The Mountain People

ISBN: 0671640984
ISBN 13: 9780671640989
By: Colin M. Turnbull

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About this book

In 'The Mountain People', Colin M. Turnbull, the celebrated author of the classic 'The Forest People', describes the dehumanization of the Ik, African tribesmen who in less than three generations have deteriorated from being once-prosperous hunters to scattered bands of hostile, starving people whose only goal is individual survival.

Reader's Thoughts


this book shows what happens to a small tribe of people when their basic needs are not being met. i'm sure it changed the way i think about basic human nature. i love this book.

M.E. Traylor

This was a pretty incredible account of how devastating the transition can be for a hunter-gatherer culture suddenly cut off from their subsistence base and forced into sedentary farming. In what amounted to two or three generations, the Ik lost so much. Turbull had a sound understanding of the typical hunter-gatherer lifeway and how the Ik's forced lifeway transition affected this, but his tone in the book fluctuated between empathy, loathing, hopelessness, and snide resignation.I don't believe in objectivity, anthropological or otherwise, but sometimes I found myself reacting when Turnbull couldn't step back from his judgment and hatred of the Ik when he had never known the hunger and subsistence transition they were experiencing (something he acknowledged freely). Then again, I've never lived in a culture so far removed from my own cultural expectations and biases. I imagine that if I'd lived with the Ik for two years I might have had many of the same judgments, regardless of any intellectual understanding. Turnbull's experience among the Ik was a very human one, and I appreciated how honest he was about himself.One of the parts I appreciated most about Turnbull's account was how he plainly drew parallels between the degeneration of Ik culture and modern industrialized culture. Without ranting or sensationalist language, he points out that the Ik throw their children out at three, whereas in modern America we wait until kindergarten, "divorcing" ourselves from them just as surely. The Ik self-interest that seems so despicable to a romanticized view of human virtue is simply a mirror of our own self-absorption, just without the capitalist and technological trappings.One of my favorite lines:"In larger-scale societies we are accustomed to diversity of belief, we even applaud ourselves for our tolerance, not recognizing that a society not bound by a single powerful belief is not a society at all, but a political association of individuals held together only by the presence of law and force, the very existence of which is a violence."This was an incredibly powerful (if depressing) read, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity.


Oh shit. Shit. Shit. SHIT. What is this??? I am reading it because of school and it's terrifying! How coul'd live people like this??? I don't underestand. Oh my god. I am crying so hard when I'm reading it. Selfishness. Malignancy. Absence of love. Suffering... Awful.

Greg Cummings

A sad indictment of human nature, or a rational absence of empathy in the midst of extreme hardship? Turnbull takes us into the failing heart of the Ik community in northern Uganda after a particularly devastating drought. Given the author's standing as an eminent anthropologist, it's easy to understand why the book was criticised by the academic community, as he fails to distance himself from his subject. At the same time, this is what makes The Mountain People such a compelling read. Unable to stand back and simply observe, Turnbull jumps in and starts questioning the rationale of turning out relatives to die on their own when they're at death's door. Only the reader is left to find reasons to empathise with the actions of the Ik. Surprisingly hard to put down for an academic work. Be sure to have a bottle of water nearby though, as this is a thirsty read.


Quoting Margaret Mead on the back cover, "A beautiful and terrifying book of a people who have become monstrous almost beyond believ....As Turnbull's writing weaves in and out between outrageous acts and his own outrage, he emphasizes again and again how fragile the structure of a society is."

Gwen Burrow



Disturbing anthropological work about a society in decline. Frightening.


Some anthropologists may disagree with his interpretations, but it's a very well written ethnography that certainly presents enough information for the reader to draw their own conclusions. I think anthropologists need to recognize this for the type of literature it is and allow for that when critiquing it. Isn't the nature of an ethnography - to present the writer's experience and to provoke questions? I was very much intrigued by the effect this experience had on Turnbull's attitude. The book continually kept my interest and got me thinking about the society we live in and the role our attitudes and actions towards others play in its success or failure.


Absolutely terrifying, but something that has really reinforced many of the opinions I hold on the socialisation of what we consider "humanity". The Ik are a people who have had their ability to gather the basic resources needed to live removed; the result is the removal of "humanity", as this is something which we have only had the freedom to evolve due to a surpless of food in most situations. I'd recommend it to most sociology and psychology students.


An amazing book. Turnbull stayed for two years with the Ik, an African tribe in which individualism and mutual exploitation have replaced love, compassion, and family. Women laugh as their babies crawl into the fire. Children pummel their starving grandparents and steal the food (literally) from their mouths. It all calls into question if humanity has any basic quality of goodness.The book is also the story of an anthropologist's capacity for objectivity imploding. Toward the end are lines like this: "I am hopeful that their isolation will remain as complete as in the past, until they die out completely." Readers will, and probably should, hedge their bets a little more. But while I've read refutations of the book, none of them are quite convincing at dispelling its heart--a portrait of humanity scraped clean of anything but craven self-interest.


An excellent glimpse into the true nature of human society. Read this book for education not entertainment - it is dry in some parts. Provides evidence that there are no such thing as intrinsic human values and that the nature of people and society depends greatly on the environment.


Another book that should make you re-think your views on "progress" and "civilization". Also a good book to remind the reader that you will always be viewing the world and other people through your own eyes. And making judgments on another people's culture and way of life can be grossly skewed by our own experiences. This mistake can lead to great suffering and cause serious conflicts. It should remind the reader that what we know as "morals" is a function in large part of our experiences and life rather than some innate set of instinctual rules. This lesson would be valuable for many to learn. I recommend this book for all of our world leaders. - and to anyone who believes we simply always have the right to invade another country because they are not "democratic" enough for us. Or because we think they are not "moral". We really have no right to judge others behavior through our very very rose colored wealthy industrialized glasses.

Michelle Commeyras

This was a hard read because the lives of the people was so dismal. I remember that sometimes all they had to eat was "dirt."


Gifted to me by Mary Kuhn, but only now finally reading it. Heart breaking thus far.


Wonderful book.

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