People of the Congo Rainforest - the "Pygmies"

By Rhett A. Butler
LAST UPDATE: August 9, 2020

Note: for this section, references to "African forest peoples" generally refers to the traditional practices and way of life for a subset forest-dependent people who live in tropical forests, rather than farming communities (typically Bantu or Sudanic in ethnicity) that live in villages in forests. It's important to recognize that the context has been changing rapidly over the past 20 years due to a variety of factors.

Today the African rainforest is home to some of the most celebrated traditional tribal peoples, 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 or BaAka (southern Cameroon), and the Twa (central Congo river basin). Together, as of 2000, these groups accounted for some 130,000 to 170,000 forest dwellers distributed over a large area of forest, resulting in a low population density.

African forest people tend to be distinctly smaller than people from outsider forest, with the "Pygmies" being the most extreme example. Their small stature is thought to enable them to move about the forest more efficiently than taller peoples. Additionally, anthropologists have argued that their smaller body mass allows pygmies to dissipate their body heat better.

African pygmies and a European explorer. Scan of Collier's New Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (1921), opposite page 58, panel B. Author: Keystone View Company. Public domain (pre-1923).

Traditional life of African forest peoples

African forest peoples live in bands that range in size from 15-70 people depending largely on outside factors—the availability of game, trading relationships with outside communities, the prevalence of disease, and the extent of forest area. These groups are traditionally nomadic, moving to new parts of the forest several times during the year and carrying all their possessions on their backs. Their nomadic lifestyle allows the group to move in response to resource availability. This approach, coupled with low population densities and lack of encroachment from outsiders, has historically allowed wildlife populations to recover after a group has abandoned an area.

When African forest peoples establish a temporary camp, they typically clear any undergrowth, small trees, and saplings, leaving the canopy-forming trees intact. Under the cover of the canopy, the forest dwellers are protected from the intense tropical sun and maintain habitat for honey-producing bees and game. By leaving the canopy intact, the area can quickly return to healthy and productive forest when they leave. Their huts superficially resemble Central Arctic Inuit igloos, with a domed latticework formed of saplings and walls of shingled tree leaves.

Most African forest people traditionally spend much of the year near a village where they trade bushmeat, honey, and labor for manioc, vegetables, metal goods, and fabric. According to anthropologists who've studied the dynamics between forest peoples and villagers, it's common for a forest family to establish a symbiotic relationship with a settled village family. These relationships between a single forest family and a single village family can persist for generations.

Gender roles in African forest communities are traditionally distinct. The women do most of the gathering, using baskets they carry on their backs. Men concentrate on hunting and honey collection. Honey is often 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 hive, the climbers burn wood which produces smoke that stuns the bees, enabling the Mbuti collect honey.

A group of Pygmy men from Nala (Haut-Uele, northeastern Congo) posing with bows and arrows (ca. 1915). American Museum of Natural History

African forest peoples rely on hunting to secure their primary source of protein. Each forest group has their own approach to approach to hunting. For example, the Efe hunt their prey almost exclusively with bows and arrows. Other groups use both bows and arrows and nets to capture their prey.

The BaAka are perhaps the best known net hunters. BaAka men arrange the into a semi-circle to form a wall, up to one kilometer in length. BaAka women flush game into the nets where the men use spears to kill the animals.

While African forest peoples have generally lived within the carrying capacity of the local ecosystem, the increasing commercialization of the bushmeat trade is altering the sustainability of hunting practices. Bushmeat demand is surging in villages, urban centers, and even overseas markets. African forest peoples are sometimes hired as trackers for elephant poachers.

The Aka Pygmies living in the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve in Central African Republic. Photo by JMGRACIA100
Bayaka people in the Dzanga Sangha Ndoki reserve. Central African Republic rainforest. Photo by JMGRACIA100.

African forest peoples today

The small number (in proportion to the sub-Saharan population) of forest people are highly threatened by destruction of their homelands, the influx of outsiders, and official government policies to disrupt their forest traditions through forced settlement.

As of the early 2000s, no legal land titles had been granted to African forest peoples by Central African governments. Meanwhile deforestation, forest degradation, expansion of logging roads, and rising rural populations have increased pressure on forest peoples. Logging is especially problematic because logging settlements and roads open tracts of previously inaccessible forest to rapid colonization. Logging camps not only bring colonists, but also introduce pathogens to the forest people who lack immunity to outside diseases.

Changes in rural Central Africa are resulting in rapid erosion in the culture of forest peoples. Beyond land use change, encroachment of outsiders into forest areas is changing the traditional dynamics between Mbuti and other groups with their neighbors. The customary practices of forest people — like hunting and collection of non-wood forest products — are today often criminalized by local authorities and governments.


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