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Bantu (bănˈto͞oˌ), ethnic and linguistic group of Africa, numbering about 120 million. The Bantu inhabit most of the continent S of the Congo River except the extreme southwest. The classification is primarily linguistic, and there are almost a hundred Bantu languages, including Luganda, Zulu, and Swahili. Few cultural generalizations concerning the Bantu can be made. Before the European conquest of Africa the Bantu tribes were either pastoral and warlike or agricultural and usually pacific. There were some highly developed Bantu states, including Buganda in present-day Uganda. Possibly under the fear of European encroachment, several additional Bantu states developed in the 19th cent., notably among the Zulu and the Sotho. Other well-known Bantu tribes include the Ndebele (Matabele) and the Shona. In South Africa, the term Bantu is commonly used to refer to the native African population, which was subject to the policies of apartheid.


See W. M. MacMillan, Bantu, Boer, and Briton (rev. ed. 1963); W. C. Willoughby, The Soul of the Bantu (1928, repr. 1970); E. J. Murphy, The Bantu Civilization of Southern Africa (1974).

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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The rich culture of the Bantu people of Africa, south of the Congo River, includes several hundred languages and many different religious traditions. At the height of the slave trade, Islam had spread into the remote interior of the Bantus' homeland, while Catholicism vied for control of the coast. Countless thousands of Bantus were captured by Muslim slavers. Then they were marched to the coasts, where Catholic priests, who wanted to ensure their salvation, baptized them. Finally, they were loaded into the holds of Protestant-owned ships from America. They were then taken to different points of destination to work as slaves for the remainder of their lives.

But whether they were taken to the cane fields of Cuba or the cotton plantations of Georgia, they placed their own unique brand of spirituality upon their culture. The Voodoo of Haiti and New Orleans, the Rastafarianism of Jamaica, the unique song form of the black American spiritual, the philosophies of the Black Muslims, the southern gospel tradition of Protestant worship—all owe their very existence to people who absorbed the religion of their persecutors but refused to surrender their unique spirituality.

In South Africa today, the term Bantu is used to refer to the indigenous African population that was subject to the policies of Apartheid, the strict segregation of the black and white populations.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) The family of languages of the native population of the central and southern parts of the African continent. The northern boundary of the Bantu languages passes roughly along the 5° N lat. line from the Mont Cameroun volcano in the west to Lake Albert in the east; it then dips down toward the south, reaching 2° S lat. at the shores of the Indian Ocean. In the southwestern part of the continent the Bantu languages are bordered by the Bushman and Hottentot languages, which are widespread in southern Angola and South West Africa. A total of about 83 million people (1967 estimate) speak Bantu languages.

All the Bantu languages have a similar morphological structure and syntax and elements of a common vocabulary. They are agglutinative and have elements of inflection. The phonetic system is marked by musical tones, which have semantic and grammatical significance; most of the languages have from five to seven vowels and open syllables. Only in the languages of Cameroon and adjacent regions of the Congo Basin does the structure of a word often have a consonantal ending and a very complex phonetic structure. In many Bantu languages of the southeast (within the Republic of South Africa), clicking sounds—influenced by the Bushmen substratum—are encountered. A characteristic feature of the structure of the Bantu languages is the existence of a developed system of grammatical noun classes and also a strict system of agreement, according to noun classes, of adjectives, numerals, pronouns, and verbal subject and object indicators. The structure of the verbal complex is uniform in all Bantu languages—that is, the pronominal subject indicator comes first, after that the tense indicator, then the pronominal object indicator, which is followed by the verbal stem; then come suffixes of derivative forms of the verb that give it modal and aspectual nuances. The word order in a sentence is subject, verbal complex, object. A modifier follows that which is modified. There is still no generally accepted classification of the Bantu languages. Those of greatest scientific value in the middle of the 20th century are the classification proposed by the South African linguist C. Doke; the classification adopted in the four-volume Guide to African Languages (compiled by the English linguist M. A. Bryan); and the classification of the English linguist M. Guthrie based on the study of several hundred Bantu languages and the tallying of lexical items aided by computer technology.

The most widespread Bantu languages are Swahili (spoken by about 50 million people) in Tanzania and adjacent countries; Nyamwezi and Sukuma in Tanzania; Kikuyu and Kamba in Kenya; Congo, Ngala (Lingala), Luba, and Mbundu in the People’s Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola; Rundi in Burundi; Rwanda in Rwanda; Ganda (Luganda) in Uganda; the group of Shona languages in Rhodesia and Mozambique; Xhosa and Zulu in the Republic of South Africa; Duala, Ewondo (Yaoundé), and Bulu in Cameroon; Sotho in Lesotho; and Chwana in Botswana. The similarity of all Bantu languages makes the rapid dissemination of Swahili easier; it is becoming a means of communication for the people of many countries of eastern tropical Africa, and it is recognized as the official language of Tanzania.

(2) Sometimes all the peoples living in the southern half of the African continent and speaking Bantu languages are called Bantu. This is not completely correct, since it confuses linguistic and ethnic classification. Language uniformity does not provide the grounds for assuming a single origin of all the peoples who speak Bantu languages. The history of the study of the languages and cultures of Africa provides examples of such a confusion of different principles of scientific classification. The theory of the English ethnographer H. Johnston is well known; it conjectures that the ancestors of the Bantu moved into central Africa from the Sudan. The English ethnographer A. Bryant elaborated this theory and tried to demonstrate that the Bantu constitute a single group of peoples with respect to race, culture, and language. This oversimplified notion does not stand up to criticism. In reality, the contemporary peoples who speak Bantu do not constitute a single, genetically related group. With respect to anthropology, they—like all the native peoples of the part of Africa south of the Sahara—belong to the Negroid race, within which several subraces can be distinguished. The population of the forest regions of the Congo Basin is sharply distinguished from the peoples who inhabit the region of the Great Lakes by skin color, height, and the presence of prognathism, although both speak Bantu languages. Differences in culture are also great; the people of the western part of the Congo River Basin are closer to the peoples of the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea, who speak languages of other groups, than they are to the peoples of the eastern coast of Africa, who belong to the same language groups (Bantu) as the peoples of the Congo. The research of the English linguist M. Guthrie has demonstrated that the center for the spread of the Bantu languages was the region which stretches from the mouth of the Congo east to the island of Zanzibar, within which region there can be noted a division into two groups of dialects. In still more remote times, the Bantu languages had links with the languages of the Atlantic group that are prevalent now in the Republic of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea (Portuguese), and Senegal.


Narody Afriki. Moscow, 1954.
Afrika: Entsiklopedicheskii spravochnik, vol. 1–2. Moscow, 1963.
Bryan, M. A. Bantu Languages of Africa. London-New York, 1959.
Guthrie, M. Comparative Bantu: An Introduction to the Comparative Linguistics and Prehistory of the Bantu Languages, vol. 1. 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a group of languages of Africa, including most of the principal languages spoken from the equator to the Cape of Good Hope, but excluding the Khoisan family: now generally regarded as part of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo family
2. South African derogatory a Black speaker of a Bantu language
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005