tribes conquered by the Roman army. You’re taken prison, made a slave and sent to Rome. You learn Latin. Learning to speak Latin doesn’t stop you from ethnically  being a Frankish Celt. You’re now just a Celt who speaks a different language than the one you did before your tribe was conquered. You might now be Roman, or at least Romanized…however, you are still ethnically a Frankish Celt.

This is an important aspect to keep in mind when trying to understand your African American DNA test results. I hope it saves you the week or so of confusion that I had to overcome in order to make sense of the whole ‘Bantu’ thing.

My best rule of thumb is this: when you see the word ‘Bantu’ on its own, automatically add the qualifier, -speaking’.

Bantu is a language, not a people. It really has no place as a genetic classification.

If this topic interests you, here are some excellent articles:

  1. The Bantu People, Melissa’s Anthropology Blog.  https://mathildasanthropologyblog.wordpress.com/2008/04/29/the-bantu-people

  2. Bantu peoples in South Africa, Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bantu_peoples_in_South_Africa
  3. The Bantu Expansion,  http://pages.ucsd.edu/~dkjordan/resources/clarifications/BantuExpansion.html

References:

  1. Luis, J. R.; Rowold, D.J.; Regueiro, M.; Caeiro, B.; Cinnioğlu, C.; Roseman, C.; Underhill, P.A.; Cavalli-Sforza, L.L.; Herrera, R.J. (2004).“The Levant versus the Horn of Africa: Evidence for Bidirectional Corridors of Human Migrations” (PDF). American Journal of Human Genetics 74 (3): 532–544. 
  2. Trombetta, Beniamino; D’Atanasio1, Eugenia; Massaia, Andrea; Ippoliti, Marco; Coppa, Alfredo; Candilio, Francesca; Coia, Valentina; Russo, Gianluca; Dugoujon, Jean-Michel; Mora, Pedro; Akar, Nejat; Sellitto, Daniele; Valesini, Guido; Novelletto, Andrea; Scozzari, Rosaria; Cruciani, Fulvio (2015). “Phylogeographic refinement and large scale genotyping of human Y chromosome haplogroup E provide new insights into the dispersal of early pastoralists in the African continent.”. Oxford Journals 7: 1940–1950.
  3.  Henn, Brenna M.; Gignoux, Christopher; Lin, Alice A.; Oefner, Peter J.; Shen, Peidong; Scozzari, Rosaria; Cruciani, Fulvio; Tishkoff, Sarah A.; Mountain, Joanna L.; Underhill, Peter A. (2008). “Y-chromosomal evidence of a pastoralist migration through Tanzania to southern Africa.”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105: 10693–8.
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3 Comments

Filed under AfAm Genealogy, Black History, Genetics, Uncategorized

3 responses to “How the term ‘Bantu’ tripped up my genetic genealogy journey

  1. I remember talking with an African from Kenya mentioning I was read an article about the Bantu language. He corrected me by informing me the Bantu was a language; but that Bantu was a group of people which spoke a variety of Bantu dialects. So, I guess the people of Africa have a different definition and understanding of what the word means. I am still researching this myself.

  2. ktaldridgerand

    Another thought provoking blog…honestly, i think this use of “Bantu” without the qualifier, speaking, or used as people a classification is a subtle divide and conquer agent. When you begin to peel the layers of these non-African created linguistic nomenclatures, you start to detect a defacto linguistic hierarchy, with so-called “Afro-Asiatic” as the most prestigious; “Nilo-Saharan” as intermediate; and “Niger-Congo,” along with Khoe, as the least prestigious-illiterate languages/cultures. Have you noticed the little or no attempt to demonstrate the interrelationship of the major language groups of Africa. Yet, Western academia have managed to devise the “Indo-European” super-language family, even though say Germany, Latin, and Sanskrit as distinctly divergent. Mainstream linguistics will readily point out the cognates within Indo-European languages. But when cognates are found/identified across African language families (e.g., between Yoruba and ancient Egyptian), suddenly it’s relegated to “loan words” or “coincidental”.

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