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How Did the Tutsi Conquer the Hutu?
Are There West African Connections?

Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Are the Tutsis possibly related with the Peul people, which are mostly found in West Africa?

Any association with the Peul (Fulani) peoples of the Sahel and West Africa is only coincidental.  Although linguists have established a connection among all languages of Africa, the roots are back into ancient pre-history.  This is known to us only theoretically and indirectly through language comparisons over the last 150 years or so, supplemented by comparative cultural studies.

The Peul or Fula family of languages are part of the broader Niger-Congo family.

The genetic similarities between languages that are discovered at each level of reconstruction lead to a possible historical stream of ancestor language families.  There seems to be some common origin for all the African peoples, before our historical period, based on language comparisons of the Afro-Asiatic languages.  (See The Ethnologue.)

The Cushitic languages and the Nilo-Saharan languages are thought by some to be distantly related in the broader family of Afro-Asiatic which includes the Semitic languages and ancient Egyptian, covering territory from West Africa to Iran.

Details are lost in pre-history, though some reconstruction has been done based on historical-period languages.  (Keep in mind that the similarity between these languages from an analytical and comparative point of view is relative and might appear to speakers or learners to be totally different.)

The language of the old Chaldean people is thought by some to be related to this group also, as a Cushitic language.  (Others think they were a branch of the Semitic peoples of the ancient world.)  The Chaldean people, originally resident in the Persian Gulf in early historical times, are thought by some to have migrated from the southern Arabian Peninsula.  Others consider this fanciful.

The Chaldeans conquered the Assyrian Empire, which had earlier absorbed the Babylonian Empire.  (Because they took up the language of the Assyrian Empire, Aramaic, Aramaic is sometimes called Chaldean, especially in biblical studies.)

The Chaldeans, though they established the neo-Babylonian Empire, were shortly afterwards conquered by the Indo-European federation of the Medes and the Persians, and were absorbed into history and the local populace of their previous empire.


Why did the Cushite herders move away from their original pastures in the North East?  In search in water?

The reconstructions from vague oral traditions and language comparisons as well as comparative physical culture do not tell us about motivations or pressures that led to this migration.  Specialists have commented on their findings.  Most such situations were slow developments.

There were many similar migrations, some more peaceful than others, throughout history in not only Africa but most of the world, up into the modern times.  Details of the Tutsi movement and growth to domination seem hidden in prehistory.

Drought is one major candidate for motivation, but we lack historical evidence to confirm this.  We do know that in prehistory and early history there were cycles of flood and drought and it is only in comparatively recent history that the Sahara was changing from a fertile plain into a dry desert, about 10,000-12,000 years before present by most analysts.

How did they manage to become the elite in countries like Rwanda and Burundi, where they never represented more than about 10% of the population?

Details are unknown.  But rather than being exceptional, this is the dominant pattern of history.  this is what we see happening all over the world as a common pattern throughout history.  It is commonly a smaller, more warlike group that moves in and take over the territory and society of a settled, agricultural or urban, less warlike people.  Note also that these processes often occur over a period of decades, generations or centuries.

Note that there is somewhat of a correlation between herding nomadic cultures and military societies.  We see that in current or modern history in the Maasai, Turkana, Oromo (Galla) and similar movements.  In European history a similar pattern occurred with the Huns (whose settlement was gradually absorbed by the conquered host people) and the Mongols/Tatars/Turkic peoples.  Reviewing the history of Europe and Central Asia reveals a similar pattern to that we find in all sections of Africa.

European Comparisons
Note likewise, how few personnel of the Spanish Empire were able to destroy and almost wipe out the high civilization of the Aztec as well as the Maya along with centuries or millennia of accumulated information and scientific and astronomical knowledge in just one generation in central Mexico.  Note the amount of territory now ruled by European descendants in the once heavily populated, settled and peaceful kingdoms of central and southern America.

We see similar patterns of the Nilotic herding communities, who moved into the East Africa highlands (Kenya, Tanzania) within historical times, dominating the earlier Cushitic population and various waves of Bantu peoples.

Some Bantu peoples likewise were the incoming conquering, intermarrying, absorbing force overwhelming these earlier San or Cushite peoples.  Total populations are not known for precise comparisons.  The stories are clear in the oral traditions of all these peoples.

A correspondent referred to "the rumour that the president of Congo, Joseph Kabila is a 100% Tutsi."

That seems unlikely, though he might very well have some connections with the broader Hima background in eastern Zaire/Congo that includes the Tutsi.  His physical features, however, indicate he is largely Bantu in actual genetic heritage.*

Genes and Ethnicity
But genes, and genetic heritage as now scientifically understood, are not often in focus, and unknown in traditional societies, and very new in western thinking, for that matter.  Remember that these peoples have intermarried for centuries and millennia.  This is the pattern all over the world.  It is rarely clear-cut.

Realities we consider scientific are rarely in focus or even in the residual awareness of how most world societies are organized and how most people think of the world around them.  Self-identity and cultural worldview of most peoples of the world is unrelated to what the west calls "scientific" information.

Human societies give up their prejudices only with difficulty and seem to enjoy nursing them.  Greed, pride and an ethnic or personal need to feel superior to someone else seems to lurk near the surface in every human society.  A revenge mentality is always self-defeating, and all lose.

Power and Politics
Streams of power and politics are quite complex, and the general western approach is always to simplify, to make things fit in to the expected western categories.  The real world is not abstract and analytical, and rarely fits into pre-established categories.


*Keep in mind that "Bantu" is originally and primarily a reference to language.  The term is often used, however, to refer to peoples speaking a Bantu language.  My Bantu-speaking friends in Kenya would often refer to themselves in this way to distinguish themselves as a group from Nilotic or Cushitic peoples in Kenya and neighboring countries.

All such terms should be considered working terms to facilitate discussion.  Westerners with no experience in Africa mistakenly tend to see and use these terms and categories as clear-cut distinctions.  There are former Nilotic speakers who now speak a Bantu tongue, and vice versa.  There are many current people who developed from a mix of various migrant groups into their current or former area.

Just like Europe, the peoples of Africa and elsewhere are a complex amalgam.

Also related:
The Hima People of Eastern Africa
Models of Assimilation
The Nyankore of Uganda
Our Genetic Journey - Reviewing The Journey of Man:  A Genetic Odyssey
The Rough Edges of Ethnicity
The Subtlety of Assimilation
Tutsi and Chwezi:  History and Pre-History
Tutsi, Hutu and Hima – Cultural Background in Rwanda
The Tutsi People – Blog

Related on the Internet:

Batutsi:  Tutsi Genetics
Laurent Nkunda: Profile
Origins of Tutsi and Hutu – Wikipedia "
Profile: General Laurent Nkunda

Language Families in the Ethnologue:
The Cushitic language family – Ethnologue
Nilo-Saharan language family – Ethnologue
Afro-Asiatic language family – Ethnologue
Semitic language family – Ethnologue
Ancient Egyptian – Ethnologue
Fula language family – Ethnologue
Niger-Congo language family – Ethnologue


Topic first arose in an email discussion with a journalist researching the Hutu-Tutsi phenomenon in Central Africa December 2008
Developed in 2010 and 2011
Posted on OJTR 6 August 2011

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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