Saturday 30 July 2022

#070 The Great Bantu Migration - Part 1

African history, from a popular British perspective, is a selective story. No sooner have anthropologists discussed the origins of humans, then it's how quickly those humans could get out of Africa. Except for dwelling upon the enigmatic Egyptian pharaohs, millennia of culture is set aside and there's a giant leap forward to the European scramble for Africa, slavery and colonial rule. Omitted, are rich periods of history, the ebb and flow of great African civilisations, technologies and people. 

Photo credit:

In 1964 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) started a project which sought to redress this imbalance. Essentially, telling the story of the continent, by Africans with an African perspective. The outcome was a series of volumes, culminating in the General History Of Africa, Vol 8, Africa Since 1935, published in 1993. Currently, there are plans to extend the series by three more volumes.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Journalist and president of SOAS (London School of African Studies), Zeinab Badawe used the GHA to inform her series 'History Of Africa', televised in 20 parts, originally on BBC World News, but now available on You Tube.
History Of Africa - Zeinab Badawi - Links to full series

In this blog we explore one of world history's greatest but overlooked movements of people, accompanied by technological and cultural change. One so rapid, it has been called by some historians 'an explosion!'  

This was the Great Bantu Migration.

Origins of the Bantu
If we draw a line from south Nigeria to the East African coast, modern Bantu speaking peoples now comprise 90% of the population south of this line. There are over 2000 Bantu languages spread across East, South and Central Africa, with common terms and grammar. Linguists have traced the timeline of this divergence back to around two to three thousand years ago, to a source area we now call the Nigerian-Cameroon border.

Chronology of the Bantu is also supported by looking at the shape and decoration of artefacts. A method known as typography. From common forms, a strong regional diversity and stylisation developed among Bantu groups who had settled following their migratory radiation. 

The end of the Stone Age in Africa
Archaeological studies of later pre-history have shown that peoples were living at different stages of technological development contemporaneously in different parts of Africa. There was no single end to the stone age. Many hunter gatherer communities were still using stone age technology right up to the first millennium of the Christian era. While developments such as agriculture and iron usage had become established elsewhere for several hundred years.

We can compare this to Mesolithic Britain populated by bands of hunter, fisher, gatherers. Meanwhile, Neolithic agricultural practices and animal domestication were spreading across the European continent from the Near East.

Iron and the 'Explosive' Bantu Expansion
There are several theories as to the origins of iron working in West Africa, from introduction via trade routes to indigenous development associated with the Nok people. What is more certain is that iron was already in use by the migrating Bantu people and that the beginnings of arable agriculture occurred with the first appearance of iron technology. Linguistics supports this, as words associated with iron working were in use before the migration and diversification of the Bantu language.

It is clear that iron made possible new methods of higher yielding agricultural practices, producing an excess, facilitating population growth and trade. Iron also enabled faster clearing of forest and efficient tilling of the land. The early Bantu migrants sought out areas similar to from which they came and were familiar with: Wooded or forested lands, near to rivers, which had sufficient rainfall for yam based agriculture. 

Over the next three thousand years the Bantu vectored along rivers in their canoes and forest trails. The expansion was not linear but spread in pulses and different directions. The early migrations (3000 to 1000BC) went into the forest lands south to the Congo river and east into the Great Lakes region.

Around 500BC the migration entered East Africa and by 500AD the Bantu had reached southern Africa. Most of the migrations were complete, circa 1000AD. So, while the migration timeline of thousands of years hardly sounds explosive in a modern global context, for the period it was an incredible rate of population movement for a single origin culture in pre-history.

So what happened to the Bronze Age?
Unlike the British pre-history sequence (Mesolithic - Neolithic - chalcolithic - bronze - iron), there was no specific bronze age in sub-Saharan Africa as technology progressed from stone to iron.

The earliest copper usage comes from Mauretania between the 9th and 5th centuries BC. Culminating in some of the finest examples of bronze work made in 16th century Benin. Although evidence of iron smelting to 2000BC pre-dates the earliest bronze and copper metalwork in West Africa. 

Benin Bronze. Photo: Stu Westfield

And the cows?
Bantus were agriculturalists not pastoralists. However, cattle keeping does pre-date iron in East Africa, spread by the Central Sudanic (Cushitc) speakers living in North Uganda and Tanzania (near Lake Victoria). Generally the Bantu moved into spaces which were unexploited or unsuited to the cattle herders. It is possible that the incoming Bantu learnt about domesticated sheep and cattle from these herders. 

And the indigenous populations?
The Bantu expansion into the Congo basin encountered forest dwelling pygmy tribes, also known as African rainforest hunter gatherers. Who's distinctive diminutive stature and physiology were well adapted to the dense forest environment. Genetic studies have shown that the Mbenga and Mbuti pygmies are direct descendants from Middle Stone Age peoples of Central Africa. 

Nyamwamba river valley, Uganda

Scholars have characterised the Bantu expansion as fast and purposeful. And as colonsiation rather than conquest.  At first, the impact would have been small, even inconsequential, in the vast forest and so the pre-exiting population was not over run. However, forest clearance for agriculture was completely incompatible with indigenous hunter gatherers way of life.

Over time, a burgeoning Bantu population would have limited the local hunter gatherers natural food resources. This led to assimilation of many pygmy groups. Others managed to retain their independence by living in areas which supported game, but not agriculture, trading skins with the neighboring Bantu.

The Batwa of Uganda are traditional forest dwellers, who lived by hunting and gathering. Remarkably, for thousands of years their homeland, the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was left sufficiently intact by the bordering Bantu communities.

Photo credit: C Dawson

This all changed in 1992 when the forest was made a national park. In order to protect the mountain gorillas the Batwa were evicted. As is common with many indigenous tribes in modern times, their rights were poorly represented.  Displacement and discrimination continue to have adverse impacts on their health, culture and welfare.

In 2021 the PBS Newshour reported that the Batwa population of Uganda has an average life expectancy of just 28years and 40% of children do not survive to the age of 5.

Photo credit: C Dawson

Some hope for the Batwa is capitalising on their relatively recent co-existence in the forest environment, creating employment as tour guides, cultural experience leaders and trekking porters. This is a far cry from actually living in their ancestral range and comes with the distinct possibility of reducing their skills to a tourist show. It's an imperfect choice now faced by many first-nations the world over.

The job offer of a lifetime
Back in 2012, I was leading a trek in the Rwenzori and had a final couple of nights at the Kampala Backpackers hostel before the flight back to Blighty. My group was on a school's expedition and we had journeyed through Rwanda into Uganda, with a moving, enlightening and amazing range of experiences to reflect upon.

The proprietor of the hostel and Rwenzori Trekking Services was the charismatic John Hunwick. John and I had shared a couple of brief phone discussions during the trip, mainly to confirm a few logistical details and arrangements. I liked his straight taking, he was businesslike but also very generous with his local knowledge.

Relaxing in the Kampala hostel, my group had time on our hands as the flight had been delayed a further 24 hours. John and I struck up several conversations, I got to know how he came be in Uganda and founding the Backpackers Hostel and RTS. He had some great stories. He also seemed to like how I'd conducted the expedition and with some on-the-hoof forward planning, circumvented a few local difficulties without any drama. Then he suddenly came out with a jaw dropping offer...

"Stu, I need a guy like you to help run the hostel and treks in the Rwenzori. Come and work with me."
"Blimey, John, I'd love to. But I have a wife and two dogs back home."
"Come back with them!" John was quite insistent.

Sadly, I could never had taken him up on the offer. Although well into her remission and at the time reasonably able, Dolores still had the lasting effects of cancer to deal with. An outpost in Uganda, really wasn't the place to be taking her to. However, the recognition that John's offer inferred was good to hear.

Here's a few words from John, his work, vision and thoughts on progress in Uganda...
John Hunwick Interview & Show Notes - Gorilla Highlands Podcast

Conclusions to Part 1
The European historical view, presents Africa as somewhere humans left and then more recently returned to colonise. This notion conveniently ignores the history of the continent in the intervening thousands of years. Indeed it fits a narrative of colonising 'empty lands' as a policy without consequence to people. Where people were present they needed to be converted to conform to European religious and political values. Here we tread a line between judging the past with today's values and acknowledging that some actors of the time most certainly set aside their probity in order to treat other human beings so appallingly. 

The Great Bantu Migration story, is but one illustration that people in Africa were thriving, innovative and sophisticated, long before European influence. The evidence paints a picture of loose collections of independent but interacting communities. As Bantu communities became adapted to specific environments, so direct interactions with more distant communities grew less and their languages and material cultures diverged. 

On a local scale, three way exchange was mutually beneficial between the Bantu, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. Within the Congolese economy Bantu speaking peoples traded in fish, salt, cloth, mats and baskets.

The Bantu diaspora went on to built some of the Great African Kingdoms, such as Great Zimbabwe founded in the 9th Century and Mapungubwe, in the 11th Century. Long distance trade routes spread cross the continent and incredibly, the Great Zimbabwe network reached as far as China.

In the next parts of the story, we shall look in more detail at other tribes and cultural groups, particularly in East Africa. The Hadza hunter gatherers, the Wachagga whos identity stems from the Bantu migration and the Maasai who arrived later. 

I'll leave you with a short film from my first visit to the Rwenzoris in 2007 as a client, before I became an expedition leader. Indeed, it was this experience and the people I met that set me on the path to becoming a Mountain Leader. Looking at the film now its is perhaps a little cliched, but it was put together for fun and made with a heart full of appreciation for Uganda.

UNSECO General History Of Africa Vol 2
Ch 21: M. Posansky, historian and archaeologist
Ch 22: A.M.H. Sheriff, Lecturer, University Dar-es-Salaam

UNSECO General History Of Africa Vol 3
Ch 22: C.Ehret, linguist, University of California, Los Angeles

The Chronological Evidence for the Introduction of Domestic Stock in Southern Africa - C Britt Bousman, African Archaeological Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998 

A brief history of Botswana - Neil Parsons, Botswana History Pages

Sub-Saharan Africa, Early Bantu Migrations - Barratt, Long Branch School, New Jersey

Saturday 23 July 2022

#069 A day at the museum (part 2) - The Elephants In The Room

In part 1 of A Day At The Museum we experienced the World Of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum, which concluded on Sunday 17th July 2022. On display were many wonderful artefacts which demonstrated the creative imagination and craftsmanship of ancient hands.

Gold Gorget (collar), Bronze age 800-700BC
Gleninsheen, Rep of Ireland

There were on-loan exhibits showing that modern archaeology can achieve amazing feats of conservation. Such as the sacrificial oxen, dated around 3300-3000 BC. Archaeologists in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, had lifted these skeletons of two full grown oxen and the impression of the Bronze Age cart to which they were harnessed, in one enormous unbroken piece of substrate.

Photo: Stu Westfield

However, some pieces within the British Museum have, for many years, courted controversy regarding their provenance and ownership. In this blog we shall discuss the elephant in the room...or should that be the elephant in the museum, regarding how items such as the Benin Bronzes came to be on view and in private collections in London, across Europe and America.

Benin bronze plaques, 16th Century
Photo: Stu Westfield

The Benin Bronzes

So what are the Benin Bronzes, why are they so special and what is the contention over them?

Not to be confused with the modern country of Benin. The Benin Bronzes originate from Edo State, in Nigeria. Created in the 16th Century onwards, the elaborate plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures were used in rituals and ceremonies which represent Nigerian social history. They show the exemplary skill and high art of a specialist guild of craftsmen working in the royal court of Benin City. These bronzes are some of the finest casting ever seen.

Brass heads were cast only for the altars
of dead kings and Queen Mothers.
 Photo: Stu Westfield

In the 19th Century, the Nigerian coast and trade were dominated by the British under an aggressive expansion of colonial power. Under military occupation, Benin palaces and shrines were looted and destroyed. Items with a perceived ceremonial or anthropological value were taken to the United Kingdom as spoils of war. Some of them were destined for museums, others found their way through dealers into private collections. 

The Benin Bronzes can also be found in many of the West’s other great museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They’re in smaller museums, too. The Lehman, Rockefeller, Ford and de Rothschild families have owned some. As did Pablo Picasso. There are currently at least 3,000 items scattered worldwide, maybe thousands more. No one’s entirely sure (1).

Altar of a hand for an Oba
Brass, Benin, 18th Century
Photo: Stu Westfield

The beginnings of restitution

With so many artefacts absent, it's no surprise that Nigerian institutions such as the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) have long campaigned for a return of the bronzes on behalf of the country's people.

“The descendants of the people who cast those bronzes; they’ve never seen that work because most of them can’t afford to fly to London to come to the British Museum,”
- Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro (founding member) Ahiamwen Guild of artists and bronze casters. (2)

In 2021, Jesus College Cambridge became the first UK institution to restore a looted Benin Bronze to Nigeria (3). Other institutions have subsequently begun the process of repatriation of their bronzes.

On 9th March 2022, the New York Times reported: 'the Smithsonian Institution is planning to return most of the 39 bonzes in its possession to Nigeria, as part of its review into collection practices and ethics behind them'.

And on 1st July 2022,  the Guardian reported that: 'Germany has physically handed over two Benin bronzes and put more than 1,000 other items from its museums’ collections into Nigeria’s ownership'.

Meanwhile, the British Museum's position is: The Museum is committed to active engagement with Nigerian institutions concerning the Benin Bronzes, including pursuing and supporting new initiatives developed in collaboration with Nigerian partners and colleagues.

However, under the 1963 Museums Act and 1983 Heritage Act, the British Museum is currently bound by law, preventing the return of 900 Benin objects (4). Essentially due to the artefacts being deemed the property of the British people and not the British Museum itself.

A page at the royal court.
Cast brass, Benin, circa 16th-17th Century
Photo: Stu Westfield

A herd of elephants

Similarly, Greece has long contested the legitimacy of ownership of the Elgin Marbles and Egypt the many Pharaonic artefacts which are now residing in, generally northern hemisphere, museums around the world.

Nebamun hunting in the marshes.
Photo: Stu Westfield

Conservancy is an expensive business. Historical research and archaeology comes at a price. The British Museum collection comprises at least 8 million objects, of which around 80,000 are on public display, attracting 6 million visitors each year. Many of whom come to see iconic exhibits such as the Benin Bronzes and the Egyptology rooms. The Egypt And Sudan department itself holds tens of thousands of artefacts.

Image: Stu Westfield

The Louvre holds 50,000 pieces in their Egypt section, spanning ancient times to the Byzantine periods. The New York Metropolitan Museum Of Art's collection of ancient Egyptian art consists of approximately 26000 objects of artistic, historical, and cultural importance.

Artefacts which are significant tourism, donation and research grant revenue generators. 

Legitimate ownership or plunder? 

No doubt a significant portion of artefacts in European and American institutions are there through ill gotten gain. 

Most of these items were acquired during the colonial era. The route of artefacts is, in many cases, far from direct. Being sold and handled by several intermediaries, some as gifts, others with permissions and varying degrees of legality. It is a process which continues today with artefacts being smuggled out of their indigenous countries to foreign collections.

Minister of Antiquities for Egypt, Dr Zahawi Hawass claims that 60% of objects taken out of the country has been done so illegally, but also acknowledges many items were legally exported too.

Is there a case for wholescale repatriation? 

Previous arguments against repatriation have questioned the ability of indigenous countries to appropriately conserve artefacts. The quality of modern Egyptian scholarship and museum facilities debunks the notion that European and North American institutions are intrinsically better. To keep rolling out this standard response has more than an uncomfortable whiff of paternal colonialism. 

Leopard in ivory, copper and coral. Made from five separate tusks.
The copper spots tapped into undercut depressions were probably
percussion caps used to fire 19th Century rifles.
Benin, Nigeria, 19th Century
Photo: Stu Westfield

As is the case with the National Museum in Benin City which has amply demonstrated its ability to hold and display the artefacts safely and appropriately. 

Restitution of ownership does not necessarily need to equate into return of all items. Most museums are open to lending objects and the British Museum lends around five thousand items each year. Some of which are on a long term basis.

Indeed there is both a practical and judicious case for, at any one time, decentralising a proportion of items of a typographically important collection. Having pieces on loan, is a form of insurance against complete catastrophic loss.

A living culture:
The Oba Of Benin & Princess (Oloi) Iyayota Ewuare II

To see and experience is to love

Items such as the Benin Bronzes are uncontrovertibly of huge cultural importance to the people of Nigeria. Osarobo Zeickner-Okoro of the modern casting guild is at pains to emphasise that the Bronzes are not just attractive items from the past:

"Part of the crime that's been committed is that Benin has been portrayed as this dead civilization. The reparation is not just returning the Bronzes. It's also acknowledging us, that we're a living civilization." (5)

It's not unreasonable that people who's heritage is less accessible to them, either through legitimate means or historical mis-appropriation, should have the right to experience their history first hand. Just looking at the numbers there is a gross imbalance between the quantity of artefacts held in industrialised northern hemisphere institutions compared with indigenous countries, roughly south of thirty degrees latitude. 

About 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe. French art historians estimate. Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris alone holds about 70,000 African objects and London’s British Museum tens of thousands more (6)

Not everyone has the capability to travel to distant countries or exotic locations to view pieces in-situ. So, is the question more about accessibility rather than ownership? The answer still, no doubt, depends on which end of the colonial legacy your country has ended up.

Cast plaque, Benin, 16th Century
Image: Stu Westfield

We learn to love what we see, experience and cherish. The first time I saw the Benin Bronzes, I was speechless with wonder. And each time I am fortunate to return to the British Museum, I make a course straight for the Sainsbury rooms. Happy to sit and awe at the creativity and symbolism. The quandary is that had the bronzes not been there, I could not have appreciated them, spent time learning about their history. And would not be writing this blog.

Whether you care or not for the blog is to miss the point. Although having got this far, I may assume that you're at least a little engaged or interested.

What is important is the sense of creativity that spanned the centuries and made a connection. It is these moments which bring a deeper understanding to humanity and help bridge nations and identities. And so, there is also a sadness that the people of modern Benin City, more than anyone else, should have the same opportunity for wonder and connection to their heritage.

Cast plaque, Benin, 16th Century
Photo: Stu Westfield

A World Heritage Solution?

We have seen that important and iconic historical items bring in tourist revenue. But concentrating these items in just a few public places and in private collections is blocking access to cultural heritage. So, while I would like to see the return of a good number of the Benin Bronzes return to their indigenous home, I would also advocate that some examples remain on public display around the world. 

Instead of ownership, should artefacts be considered as portable versions of World Heritage Sites, for  the curiosity, education and enjoyment of all humanity?

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions


(1) This Art Was Looted 123 Years Ago - New York Times, Alex Marshall, 23 Jan 2020
(2) Return The Benin Bronzes And We'll Give You New Ones In Exchange - Taylor Dafoe, Artnet News, 23 Sept 2021
(3) The Benin Bronzes, Silence Is Not Golden - The Guardian Editorial, 29 Oct 2021 
(4) Berlin Hands Over Two Benin Bronzes To Nigeria - Philip Oltermann, The Guardian, 1 July 2022
(5) British Museum accepts Nigerian artist's gift but keeps looted bronzes - Reuters, 30 Sept 2021 
(6) Reuters in Benin City, The Guardian, 19 Feb 2022.

Saturday 16 July 2022

#068 A day at the museum (part 1) - The World Of Stonehenge

This spring and summer the British Museum hosted the World Of Stonehenge special exhibition.

Short of lifting in the renowned stone circle, you couldn't have wished for a more comprehensive and thorough storytelling of Stonehenge. From its Mesolithic beginnings through to the late Bronze age. Although, having mentioned megalithic stones, this major exhibition did not stop short of presenting several excellent and no doubt extremely weighty examples of rock art from across Europe. As the title indicated, the assembled artefacts truly represented the people of the stone age, their culture, origins, inspiration and connectivity. 

This stele from the alps was revisited for centuries, with new decoration and
meaning added by successive generations. It depicts the sun over gatherings of 
people, the migration of wild animals and the farming seasons. In the age of the
first farmers, the heavens governed the timing and tempo of domestic and ritual
life. (Text: British Museum). Capo di Ponte stone, Cemmo, Italy circa 2500BC.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Stepping into the exhibition space, it started where all journeys do, at the beginning; in this case 10,000 years ago in ancient Britain when bands of hunter-fisher-gatherers lived off the land. Which, at the time, was still connected to the European landmass.

Image: British Museum

It was wonderful to be reunited with an example of the enigmatic Star Carr red deer headdresses, which I had first seen at the Rotunda museum, in Scarborough, several years ago.

Photo: Stu Westfield

A number of excellent examples of stone and bronze axe heads, hafted onto wooden handles, gave a  tangible sense of our ancestors connection to their environment. In hands that cleared the wild woods during the Neolithic farming revolution and beyond. 

Without doubt, for me, the most stunning exhibit was the Nebra Sky Disc, named after the village in which it was found in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany and on loan from their state archaeology office. This was too convenient a chance not to miss seeing it.

The Nebra Sky Disc reveals the creativity and advanced astronomical
knowledge of cultures without writing. The distinctive rosette of seven
stars represents the Pleiades. These stars play a key role in an ancient
rule, known from a 2700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the 
shorter lunar year to be kept in step with the solar year. A leap month
should be added every third year of a crescent moon a few days old 
appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky. (Text: British Museum)

The 12 inch diameter thin disc, made from bronze and gold, is the oldest depiction of the cosmos in the world. Dated to about 1600BC, it underwent four stages of development. But also of interest is the diverse origins of materials: The first phase gold and tin from Cornwall, copper from Austria and later additions of gold from the Carpathian mountains. 

As with all the displays, there was a wealth of supporting information and other exhibits to provide all the context one could wish for.

Photo: Stu Westfield

Astonishing, was how much gold was in use during the Bronze age for adornment, ritual and practical purposes. Melted in sufficient quantities to be fashioned into some substantial items, such as the cosmos calendar headwear (on loan from the Louvre) and cape (found in Flintshire). 

Photo: Stu Westfield

Although, humble by comparison, the Amesbury archer display brought a smile, as I had cited the impressive array of grave goods as an example in my 2020 Oxford Uni Fundamentals Of Archaeology short course assessment.

Amesbury archer grave goods. Photo: Stu Westfield

Near the exit, the final artefact was a diminutive sun pendant, crafted around 1000BC, found in Shropshire. But in its size, there was such exquisite work and beauty.

Sun pendant. Photo: Stu Westfield

Having feasted on the stone age for two hours, which passed so quickly, it was time for some feasting of a culinary nature. Trips to London are infrequent, so I treated myself to a pleasant mid-afternoon lunch in the Great Court restaurant. Then, degustation's completed with a refreshing black coffee, there was time to head down into the Sainsbury rooms to see some favourite African displays.

Benin bronze plaques. Photo: Stu Westfield

I'm always filled with wonder at the high craftmanship of the cast Benin Bronzes and in comparison, the simple, yet efficient, functionality of the San bushman's hunting kit.

Photo: Stu Westfield

The display of Kenyan and Tanzanian kanga fabrics adding a vibrant splash of African colour.

Photo: Stu Westfield

My day finished with a quick visit to the UCL Zoological museum on the way back to Euston train station. Specifically, as I had found out that it held a rare specimen of the extinct thylacine, otherwise known as the Tazmanian Tiger. I had written about the thylacine back my 2016 blog Expeditions, Projects And Extinctions. But only ever seen grainy depictions of the animal on the television. 

Photo: Stu Westfield

What surprised me was how small the skeleton appeared. Just the same as a medium size dog.

Any extinction impoverishes us, but the tale of the thylacine at the hands of humans is desperately sad and could have been so very different. If you care about species on earth, I urge you to watch the film The Hunter. It is fiction, but offers a salutary tale.

Full of thoughts and ideas, I boarded my train home and glad to be out of the oppressive humid heat that had been building up throughout the day. I took a sip of water and started writing.

In part 2 of A day at the museum blog, I'll return to talk about the 'elephant in the room'. As we should not pass-by artefacts like the Beinin Bronzes without discussing how they came to be where they are now and what future possibilities might be.