The following is based mainly on chapter 19 of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” (2005) – with his racist framing taken out:
The best way to understand the last 13,000 years in Africa is to look at its languages - particularly at the words people use for the plants and animals they eat. Throw in archaeology and glottochronology and you can work out who was where when and why.
The native language families of Africa:
- Afroasiatic: from Ethiopia. Spreads to most of North Africa and the Middle East. Ancient Egyptians, Ethiopians, Somalis, Arabs, Jews, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Berbers, Tuaregs, Moors. What the Bible calls the sons of Ham and Shem. Copper and iron tools. Native plants and animals that could be domesticated: sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, camels, wheat and barley. Suited for dry lands with winter rains.
- Nilo-Saharan: from the Sahara, which from 9000 to 4000 BC still had lakes, game animals and real grass. Were farmers before the Egyptians. Today they live on the remaining grasslands south of the Sahara. Mali and Songhai empires, Timbuktu. Copper and iron tools. Native: sheep, goats, cows, sorghum, millet. Suited for dry lands with summer rains.
- Niger-Congo: from West Africa. From 3000 BC to 500 AD the Bantu branch spreads across most of Africa south of the equator. Native: African rice and yam, kola nuts, oil palm, guinea fowl. Suited for wet lands and summer rains. Later took on dry-land farming, cows and iron from Nilo-Saharans and Afroasiatics. Could make steel. Resistant to malaria, which their farming spreads. Livestock resistant to the tsetse fly. Does not spread into the south-western corner of Africa due to its winter rains.
- Khoisan: from eastern and southern Africa. Now just in south-western Africa with pockets in East Africa. Their languages have clicks, which some Bantu languages, like Xhosa, have picked up. (Some of the Xhosa in South Africa also look part Khoisan.) Native plants and animals that could be domesticated: none. Hunter-gatherers, stone tools. Some started herding cows and sheep a few hundred years before the Bantus arrived.
- Pygmies: from the middle of Africa, where they can still be found here and there. No longer a language family – they now speak the languages of nearby farmers. Native plants and animals that could be domesticated: none. Hunter-gatherers with stone tools.
The Bantu Expansion: From 3000 BC onwards the Bantus “engulfed” the Pygmies and Khoisan. Jared Diamond uses “engulfed” because we do not know just what took place, like interbreeding, conquest, expulsion, killing or epidemics.
Why the Bantus?
- Afroasiatics were held back by the summer rains (not the Sahara).
- Nilo-Saharans, despite their empires, were held back by the tsetse fly, which their horses were not resistant to.
- Pygmies and Khoisan were held back by the lack of native plants and animals that could be domesticated.
The Austronesian Expansion from South East Asia reached Madagascar between 300 and 800 AD. It brought bananas and Asian yams.
The European Expansion reached south-western Africa in 1652. Their Afroasiatic plants were suited to the winter rains.