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George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.


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Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Pygmies People mind-mapping diagram

Part Two
African Hunters
— 8 —
Pygmies

Under the name Sangoan archeologists group a series of closely related prehistoric cultures found in central Africa west of the great lakes and extending from the Middle Paleolithic period to about the beginning of the Christian era. Their bearers were hunting and gathering peoples who centered in the equatorial rainforest (see Map 4) but extended south thereof to about l6°S, beyond which cultures of the Stillbay type occur. Their descendants are the Pygmies—also called Negrillos, Twa (Batwa), and Twides—of whom about 170,000 survive in the same region today. As noted in Chapter 2, they belong to the Pygmoid race, which resembles the Negroid in certain respects but differs in more.

No longer do the Pygmies roam the forest undisturbed, for about 2,000 years ago their territory was penetrated from the north by a series of agricultural Negro peoples—a few Central Sudanic tribes from the northeast, more speakers of Eastern Nigritic languages from across the northern border, but especially a horde of Bantu peoples from Nigeria and the Cameroon highlands in the northwest. At first the newcomers were doubtless welcome since they could offer agricultural produce and superior tools in exchange for game, forest products, and ivory. Indeed, wherever Pygmies survive today they are characterized by a symbiotic relationship with the neighboring Negroes involving precisely this kind of economic interdependence. Ultimately, of course, the invaders, with their more advanced economy, multiplied in number and achieved complete dominance. Almost nowhere today do Pygmies occupy independent tracts of land. Rather, they are attached in small bands to particular Negro chiefs or headmen in a relationship which, though reciprocal, is clearly dependent. In many parts of their former territory, moreover, they have disappeared through absorption, and in others they have become strongly acculturated.
Although archeologically Sangoan cultures extend westward into the tropical-forest zone along the Guinea coast, no Pygmoid peoples survive in this region today. The Gagu of the Ivory Coast, once considered a possible remnant, are now recognized as true Negroes despite their relatively short stature. A few markedly acculturated Pygmy groups are found in the savanna country along the Kwango, Kasai, and other southern tributaries of the Congo River, and a few pockets still exist in the dry-forest zone farther south. One lone outpost is found, for example, in the Nyaneka country in the southwest (ca. 15°S, 13° E), and in the southeast, in Northern Rhodesia and the adjacent Belgian Congo, a few thousands have escaped complete assimilation by adopting a fishing economy in the swamps near Lake Mweru (ca. 8°S, 29°E), Lake Bangweulu (ca. 11°S, 30°E), and the Kafue River (ca. 15°39'S, 27°E). The great majority of the Pygmies still live in their ancient heartland, in or on the edge of the zone of tropical rainforest. Among them four principal groups can be distinguished.

  1. Binga (Babenga, Babinga, Yadinga), embracing the Beku, Bongo (Babonga), Jelli (Badiele, Baguielli, Bayele, Bodjili, Boyaeli), Koa (Akoa, Bakoa), Kola (Bakola), Kuya (Bakouya), Rimba (Barimba), and Yaga (Bayaga, Bayaka). This group extends along the Atlantic coast and its immediate hinterland from 5°N to 5°S, and inland north of the equator to about 19°E. They number about 27,000 and are only slightly mixed and acculturated.
  2. Central Twa. This group, for whom no special tribal names are reported, live among the great Mongo nation of Bantu in the central Belgian Congo between 1°N and 4°S and between 18° and 23°E. They number around 100,000 and are considerably Mongoized in physique and culture, though they still depend largely upon hunting, fishing, and gathering for subsistence.
  3. Gesera (Bagesera), with the Zigaba (Bazigaba). These tribes live in Ruanda and Urundi (ca. 1-3°S, 29-30°E) and number about 9,000. About 2,500 still follow their old mode of life in the mountains, but the remainder have adopted a sedentary life on the plains near Lake Kivu, with pottery making as a specialty.
  4. Mbuti (Bambuti, Wambuti), with the Aka (Akka) and Efe (Eve). These tribes, with a total population of about 32,000, inhabit the Ituri Forest (ca. 0-4°N, 26-31°E) and reveal the least Negro influence in physique and culture.
Group of Congo Pygmies
Group of Congo Pygmies. (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.)

Presumably the Pygmies once spoke languages of their own, but no record of their former speech survives today. Every group, without exception, speaks the dialect of the Negro tribe to which it is attached, whether Bantu, Eastern Nigritic, or Central Sudanic.
Subsistence is derived principally from hunting and gathering. The men hunt small animals and also deer, wild boar, and even the hippopotamus and the elephant, whereas the women collect wild fruits and roots, insects and larvae, lizards, and often shellfish. Fishing, which also assumes considerable importance in many groups, is done mainly by women among both the Binga and the Mbuti. The Pygmies keep no domestic animals except the dog, which they use in hunting, and they practice no agriculture except under Negro influence.

All unacculturated Pygmies live in nomadic bands, which number from twenty to as many as a hundred individuals, and wander over recognized hunting territories owned collectively by the group. At each camp site the women erect their huts in a circle around an open space. The typical dwelling is hemispherical in shape and consists of a framework of flexible poles set in the ground in a circle or ellipse, bent together and fastened at the top, and covered with leaves. Often this is reduced to a mere windbreak covered with leaves or bark, but among the Binga the hut is sometimes elaborated by extending one end to form a low entrance tunnel. Marriage is usually monogamous, but polygyny is not forbidden and occurs to a limited extent. In such cases each co-wife has a separate hut. A man obtains a wife by making substantial gifts to her relatives. These sometimes amount to a genuine bride-price. In one Binga case, for instance, they included a new bow, two hundred arrows, two vessels of arrow poison, a knife, a spear, two new barkcloths, a string of beads, and two iron bracelets. Exchange of sisters is the preferred mode of marriage among the Mbuti and may well have been the original Pygmy practice. Each nuclear family constitutes an independent household. Related families commonly erect their huts side by side, but true extended families are lacking. Local exogamy is universal, and marriage is usually forbidden between first cousins and all closer kinsmen. A widow normally marries a brother or other close relative of her deceased husband.

Residence is patrilocal and descent patrilineal. A wife always joins the band of her husband, to which their children also belong, and marriage is not permitted with any known relative in the male line. Nearly all authorities report exogamous totemic patrisibs, but their evidence strongly suggests that it is only the localized lineage or patrician which is exogamous. Since nearly all the Negro tribes amongst whom the Pygmies live are characterized by patrilineal descent and patrilocal clan-communities, this feature of social organization may well have been borrowed from them, and it is possible, if not probable, that the Pygmies were originally bilateral in descent, even though patrilocal residence and local exogamy may have prevailed.

The Pygmies do not practice slavery and have no stratification into social classes. The band is basically egalitarian and democratic, with an older and experienced man as its informal leader. In consultation with the other men he decides when and where to hunt and move camp. There is no higher political integration except for the usual dependence of each band on the chief or headman of the associated Negro group. Formal age-grades are lacking, as is circumcision except under Negro influence. Though the Pygmies are in general peaceful, interband feuds and even warfare sometimes occur. Unlike their Negro neighbors, however, the Pygmies do not indulge in cannibalism.

Selected Bibliography
Bruel, G. Les Babinga. RES, 1:111-125. 1910.
Czekanowski, J. Forscbungen im Nil-Kongo-Zwischengebiet, vol. 2. Leipzig, 1924.
[Mbuti].
Douet, L. Les Babingas ou Yadingas. Ethnographie, n.s., 2:15-32. 1914.
Gusinde, M. Pygmies and Pygmoids. AQ, 3:3-61. 1955.
Immenroth, W. Kultur und Umwelt der Kleinwiichsigen in Afrika. SV, 6:1-380. 1933
Regnault, M. Les Babenga. Anthropologie, 22:261-288. 1911.
Schebesta, P.Bambuti . Leipzig, 1932.
Among Congo Pigmies. London, 1933. [Translation of the above].
Schebesta, P. Die Bambuti-Pygmaen vom Ituri. MIRCB, 1:1-438; 2:1-551; 4:1-253. 1938-1950.
Schumacher, P. Die Kivu-Pygmaen. MIRCB, 5:1-404. 1950. [Gesera].
Seiwert, J. Die Bagielli. Anthropos, 21:127-147. 1926. [Binga].
Trilles, H. Les Pygmées de la forêt équatoriale. Paris, 1932. [Binga].