Ancient West Africa: Bantu Migrations & the Stateless Society

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  • 0:02 The Bantu Migrations
  • 2:13 A Different Sort of Government
  • 3:18 Jenne-Jeno
  • 4:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will discuss some of the characteristics of ancient West Africa. We will focus especially on the Bantu migrations, the stateless society, and the city of Jenne-jeno.

A Long Journey: The Bantu Migrations

West Africa has a long and complex history. Although much has been lost in the shadows and fogs of a time before people created written accounts, historians, like detectives, search for clues in language patterns, artifacts unearthed by archeologists, and oral accounts passed down from generation to generation. Using this evidence, they can reconstruct areas of history that have been long forgotten. We're going to look at three aspects of West African history that will give us a taste of the richness of the culture found in this area of the world.

First, let's talk about the Bantu migrations. Bantu was an ancient language spoken by people who lived in what is now Cameroon and Nigeria in West Africa. These people were primarily farmers who lived in villages along rivers. By about 1500 BCE, their crops, including newer foods like bananas, yams, and cereals, were flourishing, their population was expanding, and their lands were becoming a bit overcrowded. Some of them decided it was time to move on.

Over the next 2,000 years, the Bantu people moved slowly and gradually in two directions: south down the coast of Western Africa and east across the continent, with a turn to the South as they progressed. As they moved, the Bantu spread their agricultural practices, their language, and their culture. Along the way, they developed iron tools and weapons that aided their spread and made their agricultural endeavors more efficient.

The Bantu peoples did not move into empty lands. They often encountered resistance from those already living on their prospective new homelands. The Bantu, however, had the advantage of iron weapons, as well as the force of movement that pushed native people off their land or assimilated them into the Bantu way of life.

By about 500 CE, the Bantu migrations were complete; the Bantu peoples occupied nearly all of Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Today, in fact, about 90 million people speak modern descendants of the Bantu languages, which include Swahili and Zulu.

A Different Sort of Government

As the Bantu people migrated, they carried their style of government with them. Their social groups are often called stateless societies, but a better term for them might be kin-based societies.

Stateless societies were very different from modern Western governments. For one thing, they lacked a centralized hierarchy of government officials (like a president or a congress) and a bureaucracy to take care of daily business. Instead, a stateless society was led by family groups that balanced the ruling power among them and made decisions together for the good of the whole society.

Sometimes these family groups controlled just one village through a council of elders, which was comprised of the male heads of the families and occasionally an elected chief who spoke for the council. Other times, the family groups exercised their power over several villages to form a district. In this case, village chiefs met together to discuss and decide important issues. These networks could sometimes grow very large and contain thousands of people, but they were always governed by families and never by officials or bureaucrats.


At times, these stateless societies even grew into cities. This happened in Jenne-jeno, which began as a small fishing village along the Niger River (in modern Mali) about 250 BCE. Founded by Bantu peoples, the little town attracted ever more settlers over the years, and by 400 CE, it was a thriving walled city ruled by family groups.

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