DRC: From hunter-gatherers to trading kingdoms (8000 BCE - 1878 CE)
Updated June 2005
Earliest human settlement, in what is now the DRC, stretches back some 10 000 years. The earliest settlers were in all likelihood short statured hunter-gathers, now known (though controversially so) as pygmies. Some 1 300 years ago these Stone Age peoples were followed by Bantu and Nilotic speaking hunter-gatherer groups, who settled initially in the northern savannah areas. In time the new-comers adopted or developed the cultivation of tropical crops, cattle husbandry and iron working technology which enabled them to subdue and displace the original pygmy populations, gradually driving them into the mountains and the thicker parts of the rain forest (Library of Congress 1993, Country Watch 1998, Answers.com 2005).
In the Congo area a number of extensive and complex trading states emerged in the savannah; the Kongo kingdom, the Luba Empire, the Lunda kingdom, the Zande kingdoms, and the kingdom of Kuba. While chiefdoms did emerge within the rainforests, they never rivaled the savannah states for size and complexity.
The first of these, the Kongo kingdom, was founded by invaders from the north east who settled south of the Congo River in the late 1300s and grew to encompass the north of modern Angola and the western areas of the DRC (Library of Congress 1993, Country Watch 1998, Answers.com 2005).
The Luba state coalesced some 100 years after the Kongo and to the east of it, in the upper reaches of the Lualaba River, around lakes Upemba and Kisale. The Lunda kingdom emerged 15th century through the unification of its composite chiefdoms in the south west on the patterns laid down by their Luba neighbours. In the sixteenth century its territory was overrun by the expanding Luba empire, and, unable to resist the invaders, some of the Lunda migrated to Angola where they founded new states (Answers.com, 2005).
The kingdom of Kuba was founded to the north of the Kasai River, and of its tributary the Sankura, by invaders from the west in about 1600. The complex forest-river-savannah ecology of its territory enabled it to develop into a vigorous trading state that was able to maintain its integrity until it fell to the advance of Belgian colonial expansion (Giblin 1999).
In the late fifteenth century Portuguese explorers established contact with the Kongo kingdom, and traders and missionaries followed on their heels. Initial friendly relations between the Kongo and the Portuguese soured as a result of Portuguese rapacity and especially their insatiable demand for slaves. In later years the expansion of the Portuguese coastal enclaves brought control over land as a new focus of conflict (Library of Congress 1989, 1993, Columbia Encyclopedia 2001).
In the early 1600s, weakened by conflicts with the Portuguese and other neighbours, internal struggles for power and the ravages of the slave trade, the kingdom progressively disintegrated. Over time it lost control over its constituent parts and the trade routes that had been the source of its wealth and power. By 1700 the kingdom was a spent force (Library of Congress 1993).
The Lunda experienced a resurgence of their fortunes with the establishment of the Zembe kingdom in Katanga and northern Zambia in about 1740. The state's wealth and expansion was fueled by trade in slaves and ivory with the Portuguese on the coast. In the mid-nineteenth century the kingdom came close to collapse as it fended off penetration by Swahili slave traders from the east. The kingdom was saved by cooperation with the British South African Company, only to be partitioned between the Belgians and the British (Gordon 2004).
The Luba kingdom, in the meanwhile, had become increasingly unstable and was wracked by internal dynastic struggles. Its expansion was checked by the rise of Lunda polities to the south and west, the Kuba kingdom to the north. The weakened state was not able to resist the penetration of slave traders from east Africa and the state disintegrated in the late nineteenth century (Giblin 1999).
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