The Forest People

ISBN: 0671640992
ISBN 13: 9780671640996
By: Colin M. Turnbull

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About this book

The Forest People -- Colin M. Turnbull's best-selling, classic work -- describes the author's experiences while living with the BaMbuti Pygmies, not as a clinical observer, but as their friend learning their customs and sharing their daily life.Turnbull conveys the lives and feelings of the BaMbuti whose existence centers on their intense love for their forest world, which, in return for their affection and trust, provides their every need. We witness their hunting parties and nomadic camps; their love affairs and ancient ceremonies -- the molimo, in which they praise the forest as provider, protector, and deity; the elima, in which the young girls come of age; and the nkumbi circumcision rites, in which the villagers of the surrounding non-Pygmy tribes attempt to impose their culture on the Pygmies, whose forest home they dare not enter.The Forest People eloquently shows us a people who have found in the forest something that makes their life more than just living -- a life that, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, is a wonderful thing of happiness and joy.

Reader's Thoughts

Bill O'driscoll

British researcher Turnbull's classic account of life among a tribe of Pygmies in the 1950s. The book is written for a popular audience and is very accessible and quite engaging. The level of intimacy and understanding that Turnbull achieved through extended stays with the tribe is striking; he got to know them both as a group and as individuals. Perhaps most importantly, he did his research at a time when, although the Pygmies had more and more contact with the world of civilization, many traditional ways still held sway. (And Turnbull, again through careful observation, is especially good at disentangling Pygmy behavior among the villagers with whom they have a longstanding symbiotic, but not terribly respectful, relationship, with how they comport themselves in the forest.) Also striking: Although its members emerge as individuals, with discrete personalities, the tribe is truly a collective, and members recognize its survival as more important than the wishes of any one individual -- just as they credit their well-being to the beneficence of "the forest," which/who is essentially indistinguishable from their god. For extra credit, seek out "Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest," the amazing Smithsonian Folkways CD that compiles Turnbull's classic field recordings of the tribe's music, which is central to their culture.

Lauren Levine

I begrudgingly read The Forest People in my cultural anthropology intro course my freshman year of college. This was the book and the class that lead me to receiving a minor in anthropology. At first, I thought it was going to be a dry, clinical ethnography with confusing language and theories. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how lively the book actually was.One of the things I loved most was the vibrant, humorous, and detailed life of the Bambuti pygmies that Turnbull paints for his readers. The further you get along, the more the individual pygmies start to become part of your life, celebrating with them through the good times, and mourning during periods of turmoil. Turnbull describes the ups and downs of life for the Bambuti in such detail that you can't help but become captivated by the story. All in all the book stresses how precious life really is, and how the Bambuti make the most of what they have in the world around them. At the end, you will be left wondering what has become of many of the individuals described, because you'll truly feel as if you have been living with them too. One of my favorite ethnographies, so glad my professor made me read it!

Ahmet Uçar

Its a great anthropological book. You can observe the life of pigmies in Congo, their rituals, their simple and peaceful life. their funny quarrels that end in a humorous way. no institutions, no artifice. Oh, i wish i had a tribe :)

Kate Winters

Although it is an ethnography, this book has the power of a novel. Colin Turnbull obviously didn't believe in keeping a dispassionate distance from those he observed, and I walked away feeling like I had something of a real understanding of him and the people he studied. I recommend this book to everyone. To my friends who write secondary world fantasy or science fiction, I strongly recommend it.


The Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo only have the forest – they say they are one soul, them and the Ituri that shelters them. They take only what they need to survive; a couple pots, and make houses out of leaves every few days. In contrast, we spend so much of our life, dealing with and maintaining our stuff.But Pygmies laugh so hard, they need other pygmies to prop them up.


The anthropologist Colin Turnbull lived in the rural part of Virginia where I was born, and his death of AIDS was highly controversial in that area in the early 1990s. Thus, I wasted no time reading both of his classic books, as they contrast so greatly. Consider the Mountain People and then read The Forest People. The Mbuti people, pygmies I guess you'd call them, have an interesting relationship with the townspeople and tourists. You have to love a people, considered backwards, that knowingly create myths about their society for tourists and perform "ritual" made up dances that they wouldn't dare perform at home, all the while pretending they've got no clue. Not to mention that fact they carry around PVC pipe and consider it "sacred." Boy do they have a lot of laughs at home.


Altogether fascinating and readable account of an anthropologist's time spent with the BaMbuti people -- Pygmies -- though certainly by now outdated and perhaps written with inadequate scientific distance.Turnbull tells of a culture by and large isolated from modern society, with a complex relationship with non-BaMbuti villagers and a deep identification with the forest. He presents a sort of 'us vs. them' treatment of the villagers and the BaMbuti, delighting in the latter's flexible application of tradition and subversion of village beliefs and expectations. (Frankly, if he'd stuck solely to the question of BaMbuti relations to the village, he still would have had a surfeit of material.)Although Turnbull clearly had an unusual level of access to and comfort with the BaMbuti, at times I question whether that works against him in his writing. Most strikingly, he tells of a young woman resisting an arranged marriage. She's known to like the intended groom, Turnbull tells us; she's rejected his proposals again and again, so now her family -- literally -- beats her into submission. Not that I expected outraged discourse from Turnbull, exactly (that would be a lack of distance in another sense), but he seems to accept all this at face value and go with it, even as the woman acts so clearly defeated. I'm left wondering how much interaction with, and understanding of, he had with the women of the culture. He describes that culture, explicitly, as pretty equal -- women have a role in hunting; men share in childcare duties -- but, well, this was the 50s, and...'equal' seems a bit relative.It's been almost fifty years since this work was first published; I wonder how things have changed -- and how much -- for the BaMbuti in the interim.


What really bothers me about this book are the nonchalant mentions of violence, especially against women and children (referred to as a „sound slapping“ or „a good beating“), without giving these occurences the attention they should deserve, without taking them seriously and discussing them accordingly. If you told me about this nice American couple you have met, supernice people, getting along great with each other and their offspring, doing all sorts of interesting stuff, and then you casually mention they are frequently thrashing their children, I would certainly feel obliged to question your judgement. The apparently existing ingroup aggression of the BaMbuti is, in my opinion, brushed away, belittled or at times even condoned, probably to present the BaMbuti in a good light. These violent incidents directly contradict the portrayal of the group as a generally joyous, fairly harmonious, cooperative, joky and benign bunch, but Turnbull doesn't take any notice of that, he describes the incidents but fails to acknowledge them. Maybe the author is for some unknown reason insensitive to violence and slapping children doesn't seem too much of a big deal to him, I don't know. There is a disturbing scene of the whipping of a thieve, (who is portrayed by the author as lazy, and it is kind of implied that the man is deserving of punishment) with thorny branches, yet the author doesn't seem to be shocked at all, and goes on talking almost poetically about how the BaMbuti solve their problems in a non-official, informal and communal way.The only time Turnbull expresses sympathy for a harrowed being takes place, when he describes the cruel treatment animals receive at the hands of the BaMbuti. There is no shortage of violent episodes in the book, and there is no shortage of Turnbull's strangely detached and casual way of dealing with these occurences. How would the anthropologist describe Fra Angelico's hell? A bunch of people in chains sitting in warm jacuzzis being a bit manhandled by overall courteous demons? Quote: “Amabosu countered by smacking her firmly across the face. Normally Ekianga would have approved of such a manly assertion of authority over a disloyal wife.......“Manly assertion of authority? Doesn't sound like the frame of mind and canon of values of a generally egalitarian amicable tribe to me! It makes me wonder, how correct Turnbull's other observations are, and what someone else might have thought of the forest people. En passant it is mentioned, that only children and youths receive thrashings, which can only mean that corporal punishment of children is nothing out of the ordinary, but rather common. To me it sounds like there is a considerable amount of ingroup violence going on, yet Turnbull seems strangely unconcerned with that and continues unperturbed to paint a rather idyllic picture of the BaMbuti society. Then appears a sentence, which solves the mystery and clearly shows the author's opinion and explains his sloppy, apathetic treatment of ingroup violence, after which I refused to go on reading the book.Turnbull states: „For children life is one long frolic interspersed with a healthy sprinkle of spankings and slappings.“The book was written in the sixties and an educated person of that time should have known better.Research on brain development clearly shows, that there is no such thing as a healthy spanking and slapping.


This was one of those many books I've had to read for class as a college student in a required anthropology class. However, this book was surprisingly enjoyable, and defiantly opened up my mind by showing a culture completely different from the one I exist in. I'm not going to reiterate the plot description- just read that above, but I'll let you know that this book was an easy enough read (almost a "beach read"), plus, I promise your mind will be OPENED !


African pygmys, attested in ancient Egyptian and Greek texts as being nearly mythical inhabitants of central Africa, are described here in an Anthropological tome. I must re-read as I remember little from it.

Scott Ford

Turnbull presents the BaMbuti Pygmies, a group living deep in the rain forests of the Congo, their problem solving of daily life circumstances as a collective social unit. Companion Work: The Montain Peopl.

Andre'a Akers

I was mildly surprised with this book. I expected, because I read it for a class, that it would be incredibly dull and boring. Now, I can't say that at times it wasn't but it was still very interesting none the less and made a great side study for my anthropology class. At times it even tied into the material we were studying. I did enjoy Turnbulls story of the BaMbuti and found them to be fascinating people. I particularly loved the end of the book as it was a nice way for Turnbull to part ways with the people he had become family with.

Thomas Louis Bigelow-Garrett

I was about this book, compared to other cultural anthropology and ethnology i have read, this had a more homely, less professional perspective, and i liked that. Perspective not from a professional in the field, just another human. Cool read.


I read this book years ago in a college Anthropology course but could never remember the name of it, until seeing it on Goodreads tonight!This was the first true Anthropology book I'd ever written. I was blown away by the vividness of the BaMbuti world, captivated by their reverence for nature, and impressed with their structure and ritual. I've thought about this book many times over the years and have always wondered if we've done the forest people a disservice by entering their world. Nevertheless I was grateful for this brief glimpse in to it.


Very interesting ethnography of a very secluded group of people in the world. Must read for any Anthropology major.

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