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


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.


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."


Ah, the Ik people. This book really gives you a sense of the capacity of cultures to be fundamentally different from what we consider human "nature". It's a remarkable study of a people no longer with us. Not for the faint of heart.


Disturbing anthropological work about a society in decline. Frightening.

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.


A 1972 account of a mid-60s anthropological field trip to northern Uganda seemed like fairly intriguing but hardly spectacular stuff. But it turns out that this was one of the all time most controversial books about Africa ever written. I didn't know! Or as one blog puts itEVERYTHING IN THIS BOOK IS COMPLETELY FALSE.And another blog says this:What does it say about Western intellectual life that such obvious nonsense could spread so easily across the Anthropological borderline into popular culture and thence into the received wisdom of the age?And yet, here’s a blurb by the all-time Margaret Mead : “A beautiful and terrifying book” and Ashley Montagu (another top anthropologist)An important book, for it represents a…study of a unique people – a people who are dying because they have abandoned their humanity. The parallel with our own society is deadly.Now, perhaps that last sentence has a clue in it. Whew. So let’s try to figure this thing. It’s a weird and complicated story.What exactly happened anyway?THE GARDEN OF EDENFirst Colin Turnbull, English anthropologist, wrote a book called The Forest People in 1961, an account of the idyllic life of the Mbuti, who are Congolese pygmies. CT loved loved loved the Mbuti and his book was a hit.THE EXPULSION FROM THE GARDEN OF EDENThen he made another two year field trip in 1965-6 to study an obscure Ugandan tribe called the Ik. IK = HELLThe account he gives is horrendous. It’s a version of Hell. He says that the Ik were hunter gatherers originally, but because of the creation of national parks, the government had forced them to become subsistence farmers, penning them in the mountainous northern corner of the country where it rains only two or three years in every four, and where the soil is poor. He says that the destruction of their formerly sustainable hunter-gatherer life caused Ik society to crumble. Food became ever scarcer. A low-level famine was ever-present, and this led to behaviour becoming ever more viciously individualistic. The family unit practically dissolved. The young and the old were not cared for. Anyone who could not feed him or herself was useless, already dead.A TYPICAL ANECDOTE WHICH SETS THE TONE BUT WHICH YOU MAY CHOOSE TO DISBELIEVE[Up to the age of three, the Ik child is ] carried about in a hide sling wherever the mother goes, and since the mother is not strong this is done grudgingly. … whenever the mother is at a water hole or in her fields she loosens the sling and lets the baby to the ground none too slowly, and of course laughs if it is hurt. I have seen Bila and Matsui do this many a time. Then she goes about her business, leaving the child there, almost hoping that some predator will come along and carry it off. This happened once while I was there – and the mother was delighted. She was rid of the child and no longer had to carry it about and feed it… The men set off and found the leopard, which had consumed all of the child except part of the skull; they killed the leopard and cooked it and ate it, child and all. ATUM’S WIFE DOES HIM A FAVOURAtum was an old Ik (i.e. over 40) who was very helpful to CT as he established himself in the village. One day he said his wife was sick. He asked CT for food and medicine for her, which CT gave him. After a while when she continued being sick CT suggested she should go to a hospital. Atum declined – “she was not that sick”. Then after a while, when I still had not once seen her, his brother-in-law, the beady-eyed Lomongin, sidled up to me and said he supposed I knew that Atum was selling the medicine I was giving him for his wife. I was not unduly surprised, and merely remarked that that was too bad for his wife. “Oh no,” said Lomongin, enjoying the joke enormously, “she has been dead for weeks. He buried her inside the compound so you wouldn’t know.”And laterI was told this was the best thing to do with old people who died. A funeral, it was said, was a nuisance to everyone, and made everyone upset with all the crying and wailing. I would have given quite a lot to believe that the Ik were capable of crying and wailing at that point.And later, regarding another old manIn a very short time Loomeraniang was dead, and his son refused to come down from the village above and bury him; his sister hurried over and snatched his few belongings, leaving the corpse.MORE TALES FROM HELLcaption on a photoAfter eighteen years of age Ik women lose their ability to charm the cattle herders [who are a different tribe], and their fellow Ik have neither the energy nor the affection to spare. At eighteen a woman begins to enter the loneliness and isolation of old age.Caption on another photoAdupa, in the unused kitchen area of her compound, which was to become her grave. She made the mistake of thinking of it as a home. Her parents were unable to feed her, and when she persisted in her demands they shut her in. She was too weak to break her way out, and after a few days her dead body was unceremoniously thrown out.Caption on another photo which shows a small boy and his taller brother Liza, younger brother of Murai, died while his older brother thrived. He made the mistake of expecting more of family than mere tolerance. Murai would eat while his brother, starving, watched. Yet he showed no malice or hatred, no regret, nothing. As Murai said, surely, it is better that one lives than that they both should die.CT remarks that in famine conditionsThere simply was not room, in the life of these people, for such luxuries as family and sentiment and love. So close to the verge of starvation, such luxuries could mean death, and is it not a singularly foolish luxury to die for someone who is already dead, or weak, or old? This seemed to strike hard at the assumption that there are such things as basic human values, at the very notion of virtue, of goodness even. The Ik present us withan opportunity for testing the cherished notion that love is essential to survival. If it is, the Ik should have it. Whether it makes them or us any different from other animals is a matter of opinion, but I must confess that early during fieldwork I wrote back that I could not believe I was studying a human society ... I searched for evidence of love almost from the beginning, I found more of it in ... two baby leopards than I did among the Ik.IS ANTHROPOLOGY A DIGNIFIED PROFESSION?Of course the proper study of man is Man, man in this sense meaning woman too, of course, of course. But I dunno, the notion of a white intellectual paying the natives to build him a hut and a road to the hut so he can get his fucking Landrover up the hill, and living in this hut for a couple of years, and trying to learn all about this society, and then after this brief period trotting back to the University of Rich White America and writing down what he thinks about these poor benighted starvelings kind of sticks in my throat more than somewhat. And this particular book stuck in a lot of people’s craws, which made a lot of other people want to read it.THERE WAS A VIOLENT REACTION TO THIS BOOKOne reviewer saidthe author’s manner of presentation is distasteful and his general comments about the nature of man and society are both simplistic and questionable.AndRather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field. We are assured of the author's intrepidity (30), sensitivity (114), and given passages of embarrassingly purple prose (3o). Dr. Turnbull clearly had a dreadful field-trip and has succeeded in conveying this to the reader (Reviewer : T.O. BEIDELMAN)Another colleague, Frederik Barth, entitled his review of The Mountain People “On Responsibility and Humanity: Calling a Colleague to Account”and he said (I will quote him at length, it's good)It is emotionally either dishonest or superficial. It is deeply misleading to the public it sets out to inform. Most disturbingly, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful to its unwitting objects of study.To give a key to some of my indignation, let me illustrate how named Ik are exposed in the anthropologist's text. Their illegal activities are publicized to anyone who bothers to read the book: named persons are accused of cattle theft or fencing stolen cattle (p. 110); the location of corrals for such purposes is given (p. 278); photographs are provided showing named persons forging forbidden spears or engaged in illegal poaching {facing p. 128). Perhaps the anthropologist trusts that the authorities (referred to as "Obote's specially trained thugs," p. 108) will be ineffective in utilizing such information.Andthe face which the anthropologist presented to the Ik seems strongly marked by the Bwana complex. One of the clearest expressions is found in his relationship to Kauar, who emerges from the description (pp. 88-89) as a true Uncle Tom, who used to volunteer to make the long two-day walk into Kaabong and the even more tiring two-day climb back to get mail for me. ... He was always pleased with himself when he came back, and asked if he had made the trip more quickly than the last time. ... Then he used to sit and watch while I read the mail, studying the expression on my face to see if all was well. When we drank tea together he always took exactly the same number of teaspoons of sugar that I took, and helped himself to exactly the same number of biscuits, never more, never less.When one day Kauar fell dead on his return marathon, Turnbull is indignant at the lack of compassion shown by the Ik, while "I still see his open, laughing face, see him giving precious tidbits to the children, comforting some child who was crying, and watching me read the letters he carried so lovingly for me. And I still think of him probably running up that viciously steep mountainside so that he could break his time record, and falling dead in his pathetic prime because he was starving" (p. 89).GETTING IN TOUCH WITH YOUR INNER NAZIWell, I have to agree with this reviewer from 1973. This whole thing begins to be nauseating after a while. CT portrays himself as a lover of Africa, and surely he did love parts of it, but the Ik freaked him out so much by their abjectness and squalor that the old judgemental colonial paternalism kind of rose up inside Colin and overwhelmed him, the old heart of darkness thing. He ends up saying that it would be better if the Ugandan government solved the Ik problem by forcibly rounding them up and dispersing them round the country in groups of ten or so. Since they no longer have any strong family bonds it would do them no harm. They could blend in with other tribes and that would be a final solution to the Ik problem.What a book. I am most profoundly happy to be done with it.Oh, and I don’t recommend it.


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

Jesse Broussard

Absolutely horrific. The utter disintegration of a society and the depths of human depravity.


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.

Scott Ford

In this companion piece to The Forest People, Turnbull describe life among the Ik, an indigenous group dessimated by drought and starvation, and the unraveling social fabric that results.

Gwen Burrow


Lawrence Bish

This look at what happens to human beings when they lose their connection to their traditions and connection to others within them. A worthwhile read.


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."

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.

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