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

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.


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.


This is one of those books that I felt like I could continue reading almost indefinitely. The group of people Turnbull lived with were interesting and the insight into their culture that they keep so carefully masked from their village neighbors was very engrossing.Occasionally, I got bogged down by the level of detail, but when read carefully, these extra details illustrated the way these people thought about things and what was important to them.

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.


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


Well first off, it was a surprisingly EASY read ... breezed right through the thing. What I remembered in particular was the elima of course, which at times made me laugh out loud. I also found their system of punishment interesting. While it was threatened that certain actions could result in banishment etc it seemed that very rarely were these punishments carried out. Hostilities would be direced towards the accused for a few days and perhaps the guilty one would go off into the forest by himself for a day only to come back and everyone would act as if nothing had happened. The bambuti also possess a striking sense of humor. One thing that did bother me a bit however, was their treatment towards animals. They believed that the animals were placed on earth for their benefit so why bestow ANY sympathy on the creatures. It also seemed as though some of their traditions were only carried out for the SAKE of tradition. Perhaps that is due to their interaction with villagers ... etc. Very engaging read. I might read it again.

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".

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!


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'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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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