VCU School of World Studies professor awarded grant for multidisciplinary research on Zambia’s Bantu Expansion

August 27, 2018

 Three archaeologists studying an excavation site.


Archeology uses material evidence to uncover the truth about the human past, often undoing long-held assumptions and inaccurate understandings of early human societies. Anthropology professor at VCU’s School of World Studies Matthew Pawlowicz’s work in Zambia hopes to uncover the actual lifestyles and worldview held by those who lived in the central part of the country during the Bantu Expansion from 500 CE to 1500 CE.

While it is commonly believed that mobile and sedentary lifestyles are incompatible, with the latter representing a technological advancement over the former, Pawlowicz’s research indicates a far more nuanced reality. What began as a pilot study in 2014, and continued as a field school this past summer, has now expanded into a multi-year, interdisciplinary project funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

Along with scholars from Rice University, Georgetown University, The National Heritage Conservation Commission of Zambia, and the Livingstone Museum in Livingstone, Zambia, Pawlowicz aims to discover what forms of mobility remained salient during a period of increased sedentariness by exploring both the conceptual framework and material practices of the Bantu Expansion.

 The survey team in the field. From left to right, they are: Herbert Shalwendo,  Sheika Grievous Chuungwe, John Muchabila, Kelvin Muloba,  Dr.  Xiaodong Gao, biogeochemist with Rice University, Brave Mushabati, research assistant and Matthew Pawlowicz.

National Endowment for the Humanities Grant Funded Research

The next stages of research will occur in Zambia’s Kafue Floodplain and Batoka Plateau from January 2019 through December 2021 and will produce a multidisciplinary archive which documents the experiences and conceptualizations of mobility during the Bantu Expansion. Fieldwork in Zambia will take place in 2019 and 2021 with the intervening year used for analysis and data comparison.

This project relies on an interdisciplinary approach to the research and data to answer questions at different scales, rather than applying such an analysis afterwards. Data sets will be drawn from archeology, ethnohistory, historical linguistics, and environmental science, through on-site collaboration between specialists in each of those disciplines.

 A map indicating the study sites in Zambia.

The upcoming field seasons are each scheduled for six weeks. During that time Dr. Pawlowicz and his colleagues will excavate at the Iron Age mound sites of Basanga and Mwanamaimpa, conduct archeological survey, collect biogeochemical and geoarchaeological samples for environmental reconstruction, and perform ethnohistorical and linguistic research in the surrounding community. Botatwe languages (a sub-family of Bantu) spoken by current residents of Basanga and neighboring communities will serve as the principal source of data from which to gain insight into the cognitive lives of the people who lived in this region from 550 through 1500 CE.

Using language as a point of historical inquiry is vital to the humanistic focus of Pawlowicz’s project which aims to document the oral and material culture of the Bantu Expansion. The development and reach of this language group is intertwined with historic conceptualizations and experiences of mobility and sedentariness.

 Three researchers, seen from a distance, perform a survey in the Kafue Floodplain.

The team will perform this linguistic research largely through direct interaction with Botatwe speakers who will be present at the study sites and participate in semi-structured group interviews. The team will also perform linguistic analysis of relevant riddles, lexicons, folklore and proverbs to approximate the thought patterns of those who lived during the Bantu Expansion and how they understood mobility and sedentariness.

By using different data sets collected through various disciplinary methodologies, this project provides scholars fine-grained insight into the lives of the individuals and groups living around Basanga. This in turn creates the basis to celebrate heretofore untold African stories and achievements, and to challenge assumptions about the nature of the people who lived there.

 A small ferry carrying two cars and several researchers crosses the Kafue River in Zambia.


Much of the anthropological research on the Basanga region and Bantu expansion is outdated as it has not been expanded upon since the 1960s. Furthermore, the existing archeological record fails to capture the “humanistic concerns [of] the embodied, cognitive and culture experiences of human mobility” which is the objective of Pawlowicz and his colleagues’ research (National Endowment for the Humanities grant). This project’s focus is on the how and why of the Bantu Expansion rather than the when and where typical of earlier scholarship.

 In order to connect archeology with data from humanities and natural sciences, this project will use source materials such as artifacts, ecological data from soil, bone, and shell analysis, and various linguistic elements related to concepts of mobility and sedentariness. Pawlowicz’s ultimate goal is to provide a more complete understanding of the cognitive lives and material worlds of Botatwe inhabitants at the village, neighborhood, and regional scales.

 Pawlowicz and another researcher stand in front of Victoria Falls in Zambia.

Ultimately, this project will produce: a website archiving the data; two permanent, open-access online archives; a monograph and articles published in peer-reviewed journals; and materials for an exhibit at the Livingstone Museum. All artifacts recovered will remain in Zambia long term, to help future generations of Zambians study and celebrate this part of their past.

Exploring the Bantu Expansion from a humanistic context is important for several reasons, perhaps most notably because without an understanding of the perspectives held by Botatwe inhabitants during this period, it is impossible to understand their choices. By reexamining the Bantu Expansion, scholars are creating a model with which to analyze expansions of other language groups. In doing so, this project also helps undo the Eurocentric model of world history which posits African history as separate from and less important than European history.

 The camp used by researchers in the Botatwe region as seen from the road.

The project illustrates the benefits of an Anthropological education. By self-critically setting aside one’s own prejudices, students can learn from the perspectives of others to foster real communication, understanding and appreciation across cultures. The use of language as historical evidence especially underscores the importance of humanistic models of analysis to gain authentic insights into people from different cultural backgrounds and experiences.

Pawlowicz’s advice to prospective majors is simply to get involved outside the classroom through research opportunities available on campus, or field schools, whether local or -- perhaps -- as far away as central Zambia, and to consider joining a research team doing work in any number of regions around the world. Visit the anthropology department homepage to learn more.