Tropical-Forest Foragers

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Tropical-Forest Foragers

ETHNONYMS: Aka: Babinga, Bayaka, Biaka, Mbenzele. Asua: Aka, Bambuti. Baka: Bangombe. Bofi: Babinga. Bongo: Akoa, Bazimba. Efe: Bambuti. Kasia Twa. Kola: Bagyeli. Mbuti: Basua, Kango. Medzan: Tikar. Ntomba Twa. Rwanda and Burundi Twa.


Identification. The term "tropical-forest foragers," or "pygmies," refers to ethnolinguistically diverse peoples distributed across the forested regions of Central Africa who are particularly short in stature and who traditionally have lived by specializing in hunting and gathering wild forest resources, which they consume themselves or trade to neighboring farmers in exchange for cultivated foods. There are exceptions to these generalizations: some "pygmies" are tall, independent from farmers, and live in the savanna. There is so much diversity among these groups that it is impossible to describe a "pygmy" culture. That there is no generic term other than the European word "pygmy" (derived from the Greek pyme, meaning a unit of measure equivalent to the distance from the elbow to a knuckle) bears testimony to the absence of any pan-"pygmy" awareness or culture. Forest foragers in most areas are unaware of the existence of "pygmies" in other regions, and there is currently no sense of solidarity among the different populations. Unfortunately, no term has been developed to replace the derogatory term "pygmy."

Multinational logging, the establishment of conservation parks and reserves in the tropical forest, gold and diamond mining, central-government programs and policies to sedentarize "pygmies," and more farmers moving into the forest because of population increases outside the forest areas are just some of the forces dramatically influencing forest foragers today. Traditional forager-farmer relations are breaking down, and most forest foragers today also farm, although it may only amount to planting a field in the middle of the forest or near a village and then abandoning it to hunt and gather until it is close to harvesttime. Few forest foragers receive health or education services from national governments.

Location, Linguistic Affiliation, and Demography. Forest foragers are distributed discontinuously across nine different African countries (Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Zaire, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Congo). Most forest foragers live in the Congo Basin and are usually found within 5° N or S of the equator and between 10° and 30° E. There is enormous diversity in the natural environments occupied by forest foragers of the Congo Basinfrom upland dense tropical rain forest to lowland swamps to mixed savanna-forest environments. Ethnolinguistic diversity is also evident. The estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Aka, who live in southeastern Central African Republic, speak a Bantu language, whereas the 3,000 or so Asua of the Ituri Forest of northeastern Zaire speak a Sudanic language. About 10,000 Efe also reside in the Ituri Forest and speak a related Sudanic language. The Baka of southwestern Cameroon, who number about 30,000 to 40,000 individuals, speak a language classified as Oubanguian, as do the roughly 3,000 Bofi of the forest-savanna areas of southeastern Central African Republic. Other Bantu-language speakers among forest foragers are the estimated 2,000 Bongo of western Gabon, the 3,500 Kola of the southeastern coast of Cameroon, the 7,500 Mbuti of the Ituri Forest of northeastern Zaire, the 250 Medzan of the forest-wet savanna region of central Cameroon, the 14,000 Ntomba Twa of the Lake Tumba area of central Zaire, an unknown number of Kasai Twa inhabiting the forest-wet savanna areas of southern Zaire, and 10,000 Rwanda and Burundi Twa living in the western portions of those two nations.


The Aka, Asua, Baka, Efe, and Mbuti are relatively mobile; they live in temporary spherical huts. The Bongo, Kola, and Twa tend to be more sedentary; they build rectangular, mud-thatch village houses. Average camp sizes of the Aka, Baka, Efe, and Mbuti are relatively small, ranging from 17.8 inhabitants among the Efe to 37.4 among the Mbuti. Baka and Efe camps tend to be closer to villages than are Aka and Mbuti camps (4 to 8 kilometers versus 5 to 40 kilometers).


In the late twentieth century most forest foragers are specialized in extracting resources from the forest (e.g., game meat, honey, caterpillars) and thus are often nomadic. Some of these resources are traded to farmers for such foods as manioc, maize, and plantains and for iron implements, salt, tobacco, and clothes. In many areas of Central Africa, specific clans of forest foragers have traditional relations with specific clans of farmers, and these relationships are transmitted from one generation to the next, creating a complex web of economic and social exchange that leads to high levels of cooperation and support. Today most forest foragers live in association with farmers, but the nature and extent of the association varies substantially.

Among the Aka, Bofi, Bongo, and Kola, a type of cooperative net hunting is practiced, in which men, women, and children all participate; other groups utilize some combination of bows and arrows, spears, and snares.

Kinship, Descent, and Marriage

Aka, Baka, Efe, and Mbuti utilize Hawaiian kinship terminologies and reckon descent patrilineally. The Efe and Mbuti practice sister exchange, and the Aka and Baka require bride-service. Postmarital residence is very flexible in each of these four groups, but there is a tendency toward patrilocality in all of them. Polygyny rates vary from 3 percent among the Efe to 20 percent among the Baka. Efe also have one of the highest intermarriage rates with farmers: 13 percent of Efe women have married a neighboring farmer.

The Aka, Efe, and Mbuti have relatively high levels of multiple care giving; Aka and Mbuti fathers are especially active care givers. Infants are indulged: they are held virtually all the time and attended immediately when they fuss or cry, and they nurse on demand. Children grow up in multiage play groups, and autonomy is greatly encouraged. Male circumcision and adolescent tooth pointing are practiced by all three groups.

Sociopolitical Organization

Patricians are common to all forager groups, but their function tends to be less pronounced by comparison to clan organization among farmers. Forest foragers are often members of the same patricians as those of their traditional farming trading partners. Patrilineage ideology is not strong: mother's relatives are recognized, often with specific terms. Patricians are "shallow," in that most foragers recall two or three generations in the clan, whereas farmers frequently can cite five or six generations.

Most forest foragers are known for their relatively egalitarian social systems. They maintain this egalitarianism through prestige avoidance, rough joking, and pervasive sharing.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Origin stories often make reference to a god who created the world, the forest, and the first humans, after which she or he withdrew to the sky and paid no more attention to the affairs of the world. A certain powerful forest spirit influences the "living dead" (i.e., the souls of dead forest foragers).

Religious Practitioners. All the forager groups have traditional healers, and several of them (e.g., the Aka, Baka, and Mbuti) recognize the supernatural abilities of great hunters, who can communicate with the supernatural world, make themselves invisible, and take the forms of various animals.

Ceremonies. Each of the forager groups has several hunting rituals; their nature, occurrence, frequency, and intensity depend on hunting success, failure, and uncertainty. Among the Aka and Baka, the most important hunting rituals are linked to elephant hunting. Honey is symbolic of life substance, and gathering of the first honey is preceded by collective ceremonies, music, and dance.

The most important ceremonies follow death. The forest spirit participates in these, either through the sound of a trumpet (among the Efe and Mbuti) or dancing under a raffia mask (among the Aka and Baka).

Music. Forest-forager music is distinct from that of farmers of Central Africa. It exhibits complex vocal polyphony; yodeling is incorporated, but there is a relative lack of musical instruments. Varying by region, the latter include whistles, two-stringed bows, and drums. Unison singing is seldom realized. Collective songs have superimposed parts. The lyrics are usually not important; they may consist of meaningless vowels and syllables.


Bahuchet, Serge (1993). Dans la forêt d'Afrique Centrale: Les pygmées aka et baka. Paris: Peeters-SELAF.

Bailey, Robert C, Serge Bahuchet, and Barry S. Hewlett (1992). "Development in the Central African Rainforest: Concern for Forest Peoples." In Conservation of West and Central African Rainforests, edited by K. Cleaver, M. Munasinghe, M. Dyson, N. Egli, A. Peuker, and F. Wencélius, 260-269. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L, ed. (1986). African Pygmies. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press.

Kent, Susan, ed. (Forthcoming 1996). Cultural Diversity among Twentieth-Century African Foragers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Chapters on tropical-forest foragers by B. Hewlett, M. Ichikawa, and D. Joiris.]

Tumbu 11, Colin (1965). The Mbuti Pygmies: An Ethnographic Survey. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. New York: Museum of Natural History.