Human Inhabitants


July 31, 2012

Today the African rainforest is home to some of the most celebrated tribal people, the so-called "Pygmies" of the Ituri forest in northern Congo. The tallest of these people, known as the Mbuti, rarely exceed five feet (1.5 m). Besides the Mbuti, there are three other major rainforest peoples of Africa: the Aka (Central African Republic and northern Congo), the Baka (southern Cameroon), and the Twa (central Congo/Zaire river basin). Together these groups account for some 130,000 to 170,000 forest dwellers distributed over a large area of forest. The result is low population density; the Mbuti average fewer than one person for every one-and-a-half square miles (four square kilometers).

African forest people tend to be noticeably smaller than those from the savannas, the Pygmies being the most extreme example. Their small stature undoubtedly enables them to move about the forest more efficiently than taller peoples. Additionally, their smaller body mass allows pygmies to dissipate their body heat better.

These peoples live in bands that range in size from 15-70 people depending largely on outside factors—hunting, trading, disease, and forest area. These groups tend to be nomadic, moving to new parts of the forest several times during the year and carrying all their possessions on their backs. Their nomadic lifestyle is less damaging to the rainforest environment because it allows the group to move without over-exploiting the local game and forest resources.

When they establish a settlement, they clear any undergrowth, small trees, and saplings, leaving the canopy-forming trees intact. Under the cover of canopy, the pygmies are protected from the powerful tropical sun and can better harvest such things as honey and game. By leaving the canopy intact, when the group leaves, the area can quickly return to semi-primary forest. Their huts superficially resemble igloos, with a domed latticework formed with saplings and walls of shingled tree leaves.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Most African forest people spend much of the year near a village where they trade bush meat and honey for manioc, produce, and other goods. A forest family will almost always trade with the village family of its choosing, and once determined, usually continues to trade exclusively with the same family. Sometimes, the relationship between the forest family and the village family will be passed on to future generations. The forest people could stay in the village if they chose, but instead return to the better life of the forest where they have less disease, cleaner water, less work, more choices, less uncertainty, no need for money, and fewer disputes. Studies have revealed that African forest people have better health and dietary intake than other populations in sub-Saharan Africa.

The day-to-day life of the forest people is probably simpler than that of the villagers. The women do most of the gathering, using baskets they carry on their backs. Men concentrate on hunting and the collection of honey—perhaps the forest product most prized and highly sought after by the Mbuti and other forest peoples. The Mbuti will climb more than 100 feet (30 m) into the canopy to reach the honey-containing beehives. When they reach the nest, the climbers burn a type of wood which produces a smoke that stuns the bees and enables the Mbuti to break into the hive and collect the honey.

African forest peoples are excellent hunters and each forest group specializes in its own hunting method. For example, the Efe people almost hunt their prey (over 45 species of animal) almost exclusively with bows and arrows. Other groups use both bows and arrows and netting to capture their prey. Although in these groups, men do most of the hunting of arboreal animals using bows and arrows and crossbows, women play an important role in the capture of ground-dwelling animals. The men arrange the nets into a semi-circle and form a wall, up to one kilometer in length, of hunting nets. The women scare animals into the nets where the men use spears to kill the game.

Traditionally forest people have a great deal of respect for the animals they hunt and do not over-exploit the game. Even so, the bush-meat trade has increased beyond sustainable levels over the past few years to meet the growing demand of expanding village populations. Additionally, African forest peoples are being hired as trackers by ivory poachers to track down the endangered forest elephants, whose tusks are more valuable than those of savanna elephants.


The small number (in proportion to the sub-Saharan population) of forest people are highly threatened by destruction of their homelands and official government policies to end their forest traditions. No legal land titles have been granted to African forest peoples by Central African governments. During the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, according the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Africa lost the highest percentage of rainforest (10.5 percent) of any forested realm, resulting in a further decline of the forest peoples. Much of the deforestation is the result of the expansion of villages, due to population pressures, into forest areas, and commercial logging by multinational corporations. Logging is especially problematic because logging settlements and roads into the interior open huge tracts of previously inaccessible forest to rapid colonization. Logging camps not only bring unwanted colonists, but also bring disease to the forest people who lack immunity to outside diseases like malaria. In addition, the loggers usually do not bring manioc and produce to trade with the forest people, but instead introduce money, tobacco, and marijuana. Game is becoming scarce for the pygmies from poaching by loggers and the noise created by their heavy machinery and chainsaws.

Pygmy house made with sticks and leaves in northern Republic of the Congo. (Photo courtesy of "Tornasole")

Review questions:

  • Are pygmies real?
  • Why is the traditional lifestyle of African forest people threatened?

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Continued / Next: Asian Forest People

  • Information on the African pygmies, including details about their hunting methods, population density, cultural practices, and trade relationships with Bantu farmers is provided in Turnbull, C.M. Ed., Mbuti Pygmies : Change and Adaptation, New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1997; Turnbull, C.M., The forest people, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961; and Kenrick, J., "People of the African Forests," Rainforests: The Illustrated Library of the Earth, ed. N. Myers, Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1993.
  • Current threats to the traditional way of life for pygmies are addressed in Kenrick, J., "People of the African Forests," Rainforests: The Illustrated Library of the Earth, ed. N. Myers, Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1993; Kristof, N.D., "Pygmies' Simple Way of Life in Congo Jungles is Threatened," New York Times, 6/16/97; and Strieker, G. "Rainforest Aborigines Crowded out by Newcomers, Loggers." Cable News Network, 3/11/97