The Southern Bantu: Cattle Culture

The Bantu Cattle Culture is characterized by a cluster of interrelated values concerning the political role of men , the benevolence of ancestor spirits and the mediating function of cattle.

Domestic cattle within this system belong to the domain of men: they are the principal form of wealth, the main avenue to wives and children, and the basis of success, status and power. These ideas generate a specific spatial pattern in which a men’s court is placed in the centre of the settlement in or near the cattle byre of the headman.


The headman and other important people are buried in this kraal, and communal storage pits (or special grain bins) are also dug here as a protection against famine. The huts of a man’s wives are placed around this central zone according to a system of status expressed through some alternating use of left and right positions. In settlements with independent households this status system determines the location of households around the headman, and in individual houses one side is reserved for men and the other for women in accordance with the same principle.

Attitudes to profane and sacred activities, on the other hand, determine what is found in front and back positions. The front of the household and settlement is allocated to public and profane activities, while the back is reserved for private and sacred activities: for example, ancestral objects are kept at the back of a hut, privately (as opposed to communally) owned grain bins are placed behind the huts of their owners, and a sacred rainmaking area is located at the back of a settlement behind the quarters of the headman. Because this sacred/profane dimension is arranged more-or-less at right angles to that concerned primarily with status, the most important person is at the back of the settlement in the most protected position. If the front of the settlement faces downslope, then status and ritual importance are also expressed through height (see Fig. 24.3).

Despite considerable variability, this general pattern applies to many different ethnic groups in southern Africa, but it is not found among the matrilineal Bantu in central Africa, who own few if any cattle, nor among the cattle-owning non-Bantu-speakers in East Africa. The pattern instead appears to be restricted to patrilineal Bantu who exchange cattle for wives. If this correlation is correct, the presence of this pattern in the archaeological record is conclusive evidence for a distinctive Bantu system of values concerning politics and cattle.

T. N . Huffman (U.S.A.); specialist in social and cultural anthropological archaeology and the prehistory of sub-Saharan Africa; author of works on the subject.

Source: General History of Africa Vol.III. [Editor: M. El Fasi, Assistant Editor: I. Hrbek] Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. Chapter 24. Southern Africa to the south
of the Zambezi.


, , , ,

  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: