Africa is a massive continent with an enormous number of different ethnicities. But why is Africa so diverse? The cause is thousands of years of migration across the continent. Numerous waves of migration led to the mixing of different peoples, producing a very large number of different ethnic groups. This article will look at some of the most important migrations of the last few thousand years. We will see how migration has been central to African history, and how we cannot understand Africa today without looking back in time at how people moved across the continent.
WHO WERE THE MIGRANTS?
Today, a third of Africa is occupied by people who are descended from one group from eastern Nigeria: the Bantu. Between 1000BC and 1000AD, the Bantu spread out over all of Central and Southern Africa. The Bantu were farmers, and usually they continued farming after they migrated. The process was gradual and took place over a very long period of time. Although we do not know for sure, some historians think that the Bantu brought iron to Central and Southern Africa.
The Nilotes were another important group of migrants. They were cattle farmers from southern Ethiopia, and after 3000BC they moved into Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere. Cattle were extremely important to the Nilotes, because they were their main source of wealth and status. They were important for political and cultural reasons as well as economic ones.
There were other nomads, like the Cushites from Ethiopia. In 1000BC, the Cushites spread into the Rift Valley. They were followed into the Rift Valley by both the Bantu and the Nilotes. The example of the Rift Valley shows how important migration was to the history of Africa.
MIGRATION AND DIVERSITY
With each new wave of migration, the different generations of migrants mixed with each other. This produced a great number of different ethnic groups and cultures. Some of the migrants were farmers, like the Bantu; others were cattle-farmers or nomads, like the Nilotes and Cushites. They influenced each other’s cultures and ways of life, and had to learn to live with each other.
WHY DID THESE GROUPS MIGRATE?
It is extraordinary to think that the ethnic make-up of Africa has changed so much over the past few thousand years. But why did this happen? Why did so many people decide to move across the continent? The answer lies in Africa’s environment.
First, let’s look at farmers like the Bantu. Although Africa is massive in size, lots of its land is not good for farming. Even today, over 30% of Africa’s population lives on 1% of its total area. Often, this led to overpopulation and poverty, meaning that many people wanted to migrate to new, less crowded land. This is probably what caused the Bantu to migrate south and east from their homeland in Nigeria. More settlers came to West Africa in 3000BC when dry weather in the Sahara forced people to look for more fertile land. They may have caused overpopulation, causing some of the Bantu to leave. This shows us how migration could lead to more migration.
Nomads and cattle farmers survived by moving constantly from place to place. They were forced to do this because otherwise there would be no grass for their livestock. Therefore, we can see how the Nilotes and Cushites, like the Bantu farmers, decided to migrate because of Africa’s environment.
African geography and climate also meant that settlers and nomads relied on each other for survival. Trade was an important connection between them. Farmers sold things like metal tools and crops from the soil; nomads sold sheep and other animals. Because they depended on each other, nomads and settlers often arranged marriages between their peoples. This helps explain why migration led to ethnic diversity.
WHAT DOES MIGRATION TELL US ABOUT AFRICA?
Migration has been a major feature of African history. What does this tell us about Africa? First, it shows that the environment could be dangerous, and that people needed to take action in order to survive. Second, it explains why Africa is so diverse while at the same time sharing common roots.