The Congo River Basin has been home to human populations for at least 30,000 years. The first settlers in Cameroon were probably the Baka, groups of Pygmy hunter-gatherers who still inhabit the forests of the south and east, as well as neighboring Gabon and the two Congos. This small group (some 40,000) is actually more closely related to groups found in the deserts of the Africa South-Central Hunter-Gatherers region.
In north-central Cameroon, a high range of rugged mountains stretches across the country from west to east. To the far south and east, in the vast Congo River Basin, the environment consists of dense rainforest and wide waterways. These features have created a degree of isolation and served as a barrier to frequent or large-scale migrations or conquests.
Although the Cameroon/Congo region is incredibly diverse, with more than 200 different ethnic groups, our genetic profile for the region is primarily represented by samples from the Cameroon Grasslands, where the largest populations are subgroups of the Bamileke and Bamum peoples. These tribes’ origins are not known, but it appears that in the 17th century, they moved south into Cameroon in a series of migrations to avoid enslavement—and, in some cases, forced conversion to Islam—by the Fulani peoples. Cameroon’s west and northwest provinces are the country’s most densely populated regions. The populous Bamileke tend to be Christian and live in small fons, or chiefdoms, in highly organized villages led by local chiefs. The less populous Bamum tend to be Muslim and have a more centralized social structure under a high king.
Besides the Grasslands tribes, a smaller number of people live in the southern and central regions of Cameroon and in Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) and Congo-Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo). However, many of the ethnic groups found in the two Congos are of Bantu origin—meaning they share a common ancestral language and an ancestral homeland on the western border of modern Cameroon and Nigeria. The Bantu peoples began migrating from Cameroon in about 1000 B.C. Some went east across Africa and then south; some settled the Congo River Basin; and some went south along the coast to Angola. These Bantu groups have a genetic ethnicity better represented by the Southeastern Bantu region profile.