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


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.


Turnbull's memoir of his time living among the BaMbuti pygmies of the Congo. Not an ethnography or academic work in any sense, it is instead an earnest account that humanizes the BaMbuti and sells their delightfully cheerful worldview and lifestyle. The BaMbuti live in the forest, depend on it and their souls are nourished by it. I read the book incidentally; it was one of the most appealing in the Friends of the Richland Public Library store during the time I was unable to get a library card. I wouldn't have chosen to read it otherwise, but I'm glad I did. It served as a very nice illustration, above all, of the indigenous land ethic and oral-culture mode of perception advocated in David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. The pygmies know nothing but the forest and the small clearings made by the villagers at the edges of the forest. Their psychological intimacy with the forest is made quite clear when Turnbull takes Kenge out of it, into the mountains. He struggles a long time with the treelessness of the plains and the mountains, is baffled by snow, etc, but ultimately comes to this realization, which is quite nice:"I was wrong. This is a good place, though I don't like it; it must be good, because there are so many animals. There is no noise of fighting. It is good because the sky is clear and the ground is clean. It is good because I feel good; I feel as though I and the whole world were sleeping and dreaming. Why do people always make so much noise? . . . If only there were more trees. . . ."It's of some interest to note that the pygmies don't have any kind of central authority system at all. Problems just sort of work themselves out because people soon tire of fighting, and in general there's nothing very serious to motivate those fights to last long. Incidentally, Turnbull constantly describes the pygmies as foraging for mushrooms, more than roots or berries or other such things. That's pretty cool.Ultimately, it would have been cooler if Turnbull had focused on some interesting aspects of the pygmies' cultural knowledge of the forest, but it was still nice to just sense this intimacy grounding the pygmies' character and actions.


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…

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.

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.


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.


After reading In the Arms of Africa, the biography of Colin Turnbull (which was fascinating), I decided to re-read The Forest People one more time. This time through will certainly be from a different vantage of that when I was 17 and different still from when I was 22, knowing now what I know re: the author.


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.

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.

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.


This book is about the pygmies in Africa. It was required reading for an Anthropology class, but i liked it enough to hang onto it. It is fun to read about a people whose way is life is completely different from mine and yet we both think we're "normal." This is a fast and easy read.

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 :)


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 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.

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