Before the sixteenth century, the basic institution of the Lunda was believed to have been the segmentary matrilineage. Each lineage segment occupied its own small territory ( mpat ), mostly along the Kalanyi River in present-day Zaire. They raised millet and sorghum as well as other crops, but fishing was the activity for which they were most noted. Each mpat was probably centered on an ideal location for fishing, with crops being planted in the fertile alluvial soils along the riverbank. By all indications, this system was extremely productive; Lunda territory was dotted with a rapidly expanding number of independent domains, each with its own headman.
Shortly after 1600, a centralized polity emerged that attracted traders from both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts of Africa. The Lunda capital was located at Musumba, in present-day Zaire, but several major Lunda clusters existed with populations exceeding 10,000 people each. With four large standing armies, an array of titled court figures and a large complex bureaucracy, the Lunda became an empire capable of controlling the terms of trade and exacting tribute over a wide area.
The Lunda have a long history of spawning émigrés who, through political manipulation or outright conquest, have reformulated the social and economic landscape of Central Africa. During the 1600s, one set of émigrés left the Lunda center, traveled west, and played a seminal role in the formation of the Kasanje Kingdom in Angola. Another set of émigrés traveled south to form the Luvale ruling dynasty. During the mid-1700s, royal lineages from the Lunda center traveled south to form the polities of Kanongesha, Ishindi, Musokantanda, and Kazembe Mutanda. A fifth group traveled east and established a polity along the Luapula River in Zambia. The impetus for most of this movement was the attempt to control strategic positions in the rapidly expanding long-distance trade network. Caravans from both coasts, with up to a thousand merchants and carriers, were crisscrossing Central Africa on a regular basis in search of marketable commodities, and in need of vast quantities of food. Some Lunda groups specialized in providing ivory, slaves, copper, wild rubber, and other goods that fueled the trade. Other groups ventured into the commercial production of food. Still others grew wealthy by levying taxes on the movement of men and materials through their territory, particularly at strategic river crossings. Most of these polities remain in direct tributary relations with the Lunda center at Musumba.
With the formai establishment of colonialism in the late 1800s, the Lunda were subjected to a tripartite division among the European powers of England, Portugal, and Belgium (later France). The long-distance caravan system was curtailed. The Lunda in each of the three colonial territories were relegated to the margins of newly emerging centers of economic activity. Little has changed in the era of independence.