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Early Historical Perspectives

Zaire's precolonial past is characterized by considerable complexity. A diversity of social aggregates developed in Zaire, ranging from the small, autonomous groups of hunters and gatherers of the Ituri Forest in the northeast to the centralized chiefdoms and large-scale state systems of the savannas, from the settled village communities of the interior to the predominantly Muslim and Arab trading communities of the eastern region.

In order to bring a measure of coherence to this otherwise confusing mix of peoples and cultures and to appreciate their enduring political, economic, and social legacies, it is important to specify the broad criteria by which they can best be differentiated from each other. One criterion is the size and scope of the societies concerned; another concerns the ways in which power was distributed between rulers and ruled; a third focuses on the different impact of early Westernizing influences on their traditional social systems.

Archaeological evidence of and research on past societies in Zaire are scanty, in no small part because of the tropical climate and the rain forest covering most of the northern half of Zaire and encompassing much of the Congo River basin. Nonetheless, equatorial Africa has been inhabited since at least the middle Stone Age. Late Stone Age cultures flourished in the southern savanna after ca. 10,000 BC and remained viable until the arrival of Bantu-speaking peoples during the first millennium BC. Evidence suggests that these Stone Age populations lived in small groups, relying for subsistence on hunting and gathering and the use of stone tools. Some of these groups may have remained long enough in one vicinity to be considered permanent residents, but others moved, following game along the extensive river network and through the rain forest.

The development of food-producing communities in Zaire is associated with the expansion of Bantu-speaking peoples. In a long series of migrations beginning ca. 1000 B.C. and lasting well into the mid-first millennium A.D., Bantu speakers dispersed from a point west of the Ubangi-Congo River swamp across the forests and savannas of modern Zaire. A northern group moved northeastward around the swamp and across the northern regions of Zaire and setded in the forest zone. Meanwhile, other groups moved south and southwest, the former then migrating up the Congo as well as into the inner part of the Congo Basin, while the southwestern Bantu-speakers spread into modern Gabon, Congo, and lower Zaire.

It was apparently after these movements that Bantu speakers spread south and southeastward across the southern Zairian savannas as far as present-day Angola and Zambia, thereafter continuing to expand into eastern and southern Africa. These migrating groups generally brought with them a technology superior to that of the existing inhabitants. The Bantu speakers were better able to exploit an area's resources through the practice of agriculture, based on yam and oil palm cultivation, and, as time went on, by adopting iron tools and technology.

Bantu-speaking peoples settled in the rain forests and southern savannas. Non-Bantu-speaking peoples are found in the grasslands north of the forest. Information on the settlement dates and routes of migration of these peoples remains vague at best, but they seem to have dwelt at first in the northern grasslands and only later penetrated the forest. Since perhaps late in the first millennium B.C., they have intermingled with the Bantu-speaking groups who preceded them, in the process creating a complex ethnic mosaic.

The significance of some of these peoples extends beyond purely linguistic considerations. The peoples speaking Central Sudanic languages brought with them a new food complex involving cereal cultivation and herding. A related food pattern based on cereals and hunting was separately introduced to southeastern Zaire from East Africa after ca. AD 100. Cereal cultivation, hunting, and herding were much better adapted to conditions in the savannas than the oil palm and yam farming that the Bantu speakers had brought with them, and, hence, spread rapidly, especially in the southern grasslands.

The banana, another important food crop, was introduced, apparently, from southern Asia into East Africa in the early centuries of the present era and thereafter diffused across Central Africa. These new food sources allowed for greater settlement and population growth in the grasslands; they also contributed in no small way to the growth of trade and to increasingly complex social and political organization among those peoples who dwelt in the savannas.

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Page last modified: 22-06-2015 21:02:00 ZULU