Mbuti Culture of the Congo

The Mbuti society of central Africa is a sub-category of an ethnic group known to Westerners as "African Pygmies." Since the colonization of Africa by Europeans several centuries ago, the Pygmies have taken root in the Western imagination as a mysterious tribe of tiny, uncivilized forest-dwellers. For a time they were even considered not fully human, being labeled "the missing link" between men and apes (Green, 1995). While it is true that they are small in stature (the average male is only 4' 8" tall), the Mbuti are wholly human and far from uncivilized. They are in fact a sophisticated and ancient culture with an egalitarian social structure that prefigured current ideas of human and civil rights by centuries, and a well-developed mode of subsistence that has allowed them to remain viable despite many modern threats to their way of life.

The Mbuti have inhabited the Ituri forest in the modern-day Congo region of central Africa for at least 2000 years. They are a hunter-gatherer society, best known for their use of nets and bows in hunting. Their system of net-hunting is particularly notable for its sophistication and the extensive amount of social cooperation needed for it to be effective. According to Sutton and Anderson (2010), each family in a Mbuti band owns a large net, on average 200 feet long. A typical net-hunting expedition comprises 7 or 8 families, including men, women, and children. The families put their nets together, creating a single, large net that can reach two thousand feet long; they then stretch the net in a U-shape through the forest and cooperatively herd a variety of species of small game into the net. Everyone participates in some fashion, even the children, and the meat is divided evenly among the participants.

While the net-hunting method typically involves a large number of people of all ages and genders, bow-hunting is generally reserved for men, either alone or in small hunting parties. The effectiveness of Mbuti bow-hunting is largely due to the lethal poison with which they tip their arrows. Because the poison is such an efficient killing method, Mbuti arrows do not need to be large, nor do the hunters need to carry many of them. This allows the hunters a great degree of mobility and speed in the dense rainforest (Ibid). The prey that are hunted with bows are larger than those hunted with nets, and often include the wild pig, which exists in large populations in the Ituri forest. However, the wild pig and several other nocturnal mammals are considered to be kweri, or "bad animals," to the Mbuti and are not eaten by them (Ichikawa, 1987). Instead, the meat from these animals is traded with nearby villagers for other products.

While hunting is an integral part of Mbuti life, and while meat does figure into their diet, the Mbuti subsist largely on agricultural products and indigenous plant life. Some of this supply is provided by gatherers, generally women, who collect seeds, roots, fruit, and leaves from the surrounding forest. Sutton and Anderson (2010) note that the success of Mbuti gathering is dependent, rather surprisingly, on the agricultural practices of other tribes. Many of the plant species that the Mbuti prefer are found only in new-growth forest. The Mbuti rely on neighboring agricultural tribes to provide secondary-growth forestland by clearing old forest for fields, and then abandoning those fields and allowing the forest to regenerate.

In addition to the symbiotic relationship between Mbuti and the tribes who clear the forest, the Mbuti also rely on neighboring tribes for trade. Because there are so many game animals that the Mbuti hunt but are restricted from eating, they trade the meat from these animals for grain and other agricultural products from the villagers who live on the outskirts of the forest. The terms of these trades are somewhat loose; there is no currency exchanged, and value shifts according to what is available. Of special importance is the relationship between the Mbuti and the Bila, an agricultural tribe with whom they exchange meat for domesticated plant species like bananas, corn, and tobacco (Sutton & Anderson, 2010). This relationship has become so vital to the Mbuti way of life that they have now adopted the Bila language as their own.

Within the last half-century, the Mbuti have begun trading with outside meat traders who travel into the forest to get meat from the tribe in exchange for other goods (Hart, 1978). The traders generally come from the towns and cities of the Congo. Unlike the nearby villagers, who wait for the Mbuti to come to them with meat, the traders enter the forest and camp with the Mbuti during the hunts. This has had a profound effect on both the culture and the hunting practices of the Mbuti. When hunting meat for trade with the neighboring tribes, the Mbuti tend to hunt the outskirts of the forest to make the transportation of the game to the villages easier. Having the traders with them in camp means that the Mbuti can widen their hunting grounds into deeper and larger territories. This trend has led to overlaps in the hunting grounds of different Mbuti bands, and has instigated conflict between bands that was nearly non-existent before outside trading began.

The introduction of territorial conflict into the Mbuti way of life is disturbing considering their traditional reputation as a peaceful and close-knit community. The Mbuti are a band society, with band sizes generally ranging from 40-60 people (Turnbull, 1982). The nuclear family is the only social organization unit within the band. The bands themselves have no intrinsic hierarchy; all adults are treated equally regardless of gender or age, and political and practical decisions are made by means of community gatherings and discussions. This does not mean, however, that differences in age and gender are not recognized and utilized as organizing principles.

According to Colin Turnbull (1982), who spent years studying and living among the Mbuti, the Mbuti employ four major principles of social organization: territory, kinship, age, and sex. While these delineations are not hierarchical, they are recognized, explored, and ritualized throughout Mbuti culture. Turnbull points out that all of these categories provide potential for conflict within the band society, but the Mbuti attitude towards their own nature and the education of their children tends to diffuse these conflicts and promote peace within the communities. The Mbuti are remarkable, claims Turnbull, in that they "accept that human nature is not angelic, and they expect, with typical pragmatism, that however divine our essence may be…the social self may stray" (133). Their philosophical acceptance of human fallibility and their preference for humor as a method of diffusing tense situations creates an atmosphere of forgiveness and self-deprecation that keeps social interactions pleasant and conflicts brief and minor.

Part of the success of the Mbuti social structure lies in their extended concept of kinship. In many ways, the Mbuti concept of kinship is similar to other small hunter-gatherer communities. The basic unit is the nuclear family. Descent is organized patrilineally, and marriages are generally confined within bands, though cross-band marriages do occur. While the nuclear family forms the basis of kinship identity, as Mbuti children age their concept of kinship is gradually broadened to include the band itself and even the environment in which they live. As they grow, children are taught to think of themselves as products of an ever-widening network of connections. According to Turnbull, their identity starts with their primal home in their mother's womb (the endu), and then is gradually broadened to the larger spheres of their immediate family, their extended family, the peers in their playgroup (the bopi), the band itself (the apa), and finally, the forest (the ndura).

The peculiar kinship relationship that the Mbuti have with the forest is distinctive of their culture. They consider the forest to be both their father and their mother, both in metaphorical and literal senses. Mosko (1987) explains this unique split relationship:

The Forest as "mother" is the great provider, the source of love, affection, trust, and well-being. As "father," the Forest is lawgiver, the source of severity, strictness, authority, and conflict…Less frequently, but perhaps no less significantly, the Forest is also portrayed in terms of "lover" and "friend" or "sibling." (898)

Turnbull argued that, because this relationship is ideological, it does not qualify as a true "kinship" relationship. In fact, in Turnbull's estimation the biological kinship relationships within the Mbuti are the least significant of the organizing principles of the society -- age and gender play much more important roles in how people are categorized and how they interact. More recently, however, other scholars like Mosko have revisited Mbuti concepts of kinship and have determined that, because of the Mbuti's real and pervasive view of the forest as their literal kin, kinship is in fact the most significant organizing principle within the tribe.

An individual's kinship relationship with the forest starts with conception.

The Mbuti consider…