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

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.


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.


I just finished a wonderful book, Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People. Turnbull lived ‘a while’ (pygmies don't measure time with a watch or a calendar) with African pygmies to understand their life, culture, and beliefs. As he relays events of his visit, he doesn’t lecture, or present the material as an ethnography. It’s more like a biography of a tribe. As such, I get to wander through their lives, see what they do, how they do it, what’s important to them, without any judgment or conclusions other than my own.One point that became clear early on is that pygmies have no leaders. How can that be, you might ask? Doesn’t somehow just assume that mantle? Well, until I read this book, I would have agreed whole-heartedly, but that doesn’t seem to happen. A tribe member might demand everyone go hunting with him (it takes a large group to capture/kill the forest animals) and people may go, or they may not. Whatever they feel like. When they move to a new camp, houses and furniture must be built. People may start full of energy and ambition, promising to help neighbors and build big houses with multiple rooms. And then the builders dwindle away as some other adventure grabs their attention. They might finish, maybe not. Often, they'll use some of their neighbor’s roof leaves, or even his house until their own house is built.Most surprisingly, I have yet to discover if they have a belief in a god. They don’t pray for help, for food or safety, for anything. If life doesn’t seem quite right, the closest they get to wishing it was better is to return to the forest where life is always good, to a camp surrounded by the depths of the jungle, where outsiders are afraid to go. But the forest isn’t their god, it’s merely where life is always good.Hmmm. I have to ponder this…

Bryan Simmons

Colin Turnbull's intriguing inspection of pygmy life in Africa. He lived with these people for years and in the book he lovingly dissects their way of life. It is quite clear by the end how much he respects these people.I think the book was most interesting to me on a philosophical level. The fact that this culture and civilization(one of the oldest in the world) exists almost entirely without possession-- there is nothing of any lasting value to own. Needless to say, this is fascinating to observe in contrast with our own society. I also loved how humble and frank these people are. They realize they are at the mercy of the forest and you can see the difference it yields in the way they live.

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 :)

Nathan Glenn

This is one of the coolest books I've ever read. The author lived among the Pigmies (the Mbuti) for a long time and describes their family relations, travels, hunting, romance, adventures, religion and celebrations. He made very good friends with the people and they spoke openly with him about things they considered sacred and "of the forest".


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.

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.


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


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 !


This book was recommended in a world music class, and may be one of the best takeaways I have from that class. Turnbull lived with the BaMbuti pygmies and gives a detailed and intimate look at their world. He was one of the few people at that time who was able to live with and study the BaMbuti without being chaperoned by the neighboring non-pygmy villagers, and was able to learn much about the pygmies without viewing them through their neighbors' biases. The portrait he paints is of a people who are intimately entwined with the forest they live in, and of the complexities of a small group society. He never falls into the trap of painting them as "noble savages" or of demeaning them as unsophisticated children. More than once Turnbull is shown that what initially seems simplistic is hiding a deeper meaning that most of the outside world will never be privy to. Ritual is balanced with practicality, sometimes to his dismay. This is the most honest anthropological study I've ever read, revealing as much about the ethnographer as it does the people he is studying.


Turnbull was a good publicist for the BaMbuti, and made sure their view of things was given a fair hearing. One interesting point is that the neighboring BaNtu farmers believed that the Pygmies had cursed the forest land so that it lost fertility if converted to farmland. Of course, forest land is always nutrient-poor. A forest is a bootstrapping system that supplies its own nutrients, mostly, so naturally the land lost fertility if you removed the nutrient sources. But it served the BaMbuti's purposes to encourage the 'curse' idea--they apparently became quite masterly at keeping outsiders out of their forest.

Lauren Lastrapes

Turnbull proves that it is possible to write an interesting ethnography that is not fluff. He's often accused of romanticizing, even fictionalizing, the lives of the Mbuti Pygmies in the Ituri forest. Mostly this is probably a bunch of jealous griping from inferior writers.

shannon madden

This was surprisingly delightful. Turnbull's 1960s study of the Pygmy people is an interesting, engaging look at a very different way of life. The book gradually, and subtly, grabs the reader's attention by painting intimate pictures of Turnbull's individual friends and associates through anecdotes organized by theme. There's a wonderful chapter near the end in which we get to experience Kenge's first look at the world beyond the forest. His observations and reservations are at the same time beautiful and thought-provoking, as he has no knowledge of the "truths" we daily take for granted.I definitely recommend this book, and I thank my dad for rescuing it from the $3 discount shelf for me!

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.

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