vs. Structural Explanations
Mbuti Pygmy Subsistence Behavior
William S. Abruzzi
In Serge Bahuchet, Daniel Bley, Bernard Brun, Nicole Licht & Helene Pagezy (eds.),
et la Foret Tropicale. Marseilles:
University of Provence Press, pp.
years ago, I published two articles in which I proposed an ecological
explanation for the spatial and temporal variation that characterized
Mbuti Pygmy subsistence behavior, social organization and world view in
relation to their Ituri Forest environment in northeastern Congo (formerly
Zaire) (see Abruzzi 1979, 1980). My
analysis of the Pygmy material was sparked by Colin Turnbull's (1968)
claim that there was no ecological reason for the variation he observed in
Mbuti subsistence behavior. Turnbull
argued that Mbuti subsistence activities could be better explained by
social structural considerations than by ecological ones.
The most important factor causing variation in Mbuti subsistence
behavior, according to Turnbull, was the Mbuti need to maintain the
"essential unity" of their local hunting bands.
For Turnbull, the Ituri Forest was simply a "permissive
environment" that allowed the Mbuti a wide latitude of subsistence
my own attempt to explain the observed variation in Mbuti subsistence
behavior was offered primarily as a critique of Turnbull's social
structural analysis of Pygmy ecology, it was also undertaken to
demonstrate the value of a materialist explanation of human social
behavior generally. The following paper reviews my critique of Turnbull's social
structural analysis of Mbuti Pygmy subsistence behavior and then examines
developments in Mbuti Pygmy research since my original research. It shows that significant advances continue to be made in our
understanding of Pygmy ecology specifically by those researchers who have
adopted an explicit materialist research strategy and who have examined
the cost/benefit implications of Pygmy behavior under different
environmental conditions. This
research has led to a greater understanding of local variation in Mbuti
subsistence than could have been achieved by idealist, structural
explanations that are inherently incapable of explaining such variation
(cf. Bicchieri 1969, Godelier 1977:51-62; Mosko 1987).
Turnbull's Account of Pygmy Subsistence Behavior
Mbuti Pygmies are divided into two distinct types of bands: larger net hunting
bands, consisting of between 7 and 30 families, who practice communal or
cooperative hunting with nets, and much smaller archer bands, consisting of only a few families, who hunt
individually with bow and arrow.
In 1968, Colin Turnbull published a short essay which became widely
accepted in anthropology as a cautionary tale against too readily
accepting ecological (i.e., materialist) explanations of human social
behavior, even when that behavior was directly related to subsistence
activities. In that article,
Turnbull claimed that there was "no environmental reason" for
the pervasive economic division which existed among the Mbuti Pygmies
between net hunting and archer bands due to the fact that no significant
variation existed within the Ituri Forest which could generate such
discrete adaptive strategies. As Turnbull (1968:133) stated, "there is nothing that
makes one part of the forest more or less desirable than any other part at
any time of the year." He
claimed instead that the Ituri Forest environment was simply
"generous enough to allow alternate hunting techniques (ibid)."
thesis regarding the inadequacy of an ecological explanation of Mbuti
subsistence was confirmed for him by the fact that the net hunting and
archer bands responded in diametrically opposed ways to the same
ecological event --an
increase in the availability of honey during the summer months of June and
July. In precisely the same
natural environment and in response to the same precipitating event,
according to Turnbull, the larger net hunting bands divided into smaller
sub-bands and temporarily abandoned hunting, claiming that the increased
availability of honey made this possible, while the smaller archer bands
aggregated into larger maximal bands and conducted cooperative game drives
(without nets) in response to what they perceived as a period of scarcity
created by a substantial decline in resources.
discounted any consideration of an ecological explanation for this
perplexing behavior, Turnbull proposed instead that its cause was
primarily social. For him,
the seasonal shifting in both the size and composition of local Pygmy
bands (which he termed "flux") facilitated a regular
reorganization of those bands and, in the process, preserved their
"essential unity" and ultimately their survival as social units
within Pygmy society. Turnbull
argued that conflicts inevitably accumulated during ten months of
cooperative net hunting which necessitated: (1) a temporary dispersal of
individuals from local net hunting bands; and (2) the subsequent
reformation of new bands containing a new combination of individuals whose
cooperation in hunting would not be compromised by previous conflicts.
Conversely, he argued that the archers, who lived in small isolated
bands most of the year, needed to come together for a brief portion of the
year in order to preserve their unity as a social group.
Thus, according to Turnbull, the net hunters created the illusion
of the honey season as a time of plenty in order to facilitate their
dispersal, while the archers deluded themselves that this same period was
a time of scarcity in order to justify their coming together.
offered what was in effect a classic structural functional explanation of
Mbuti subsistence behavior. The
primary causal agent in his analysis was not the prevailing environmental
conditions to which local Pygmy bands had to adapt, but rather
non-material sociopolitical forces which functioned to maintain band
unity. Turnbull also emphasized the symbolic implications of the
flux, which according to him, de-emphasized the stability of interpersonal
relations and placed people in closer recognition of the one constant in
their lives, "the environment and its life-giving qualities. (ibid.:137)."
of Turnbull's Analysis
my critique of Turnbull's analysis of Mbuti subsistence behavior, I began
by showing that his claim regarding the spatial and temporal uniformity of
the Ituri Forest was fundamentally incorrect.
I showed that the eastern and northeastern portion of the Ituri
Forest differed significantly from the remainder of the forest not only in
the composition of the forest, but also in the degree to which the
agricultural and commercial activities of non-Mbuti populations had
penetrated the region (Abruzzi 1990:8-12).
Moreover, I showed that, according to Turnbull's own data, net
hunting and archer bands were not distributed randomly throughout the
forest, but rather were largely associated with the degree of changes that
had occurred in their forest ecosystem. More specifically, the archer bands were located in the most
disrupted portion of the forest to the east and northeast, while the net
hunting bands were concentrated primarily in the less disturbed sections
of the forest to the west and southwest.
I also demonstrated that there were distinct wet and dry seasons in
the forest and that the puzzling behavior surrounding the honey season
occurred during the height of the summer rains.
further showed that Turnbull's argument contained serious methodological
problems, many of which were inherent in his social structural explanation
(see Abruzzi 1980:16-19). One
of the more important methodological problems was the fact that Turnbull's
claim that the Mbuti created imaginary seasons of plenty and scarcity in
order to facilitate band reorganization was directly contradicted by his
own data, which showed that local bands maintained less than 40%
continuity from one month to the next.
The Mbuti, therefore, clearly did not need to delude themselves by
creating imaginary seasons of scarcity and plenty at one time of the year
in order to achieve what was in fact taking place on a daily basis.
I also noted the contradiction between Turnbull's claim that the
flux which he observed placed the Pygmies in a closer recognition of the
one constant in their lives --the
forest-- with the central fact of his own argument, which was that the
Pygmies did not see their forest environment as constant, but rather perceived
it as changing drastically during the honey season.
importantly, I argued that Turnbull's structural functional explanation of
the role of flux in maintaining band unity made no attempt to account for
the observed behavior in terms of empirically definable antecedent
conditions to which the Mbuti might be responding.
Rather, the purported result of the demographic changes which took
place during the honey season --the
maintenance of band unity-- was inappropriately (and rather illogically)
presented as its cause. Lacking
the empirical foundation and conditional form inherent to all scientific
explanations, Turnbull's explanation of Mbuti subsistence behavior
remained at best interpretive and speculative and at worst teleological
and empirically unverifiable. It
certainly did not advance our understanding of Mbuti subsistence behavior
in any meaningful scientific way.
offered in its place an explicitly ecological explanation of Mbuti
subsistence behavior which was empirically grounded and which attempted to
explain Turnbull's observations in terms of the specific material
conditions associated with the behaviors in question.
I suggested that cost/benefit considerations associated with
different population/resource ratios underlay both the distribution of net
hunting and archer bands throughout the forest, as well as the divergent
behavioral response of these two groups to the changing conditions of
resource availability accompanying the onset of the honey season.
on the available data, most of which had been collected by Turnbull, I
showed that net hunter bands were both larger and more densely settled
than archer bands, leading to greater pressure on food resources among
these bands. In addition, I suggested that the penetration of the Ituri
Forest by slash and burn cultivators placed increasing adaptive pressure
on those indigenous hunters --i.e., the net hunters--
who depended primarily on the forest for their livelihood.
I suggested that these hunters were forced under increasing
population pressure to hunt longer hours and organize into larger
cooperative groups in order to assure reliable hunting returns.
the same time, I proposed that the presence of agricultural villages
created a novel adaptive situation in which some Mbuti hunters, most
notably those in the eastern and northeastern portion of the forest where
the greatest penetration of cultivation had occurred, were able to gain
access to foods produced in the village gardens and thus reduce their
dependence on a shrinking forest resource base.
Moreover, these Mbuti --the
archers-- were able to obtain the produce of village gardens for
the relatively small cost of protecting those gardens from the herbivorous
animals that might destroy them.
thesis was supported by the empirical research of Harako (1976:125) and
Tanno (1976:53) which showed that net hunting bands worked significantly
longer hours than archer bands in procuring their food (see Abruzzi 1979).
According to their records, net hunters hunted an average of
between 7 hours and 56 minutes and 8 hours and 21 minutes compared to an
average of between 3 hours and 25 minutes and 4 hours and 18 minutes for
archers. Furthermore, while
archers hunted only 2-3 days per week, net hunting bands hunted between
5-7 days per week, depending on their size (see Tanno 1976:114).
then applied the same cost/benefit considerations to account for the
apparently paradoxical behaviors associated with the honey season.
I suggested that the net hunter's behavior at that time was to be
expected given the increased abundance of plant food throughout the
forest, including honey, which was made available by the onset of the
rainy season. The decreased
ratio of population to resources which occurred at this time enabled the
net hunters to disperse into smaller groups, reduce their workload and
temporarily curtail their involvement in hunting. This was for them indeed
a time of relative plenty. Conversely,
the population/resource ratio of the archers increased at this time due to
the seasonal decline in the availability of food in the village gardens.
This was the time when village planting took place, but when
cultivated plants had not yet borne fruit.
As a result, the archers were thrown into complete dependence on
the local forest during this time of the year.
Indeed, according to Turnbull, this was the only
time of the year that the archers depended exclusively on the forest for
their food. Moreover, because the archers lived in that portion of the
Ituri Forest that had been the most disrupted by outside forces, they had
to work harder and cooperate more in their hunting than at any other time
of the year in order to assure reliable returns.
It was for them a time of relative scarcity.
in the place of Turnbull's structural functional explanation of Mbuti
subsistence behavior which could not explain any
of the variation associated with that behavior, I offered a systematic
ecological model of Mbuti subsistence activities which accounted for all
of the variation that he observed but could not explain.
More importantly, through the systematic analysis of cost/benefit
considerations, I provided a theoretically coherent explanation of Mbuti
subsistence behavior that parsimoniously explained both
the spatial distinction between net hunters and archers and temporal
variation in subsistence activities that took place during the honey
season. Moreover, I did so by
making explicit, empirically verifiable predictions which were ultimately
substantiated by Turnbull's own data, as well as by data collected
independently by other researchers.
researchers have examined Mbuti subsistence behavior in the years
following my initial critique of Turnbull's research.
Most have undertaken quantitatively oriented field research and
have adopted the logic of a cost/benefit analysis to explain the data they
have collected. Our present
understanding of Mbuti adaptation to their Ituri Forest environment has
been substantially enhanced through the continued application by these
researchers of an empirically grounded materialist research strategy to
explain Mbuti subsistence behavior. While
an exhaustive review of the recent literature is not possible, a brief
summary of some of the more important findings is useful.
an effort to link the net hunter/archer distribution directly to the
environment, Milton (1985) proposed that the spatial distribution of these
two adaptive strategies was largely a function of the geographical
distribution of two types of forest communities.
She suggested that the net hunters are primarily located in the
less diverse Gilbutoid forest in the southwest Ituri, while the archers are
concentrated mainly in the more diverse Cynometra
forest in the northeast Ituri. She
hypothesized that net hunting may be a more successful adaptive strategy
in the less diverse Gilbutoid
forest where the Mbuti must concentrate on the hunting of a single species
of small antelope (diukers). Conversely,
she suggested that bow and arrow hunting may be the more adaptive hunting
technique in the Cynometra
forest with its greater variety of prey species, including larger animals
such as elephants which could not be effectively hunted with nets.
and Aunger (1989) criticize Milton's thesis by showing that net hunting is
not restricted to the Gilbutoid
forest in the southwest Ituri, but rather is more widely distributed
throughout the central, southern and western portions of the forest. Moreover, after carefully sampling four section of the Ituri
Forest, they show that the diversity of the two forest communities do not
differ significantly from one another, at least as measured by the Simpson
Diversity Index. They
suggest, instead, that the distribution of net vs. bow and arrow hunting
is determined largely by the cost/benefit implications of female labor
being invested in hunting vs. village gardens.
The success of net hunting depends fundamentally upon female labor. Women participate as beaters, driving game into the nets manned by the men. All researchers consistently note the central role of women in the net hunt (Tanno 1976; Harako 1976; Peacock 1985; Hart 1978; etc.). Indeed, Noss (1997) indicates that, among the BaAka net hunters in the Central African Republic, women are the most enthusiastic hunters. According to him, BaAka women participated in 158 hunts per year, compared to only 118 hunts per year for men.
and Aunger (1989: 285-86) show that net hunting Pygmies received 3-4 times
as much agricultural food in exchange for meat as do archers (between 5.7
and 8.2 calories of agricultural food in return for each calorie of meat,
compared to about 2 calories of village food for each calorie of meat).
As a result of the higher economic value of meat in net hunting
areas, Bailey and Aunger (1989:286-287) calculated that net hunting women
earn twice as many calories per hour net hunting than they can working in
exchange for food in village gardens. Conversely, women in the
northeastern Ituri earn twice as many calories per hour by working in
village gardens than they can by assisting the men in hunting.
greater demand for meat in the southwestern portion of the forest,
according to Bailey and Aunger (1989), derives from the greater regional
(though not local) population density characteristic of this area. While there has been an increased demand for bushmeat in the
local agricultural villages, there has been an even greater increased
demand for meat by commercial traders paying cash.
Hart (1978) noted the same development in his study of net hunting
in the southern Ituri. Noss
(1997), even notes an increase in "tourist hunts," net hunts
conducted for tourists paying cash. According
to Noss, "tourist hunts" represent a new form of hunting which
the Mbuti prefer over both the traditional subsistence hunt and the
commercial hunt, because the return on a tourist hunt is guaranteed: the Mbuti get paid cash whether the hunt is successful or
is not clear how recently the increased commercial demand for meat has
influenced the development of net hunting.
Turnbull did not discuss it. However,
Hart (1978) indicated that it began to have a major impact during the
mid-to-late 1970's. Recent research suggests that the current increase in
net hunting throughout the central and western portions of the forest has
occurred primarily in response to the commercial demand for meat.
In any case, my original thesis that net hunting may have evolved among
the Mbuti in response to increasing population pressure caused by the
penetration of the forest by non-Mbuti populations may, indeed, remain
valid. Although the proximate cause for greater net hunting among the Mbuti at this time
may be the greater opportunity for them to earn cash through the
commercial hunting of meat, the ultimate
cause still appears to be the greater pressure on game resources brought
about by an increase in the size of the regional (largely non-Mbuti)
population relative to available forest resources.
summation, then, our understanding of Mbuti adaptation to their forest
environment has been, and continues to be, substantially enhanced by
rejecting highly subjective and unverifiable structural and structural
functional explanations of that behavior in favor of materialist
explanations based on a consideration of the cost/benefit implications of
different adaptive strategies. This necessitates the collection of the
detailed, quantitative data needed to test the specific predictions
generated by competing hypotheses. Our
present understanding of the causes underlying variations in Mbuti
subsistence behavior are certainly greater as a result of the research
done by myself (Abruzzi 1979, 1980) and by Bailey and Aunger (1987), Noss
(1997), Hart (1987) and others employing an explicitly materialist
research strategy in which testable hypotheses are proposed and either
accepted or rejected than by the structural analyses of Godelier
(1977:51-62), Turnbull (1968) and Bicchieri (1969), or more recently of
Mosko (1987) who attempts to discuss Mbuti adaptation in the Ituri Forest
through metaphorical conceptualizations of the forest in terms symbolizing
conception, the womb and the family.
While the former approaches offer the possibility of explaining
spatial and temporal differences in Mbuti subsistence related behavior,
the latter approaches are incapable of even considering such issues.
way that anthropologists attempt to understand and explain Pygmy ecology
has important implications beyond our understanding of Pygmy subsistence
in the Ituri Forest. It
speaks to the relevance of anthropology as a discipline making a
meaningful contribution to the current discussion of global ecological
issues. To the extent that
anthropology refuses to embrace a materialist, scientific approach to the
study of human social behavior, it threatens to become increasingly
irrelevant to our understanding of human ecology.
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