The population movements that took place in southern Africa over many hundreds of years were usually described in old-style histories as ‘Bantu migrations’, and were depicted by thick arrows on maps indicating the alleged lines of march. Migration in the sense of deliberately motivated change of location did of course occur, but it cannot be accepted as a suitable description of the process whereby most of southern Africa became populated by people speaking related Bantu languages.
Migration implies rapid movement, whereas archaeological evidence shows that the dispersion of Bantu-speaking peoples within southern Africa occurred over a period of centuries. It also implies nomadism and rootless wandering, which is contrary to the deep attachment felt by Iron Age peoples for their home places. Finally, migration implies exclusive occupation of a single place by a defined group of people, whereas in southern Africa the dispersion of some peoples did not necessarily imply the ejection of others. Historical perspective reveals two distinct and contradictory processes that shaped the early history of Iron Age southern Africa – segmentation and differentiation.
Segmentation is the name given to the process whereby a group subdivided into two or more groups. It occurred in a domestic unit when the sons of a household grew up and left to establish their own households elsewhere. Scarcity of natural resources led to dispersed settlements, linked by ties of kinship and sentiment to the parent household. Segmentation of this sort was thus a continuous natural process, a consequence of the eternal human cycle of reproduction and maturation.
Differentiation is the name given to the process whereby certain individuals came to secure political, social and economic power over others.