Finding the Pygmies: Westerners Learn More about Africa's Ituri Forest People

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Finding the Pygmies: Westerners Learn More about Africa's Ituri Forest People


The first half of the twentieth century was a difficult time for the indigenous people of Africa. Beginning in the late 1880s, the entire continent was in the process of being carved up into colonies by the European countries of Britain, France, Portugal, Germany, and Belgium. The United States, although not outright colonial, enhanced its interests via corporate and scholarly endeavors—the latter through newly established museums funding scientific expeditions collecting specimens from the diverse natural and cultural landscapes of Africa. In the early years of the twentieth century, museums funded by wealthy philanthropists and industrial giants were involved in a race to fill their institutions with specimens of plants, animals, and representations of the cultures of the world. These contacts, while giving detailed and interesting information, contributed to the strain and pressures being placed on indigenous people. Information on one group, the Ituri forest people—often referred to as Pygmies—was especially sought out during the early years of the twentieth century.


The Ituri forest, a dense tropical rain forest in the northern part of the Congo River Basin, covers nearly 24,000 square miles (38,624 sq km) of land in central Africa. Indigenous people of the Ituri forest, Pygmies have long been the subject of speculation, mystery, and myth because of their small stature—they typically mature at a height of four to five feet (1.2 to 1.5 m). These forest dwellers are among the oldest inhabitants of Africa and may possibly be the original human inhabitants of the vast tropical rain forest, which stretches from coast to coast. They were well established there at the beginning of recorded history.

The earliest recorded reference of the Pygmy people is a an expedition sent from Egypt in the Fourth Dynasty, 2,500 years before the Christian Era, to discover the source of the Nile River. In the tomb of the Pharaoh Nefrikare is an account of the expedition describing the discovery of a people of the forest, a "tiny" people who sang and danced to their god. The Pharaoh requested that one of these people be brought back unharmed to Egypt. Unfortunately, this is where the story ends, although later records show the ancient Egyptians had become relatively familiar with the Pygmies.

When Homer (fl. ninth or eighth century b.c.), the famous Greek poet, refers to the Pygmies in the Iliad, he may be relying on this information from early Egyptian sources. By Aristotle's (384-322 b.c.) time, the mythmaking trend continued, although Aristotle himself argued that the Pygmies' existence was not fable but truth and that they lived in the land "from which flows the Nile." Mosaics found in the ruins of Pompeii show that, whether the Pygmies were believed to be myth or not, the makers of the mosaics in fact knew how they lived, even the kinds of huts they built in the forest. However, from then until the turn of the twentieth century, Western knowledge of the Pygmies decreased to the point where they were thought of as mythical creatures, semi-human, flying about in tree tops, dangling by their tails, and possessing the power to make themselves invisible.

By the thirteenth century, cartographers who drew the Mappa Mundi accurately located the Pygmy home on the African continent but portrayed the Pygmies as subhuman monsters. It appears that this view held up through the seventeenth century, when English anatomist Edward Tyson (1650-1708) published a treatise on "The Anatomy of a Pigmy Compared with That of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man." He had obtained from Africa the necessary skeletons, on which he based his conclusion that the so-called "pigmy" was not human. This "pigmy" skeleton was preserved until recently in a London museum, and has been acknowledged as the bones of a chimpanzee. Portuguese explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century continued these extravagant erroneous accounts, writing about the pygmies making themselves invisible and therefore able to kill elephants.

In the late nineteenth century Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904), a British explorer for the colonization effort, crossed through the Ituri forest and made contact with the Pygmy people. In Darkest Africa, Stanley tells the story of his 18-month journey up the Congo River from its mouth across the Ituri forest. He describes these small-statured people of the forest as "the first specimens of the tribe of dwarfs."


There are numerous groups of people living the Ituri rain forest in central Africa. Collectively now known as the Bambuti, they are not dwarfs; they are fully developed human beings both physically and mentally. They are descendants of indigenous forest-dwelling people who speak varied languages and have knowledge of hunting and gathering skills enabling them to be completely self-sufficient and self-sustaining in procuring food, clothing, medicine, and shelter from the rain forest. They are considered the earliest inhabitants of the Congo Basin and have continued their hunting and gathering lifeways since before recorded historical times. Based on their ways of living, they are broken into two groups: village-dwelling agriculturists and the nomadic hunting and gathering peoples. In many parts of the Ituri forest the villagers and hunter-gatherers practice a form of mutual interdependence, which includes the sharing of language and customs. No longer identified as Pygmies, they are called by the name they give themselves—the Bambuti people.

Several expeditions during the early 1900s informed Western knowledge about the Bambuti. In 1925 the Brooklyn Museum of Arts and Science funded and mounted an expedition into what was then the Belgian Congo of central Africa. Directed and led by an American woman, Delia Akeley (1875-1970), the expedition sought to explore the Ituri forest and bring back cultural artifacts and accurate information for the newly established museum. Akeley had gained experience during two earlier expeditions to east (1905-1906) and central Africa (1909-1911), which were led by her husband, Carl Akeley (1865-1926), for Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. These museum-sponsored safaris collected animal specimens for the collections at the Field Museum as well as providing an excellent training for the rigors and particulars regarding travel in Africa.

At times traveling by dugout canoe during her 1925 trip, Akeley ventured deep into the homeland of the Ituri forest people. An avowed amateur anthropologist and ethnologist, Akeley lived with the Pygmy people for several months, befriending them and documenting information about their customs, diet, and physical characteristics for the Brooklyn Museum of Arts and Science. This expedition dispelled some of the myths surrounding the Ituri forest people and provided invaluable information on hunter-gatherer societies.

Akeley found the Bambuti to be fully developed human beings with specialized skills allowing them to be completely self-sufficient. They possessed hunting skills, rituals, and creative expressions that dated back thousands of years. Skilled hunters and gatherers, the forest people used the resources of the rain forest to support themselves completely. Some used bows and arrows to hunt monkeys and forest antelope, while others used spears and nets to hunt large game like buffalo and elephant. Honey, fruits, nuts, caterpillars, termites, and mushrooms were gathered and used for food and trade. Living in beehive-shaped huts constructed of twigs and leaves, they were able to construct dwellings within hours. This enabled them to move approximately every three to four weeks to take advantage of the changing conditions of edible plants and animals. In addition, Akeley's expedition also identified and documented some of the skills of the musicians, singers, dancers, and storytellers that enriched the lives of the Ituri forest people. This information collected for the Brooklyn Museum of Arts and Science contributed to deconstructing the Pygmy myth and provided information for the next generation of scientists interested in the natural, cultural, and political history of the region.

There were, however, many negative social and cultural results from these museum-collecting expeditions, not to mention the European colonization efforts, that were generally not recognized until much later. Following the European conquest and colonization of Africa in the early twentieth century, it still was automatically assumed by Westerners that these hunter-gathers were the most primitive members of the human race or even an earlier evolutionary stage, despite information to the contrary. This phenomena of describing the Bambuti as "a race of dwarfs," "insignificant," "primitive," "of an earlier evolutionary stage," or "subhuman" was demeaning, inaccurate, and allowed for destructive policies and attitudes to be used against the Bambuti people.

These stereotypes and subsequent policies made it extremely challenging for the Ituri forest people to continue their hunting and gathering lifeways without outside interference. The Ituri forest hunter-gatherer society was significantly affected by the resulting encroaching development, political changes, sensationalism, and attempts at cultural assimilation popular during the early twentieth century. Overall, the museum-funded expeditions of the early 1900s attempted to dispel some of the harmful and incorrect ideas about Ituri forest people. However, as late as the 1920s a member of the Ituri people was put on display at the Bronx Zoo in the United States.


Further Reading


Duffy, Kevin. Children of the Forest. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1984.

Friedman, Ekholm. Catastrophe and Creation: The Transformation of an African Culture. Harwood Academic Publishers, 1991.

McLoone, Margo. Women Explorers in Africa. Capstone Press, 1997.

Turnbull, Colin. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

Periodical Articles

"The Efe: Archers of the Rain Forest." National Geographic (November, 1989): 664-86.

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Finding the Pygmies: Westerners Learn More about Africa's Ituri Forest People

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