THE HISTORICAL RECORDS indicate that Rwanda's first inhabitants were the Twa, hunters and gatherers related to cave-dwelling pygmies. They were followed from the south by the agriculturalist Hutu, with Bantu features including woolly hair, broad noses, dark skin, and full lips. During the sixteenth century, the Tutsi—very slender and tall, straight-nosed, and light brown in complexion—arrived from the north, perhaps from Ethiopia, in a migration that appears to have been gradual and mostly peaceful. Throughout their history, the three groups spoke the same language, shared the same territory, followed the same traditions, and even acknowledged the same king (the Mwami). Over the years, however, the Tutsi cattle ranchers emerged as an aristocratic elite, the Hutu farmers as commoners, and the Twa as potters and entertainers who were generally held in low regard by the other groups.
When German explorers first entered the country in 1894, Rwanda— “the land of a thousand hills”—was a growing and expansive empire. Only a few neighboring peoples were as strong or stronger than Rwanda. It also is true that precolonial Rwanda was one of the most centralized and rigidly stratified societies in the Great Lakes region of east central Africa. In this vertically structured society, Hutu peasants were, for all practical purposes, now on the lowest rung of the ladder, socially, economically, and politically (given the Twa's diminishing numbers). Though Hutus represented about 85 percent of a total population estimated at 2 million at the turn of the twentieth century, power, status, and wealth were generally in the hands of the Tutsi—a minority accounting for a bit less than 15 percent of the population. 1 Rather than ethnic categories, the early conceptions of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” conveyed class status, since power and prestige in Rwanda depended on possession of cattle.
Inequality was inscribed in the differential treatment accorded to each group and, as a result, the potential for conflict certainly existed between