Updated: Nov 2, 2020

During the 19th Century, European scholars in their "scramble for Africa" created erroneous racial narratives about Bantu people in order to ease the consciousness and racist ideologies of white settlers who had come to exploit both the people and the land.

Much of the early research regarding Bantu populations was linguistic inquiry. In fact, unlike their neighbors such as the Khoikhoi (pejoratively, “Hottentot”) and the San (pejoratively, “Bushmen”), the Bantu were often identified on linguistic juxtaposed to racial terms. The issue of Bantu origins was more centrally the domain of linguists and ethnologists. European scholars like George W. Stow had a profound influence on the way the western word viewed the racial origin of the Bantu. Stow had contended that the San were the “true aborigines” of South Africa and that all other “stronger races” were intruders. The reasoning behind Stow’s assertion of stronger races came from his Social Darwinist views of the gradual decline of the KhoiKhoi in comparison to the northern intruding Bantu. It would later become the vocation of the famous South African historian George McCall Theal to formalize and propagate Stow’s ideas among a wider audience. Theal’s efforts bolstered a strong pro-colonist, anti-African historical writing, which served to justify the presence of white settlers and white rule in Africa in southern Africa. However, Stow and Theal’s ideas, and the ideas of those who developed similar theories, were not confined to South African racial politics. At the time this was a growing trend in the way European scholars approached African history. Several ontology reducing terms would emerge such as “negro” and “negroland”, “hottentot”, “bushmen”, "kaffir", and “hamite”.

Various specious views on the Bantu waged on as scholars from different fields adopted many of the trappings of the racial paradigm promoted by Theal and others. The importance of this notion for archaeologists is the fact that as European scholars “explored” these areas and became increasingly fascinated by large stone structures in Bantu material culture such as those present at Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe, they were entertaining theories of the structures having to have been built or commissioned by people foreign to Africa who were no longer wholly phenotypically apparent due to miscegenation. Theories such as a Phoenician or, the even more preposterous, Nordic, influence for the creation of these sites were proposed. However, scholars like Raymond Dart, Gordon Laing, Theal, and others who were dedicated to enhancing the racial paradigm would have perhaps found good company among the likes of Flinders Petrie.

Petrie is widely famous for developing the method of serration, but also for promoting the racist Dynastic Race Theory of the people of Kemet (Pre-Ptolemaic Egypt). Petrie’s theory is similar to Dart and others because it too begins with the notion that the ancestors of the indigenous “races” present in Egypt could not have possibly had the intellectual ingenuity to create such monumental material culture. The most interesting point is that Petrie’s dynastic race and the race the South African cohorts’ attributed to the Bantu were arguable the same group ideologically and erroneously invented to support theories of racial origins and hierarchy –the supposed “Hamites”. Of course modern social science today know that no such racial or ethnic distinction as "Hamite" exists however the history of its usage in methodology still has lasting effects on the humanities and social science communities. Petrie argued that a dynastic race had to emerge from Mesopotamia, which at that time, and for some time after, supported the Hamite hypothesis. By 1930, prominent ethnologist C. G. Seligman had advanced a theory that saw to the height of the Hamite hypothesis. He proposed that Africans were made of three distinct racial stocks, being Hamites, Negroes, and Bushmen and that the migration of pastoral Europeans specifically were responsible for the emergence of African Hamites. This was the apex of Hamite theory discourse. As it concerned the Bantu, the light-skinned and questionably "delicate" facial features of some Bantu groups perhaps added further credence to his theory, not matter how wrong and unscientific.

The notion of Hamite origins is quite interesting. In northern Africa as well as in the south, this notion suggested that some Africans were somehow genetically superior to other groups, allowing them the intellectual propensity to build great civilizations. Nevertheless, this notion increasingly gave way to the body of archaeological and later genetic evidence produced over the next several decades whereas by the mid-1970s the racial origins paradigm of the Bantu had largely gained disfavor. This was largely accomplished due to the efforts of Africans to decolonize their countries and provide new histories of Africa that centered on actual African cultural perspective juxtaposed to that of European “explorers”. Beginning in the 1950s, Africanist scholars departed from specious race-based notions and sought to place a stronger emphasis on African agency. Finally, the writing of African history in general, and Bantu history specifically, was being saved from such erroneous racial paradigms. However, the lasting damage of such was unavoidable. One example would be the issue of the Rwanda massacre of the Tutsis by the Hutu in Rwanda in 1994, a continuation of the idea that supposed non-African hamites (Tutsis) have no right to occupy the lands of true-African bantus (Hutu). DNA evidence today shows that the Hutu and the Tutsis share a close and very ancient genetic kinship.

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