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ASCL Seminar: Retrieving lost paths in the rainforest after population collapse in Congo rainforest from 400 CE

Thursday 17 June 2021

This event will take place online. Please register via the ASCL website. Registrees will receive a link a few days before the lecture.

The present-day distribution of Bantu languages is commonly thought to reflect the early stages of the Bantu Expansion, the greatest migration event in African prehistory. Using 1149 radiocarbon dates linked to 115 pottery styles recovered from 726 sites throughout the Congo rainforest and adjacent areas, Seidensticker et al. (2021) show that this is not the case. Two periods of more intense human activity, each consisting of an expansion phase with widespread pottery styles and a regionalization phase with many more local pottery styles, are separated by a widespread population collapse between 400 and 600 CE followed by major resettlement centuries later. Coinciding with wetter climatic conditions, the collapse was possibly promoted by a prolonged epidemic. Comparison of our data with genetic and linguistic evidence further supports a spread-over-spread model for the dispersal of Bantu speakers and their languages. Unlike what late Jan Vansina took as the point of departure for his magisterial work Paths in the Rainforest (1990), the life of the peoples in the Congo rainforest was NOT shaped by the continuity of a common tradition over four millennia, quite the opposite. Discontinuities in the population history of Central-African Bantu speech communities urge scholars of ancient African history to rethink how to extract the past from the present, i.e. how to recover paths in the rainforest that got obsolete, overgrown and rehabilitated elsewhere.

About the speaker
Koen Bostoen (1975) has been professor of African Linguistics and Swahili at Ghent University since 2011. His research focuses on the study of Bantu languages and interdisciplinary approaches to the African past. He obtained an ERC Starting Grant for the KongoKing project (2012-2016) and an ERC Consolidator’s Grant for the BantuFirst project (2018-2022). 

Photo: Mbuun women near Idiofa (Kwilu Province, DRC) prepare earthenware pots for firing. Credit: Koen Bostoen.

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