Nov 232015


Today is the birthday (1924) of Colin Macmillan Turnbull, a British anthropologist who came to public attention with the popular books The Forest People (on the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire) and The Mountain People (on the Ik people of Uganda).

Turnbull was born in London and educated at Westminster School and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied politics and philosophy. During World War II he was in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve after which he was awarded a two-year grant in the Department of Indian Religion and Philosophy, Banaras Hindu University, India, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in Indian Religion and Philosophy.

In 1951, after his graduation from Banaras, he traveled to the Belgian Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) with Newton Beal, a schoolteacher from Ohio he met in India. Turnbull and Beal first studied the Mbuti pygmies during this time, though that was not the complete goal of the trip.

An “odd job” Turnbull picked up while in Africa at this time was working for the Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel. Spiegel hired Turnbull to assist in the construction and transportation of a boat needed for his film. This boat was the African Queen, which was used for the feature film The African Queen (starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn; 1951). ( ) After his first trip to Africa, Turnbull traveled to Yellowknife in the northwest territories of Canada, where he worked as a geologist and gold miner for approximately a year, before he went back to Oxford for another degree. Upon returning to Oxford in 1954, he specialized in the anthropology of Africa. He remained at Oxford for two years before another field trip to Africa, finally focusing on the Belgian Congo (1957–58) and Uganda. After years of fieldwork, he finally received his doctorate in 1964.


Turnbull became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1965, after he moved to New York City to become curator in charge of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in 1959. He later resided in Lancaster County, Virginia, and was on staff in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. Other professional associations included Corresponding Membership of Royal Museum for Central Africa and fellowship in the British Royal Anthropological Institute. He first gained prominence with his book The Forest People (1961), an admiring, popular study of the Mbuti.


In 1972, having been commissioned to come up with an explanation (and, perhaps solution) of the plight of the Ik of Uganda, he published the highly controversial The Mountain People. It documented how the Ik, a hunter/gatherer group had been forced to stop moving around ancestral lands, through the seasons, because such nomadism now involved the three national borders of Uganda, Kenya and Sudan. Forced to become stationary in Uganda, and without a knowledge base and culture for doing so, they failed to thrive, even to the point of starvation and death. The book came as a great shock to both professional anthropologists and the general public because it stood in such stark contrast to The Forest People.

The Forest People is written with a general audience in mind, and gives a rosy image of the lives of Mbuti foragers when they are able to disentangle themselves from village life with Bantu farmers and go off to hunt and gather in the forest. When they are on their own in the Ituri they are carefree and full of fun. I’ll always cherish Turnbull’s description of an Mbuti when he is vastly amused – clutching his stomach, and literally rolling on the ground in laughter. The book is a valuable way to introduce Western people to the notion of “the other” – a culture absolutely different from the West, yet perfectly coherent and functional. I regularly used the book in Introduction to Anthropology classes.

But then The Mountain People came along and upset the apple cart. The Ik, in contrast to the Mbuti, seemed like horrible people. They barely scraped out a living in their restricted circumstances, not helped by a persistent drought, and they seemed to have no fundamental rules and principles. They were not fun. Turnbull interviewed Ik elders and determined that their current circumstances were directly attributable to loss of resources, and concluded that culture can be fragile, and people can be harsh and cruel in the face of  dire circumstances. Not surprisingly a great deal of controversy erupted inside and outside the profession.

Some of Turnbull’s recordings of Mbuti music were commercially released, and his works have inspired other ethnomusicological studies, such as those of Simha Arom and Mauro Campagnoli. His most famous recording is Music of the Rainforest Pygmies, recorded in 1961, now released on CD by Lyrichord Discs, Inc. I used to keep a copy in my car to play on the way to work when I needed a little soothing from traffic jams.


Turnbull made no secret of being gay. In 1959 he met Joseph Allen Towles who had moved to New York City to pursue a career as an actor and writer. They exchanged marriage vows the following year. Towles’ began working as a volunteer in the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History with Turnbull. From 1965 to 1967, he assisted with the creation of the “Man in Africa Hall”, a permanent exhibit (re-titled in 1990 as “Hall of African Peoples”). He also researched and constructed the “Slavery in the New World” subsection of the museum. In 1963, he entered Pace College to study history and anthropology, graduating in 1968. He received his Ph.D. from Makerere University in 1979.


From 1965 to 1967, Turnbull and Towles conducted fieldwork among the Ik of Northern Uganda in Africa. In the Congo in 1970, they conducted fieldwork on the Nkumbi circumcision initiation ritual for boys and the Asa myth of origin among the Mbo of the Ituri forest. In 1979, they traveled the world studying the concept of tourism as pilgrimage. Towles next turned to biblical research, and writing plays and novels. He reacted angrily to Turnbull’s semi-autobiographical work The Human Cycle (1983), which omitted all references to their relationship. Towles’ health declined slowly from that time. He died from complications of AIDS in 1988.

Turnbull arranged for Towles’ research to be published posthumously. It appeared in 1993 as “Nkumbi initiation ritual and structure among the Mbo of Zaïre” and as “Asa: Myth of Origin of the Blood Brotherhood Among the Mbo of the Ituri Forest”, both in Annales of the Royal Museum for Central Africa.


Late in life Turnbull took up the political cause of death row inmates. In 1989, he moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to participate in the building of Tibetan Cultural Center with his friend Thupten Jigme Norbu, elder brother of the 14th Dalai Lama. Later Turnbull moved to Dharamsala, India, where he took the monks’ vow of Tibetan Buddhism, given to him by the Dalai Lama. He died in Virginia in 1994.


The BaMbuti are primarily hunter-gatherers. Their animal foodstuffs include crabs, shellfish, ants, larvae, snails, pigs, antelopes, monkeys, fish, and honey. The vegetable component of their diet includes wild yams, berries, fruits, roots, leaves, and cola nuts. So there you are – have at it for your pygmy meal of the day. Well, obviously you can’t because you don’t live in the Ituri. Wikipedia (edited) has this to say:

While hunting, the Bambuti have been known to specifically target the giant forest hog. The meat obtained from the giant forest hog (as is the meat from rats) is often considered kweri, a bad animal which may cause illness to those who eat it, but is often valuable as a trade good between the Bambuti and agriculturalist Bantu groups. There is some lore that is thought to have identified giant forest hogs as kweri due to their nocturnal habits and penchant for disruption of the few agricultural advances the Bambuti have made. This lore can be tied to Bambuti mythology, where the giant forest hog is thought to be a physical manifestation of Negoogunogumbar. Further, there are unconfirmed reports of giant forest hogs eating Bambuti infants from their cribs in the night. Other food sources yielded by the forest are non-kweri animals for meat consumption, root plants, palm trees, and bananas; and in some seasons, wild honey. Yams, legumes, beans, peanuts, hibiscus, amaranth, and gourds are consumed. The Bambuti use large nets, traps, and bows and arrows to hunt game. Women and children sometimes assist in the hunt by driving the prey into the nets. Both sexes gather and forage. Each band has its own hunting ground, although boundaries are hard to maintain.


The BaMbuti eat what’s available, in other words. They eat what they gather raw, or stew or roast it. You can do the same. I’ve written many times here about gathering, which few Westerners do. I’ve always considered wild berries to be free food, and they are perfectly delicious. In season I’ve gone with friends in New York State to gather literally bucket loads of blueberries to make pies and preserves. There are also wild strawberries (right in my lawn), wild bramble berries, wild grapes, wild plums, wild nuts, fungi, greens, and so forth. There’s a bounty in your back yard. That’s, of course, if you live in the country – as I did. If you live in an apartment in a big city, you’re out of luck. But that’s my “recipe” of the day. Go out into the country and find something wild to gather and cook. You do have to be a little careful and knowledgeable. Acorns can be noxious and fungi can be poisonous. You do need to have some knowledge. That just means that at worst you need to recruit locals who know what they are doing, because they know what they are doing. What saddens me is that such locals are getting fewer and fewer. What saddens me more is to see dandelion greens sold in the supermarket when anyone with a lawn will give you all the dandelions you can dig up – for free.


 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.