Were the first Bantu speakers south of the rainforest farmers?
A first assessment of the linguistic evidence
Popular belief has it that the Bantu Expansion was a farming/language dispersal. However, there is neither conclusive archaeological nor linguistic evidence to substantiate this hypothesis, especially not for the initial spread in West-Central Africa. In this chapter we consider lexical reconstructions for both domesticated and wild plants in Proto-West-Coastal Bantu associated with the first Bantu speech communities south of the rainforest about 2500 years ago. The possibility to reconstruct terms for five different crops, i.e. pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), okra (Hibiscus/Abelmoschus esculentus), cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea) and plantain (Musa spp.), indicates that by that time Bantu speakers did know how to cultivate plants. At the same time, they still strongly depended on the plant resources that could be collected in their natural environment, as is evidenced by a preliminary assessment of reconstructible names for wild plants. Agriculture in Central Africa was indeed “a slow revolution”, as the late Jan Vansina once proposed, and certainly not the principal motor behind the early Bantu Expansion.
Keywords: Bantu Expansion, West-Coastal Bantu, agriculture, foraging, hunter-gatherers, lexical reconstruction, plant names
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