The Mbuti are a pigmy tribe living in the Itori Forest in Zaire. They are classified as specialized hunter gatherers. The research that will be discussed in this paper will show that the method of subsistence, and the environment in which it is practiced, has a profound impact on the way the Mbuti live. Because they are hunter gatherers, there is closeness to nature that is realized in the way their social structure is set up, as children of the forest. The Mbuti pattern their entire lives on the belief that the Itori is a living sphere, and the community lives within that sphere (Mosko, 1987).
Because of their diet and relative isolation, risk of disease is fairly low (Fabrega, 1997). Sickness is a very public concern, since each individual is a contributor to the existence of the whole unit. The Itori is a rainforest in Northeastern Zaire, and does not provide enough food throughout the year to sustain the tribe. They depend on trading for foods, as well as hunting and gathering (Bailey, Head, Jenike, Owen, Rechtman, & Zechenter, 1989). The combination classifies them as specialized hunter gatherers. This particular tribe believes that the forest is everything in life.
They consider it to be their God, parent, provider, and even lover (Mosko, 1987). They perceive themselves as the children of the forest and according to Mosko (1987); all tribes who are not Mbuti live outside of the Itori forest. Although they do have knowledge of lineage, the Mbuti do not practice any recognized type of kinship patterns in their social organization (Mosko 1987). There are recognitions of kinship in some practices; for instance, in rules of exogamous marriage, or when setting up camp. The huts are laid out according to patrilineage, for mutual support, but no acknowledgement of kinship is given (Mosko, 1987).
The Itori, for as much as five months out of the year, does not provide the fruits and nuts the tribe needs to subsist (Bailey, Head, Jenike, Owen, Rechtman, & Zechenter, 1989). According to Bailey, Head, Jenike, Owen, Rechtman, & Zechenter (1989), sixty-five percent of the tribe’s caloric intake needs are met from sources outside the forest. The Mbuti trade either labor or wild resources from their hunting and gathering for products from horticulturalist societies to supplement their diets (Bailey, Head, Jenike, Owen, Rechtman, & Zechenter, 1989).
Like other foraging societies, the Mbuti feel closely tied to nature. Their rites of passage, which will be covered later in this paper, are tied directly to the forest; their belief system begins and ends right where they live, in the forest. The Mbuti believe that the forest is their God, and possesses all of the qualities and characteristics of god, parent, and partner (Mosko, 1987). It is their provider, lover, and even punisher. According to Mosko (1987), the words for forest, hut, and womb, all mean the same thing.
The Itori forest is a womb, from which comes life. It is a sphere, with a center, which is quiet (Mosko, 1987). The Mbuti themselves each live in a sphere, which moves with them to keep them in the center. According to Mosko (1987), if people move too fast or in a violent manner, the sphere cannot keep them in the center. They become irrational and disoriented. The Mbuti believe that they may even break through the sphere and enter a different world. The center of the forest sphere is reserved for the essence of the forest (Mosko, 1987).
This place is kept uninhabited, and is a non-hunting area. The possible exception may be when hunting big game. The reverence that the Mbuti have for the Itori extends to everything in the forest. They believe that all living things have a spirit, according to Mosko (1987), and are equal. Being part of the forest as a whole, and as its children, is a simplistic ideal, brought about by their dependence on the forest for their subsistence. The idea of being children of the forest is further shown in the way they live socially. …the peaceful Mbuti Pygmies have dense, mutually supportive social networks, collective childcare, rituals that stress nurturing relations with people and nature anticompetitive norms, high levels of in-group trust, no hierarchy, no wealth forest homes that provide them something of a haven from their Bantu neighbors. They do have disagreements, but the effects of these are contained. ” (Snyder, 2002, p. 31) The Mbuti believe that their tribe is one family; in fact, they are all biologically related, to some degree.
According to Mosko (1987), they call each other by names of close family members; if they are the same age, then they are brothers or sisters. The older generations are called either Father or Mother, and elders are referred to as grandparents. This is because they are all part of the same forest family. Besides the nuclear family living in the same hut, there are few areas in which the Mbuti show any real acknowledgement of biological kinship (Mosko, 1987). This is contrary to most foraging societies, where kinship systems are the bases of social structure (Nowak & Laird, 2010). There are some similarities to other hunter gatherer societies.
Possessions have little value, if any, according to Nowak & Laird (2010). Bands need to move from area to area, in search of resources. Being mobile makes it almost impossible to bring things along, except for items necessary for survival. More important are personal qualities. A strong worker is valued because it can take work to successfully bring in food. Experience is valued; for instance, in healing practices (Fabrega, 1997). Members with the most experience in an area have more influence. According to Nowak & Laird (2010), cooperation is also a valuable asset, since hunting and gathering is a cooperative effort.
Cooperation also results in less conflict. Another similarity to other societies, which is universal to humanity, is spiritual belief. More common to foragers is the belief in the spirituality of nature (Nowak & Laird, 2010). As stated earlier, the Mbuti believe that the Itori forest is a sphere. They believe as well, that each member of their society lives within a sphere, and each nuclear family lives in a sphere. When an Mbuti child is born, according to Mosko (1987), there is a physical birth from the mother’s womb into the family womb-hut. The child stays in this nuclear family sphere for several days.
After this, the child is then consecrated to the forest by ritual (Mosko, 1987). Now the child has been reborn into the forest sphere. When the child turns two years of age, the father publically feeds him or her, the first solid meal. This brings the child into the social sphere. Coming of age is another time for rebirth. According to Mosko (1987), when Mbuti girls have their first menstruation, they gather with their same age “sisters”. Girls from their band, and sometimes girls from other bands who are invited, gather together in an “Elima” hut. Boys of the same age are drawn in, and join the girls.
This is a time of rebirth into the forest sphere, according to Mosko (1987), and usually ends up in ardent lovemaking. Since the kinship rules of marriage apply here, the lovemaking is supervised by the girl’s parents, and other adults. Many of the couples end up being married later (Mosko, 1987). Rebirth into the forest at infancy and puberty reinforces the idea of the Itori forest being the parent of the community. Besides being God and parent, the forest also plays the role of provider. The “Molimo” ritual is performed by the men of the Mbuti camp. This ritual is performed after a successful hunt Nowak & Laird, 2010). The day begins with the men gathering food and firewood from every hut. This shows solidarity in the camp. At evening time, the women and children are sequestered in their huts, not being allowed to even watch (Nowak & Laird, 2010). In the center of the camp sphere is the hearth, where the men gather around the fire to sing and dance. Presently, the young men retrieve the molimo trumpet, which is kept high up in a tree in the forest. According to Nowak & Laird (2010), they circle the men until the singing has reached an acceptable level, and then circle the fire, singing into the trumpet.
There is no predetermined time span for this, and may go on for a while. Usually, the men do this to thank the spirit of the animal that was killed. The ritual is also performed for bringing lives back into balance, or other crises (Nowak & Laird, 2010). One potential crisis could be sickness, or disease. According to Fabrega (1997), most infectious disease spores in the forest can live on plants in the wild, and do not need humans to live. Disease is rare enough that the people cannot build up any tolerance or immunity.
Since the diseases grow in the forest, the more likely targets are the most productive members of the band, since they are in the wild more than others (Fabrega, 1997). The transitory nature of their lifestyle keeps the Mbuti from being around a great amount of waste, so there is less fecal-oral transmission of disease. While these diseases are not common, according to Fabrega (1997), they can have a severe impact on a victim’s body, but do not claim many lives. Other types of diseases are controlled by nature through dietary intake. According to Fabrega (1997), malnutrition is uncommon, and if found, it is mild.
Specialized hunter gatherers usually enjoy a very healthy diet. The wild game has no fat, and the fruits and nuts gathered from the forest, along with the produce procured from horticulturalists, provide a high fiber diet. Fabrega (1997), states that this diet helps to prevent diseases such as diabetes, atherosclerosis, and cancer. Occurrences of degenerative and epidemic viral diseases are low due to the relative isolation, size of the bands, and migratory lifestyle (Fabrega, 1997). Skin disease is more cause for concern than other types of disease. In foraging societies like the Mbuti, minor ailments are not thought of as sickness.
According to Fabrega (1997), sickness is usually a spiritual problem, probably caused by an imbalance in the affected person, keeping them bedridden. It is a serious matter, and one possible outcome taken into consideration is death (Fabrega, 1997). Usually the affected individual, or the family, will try using commonly known cures. Fabrega (1997) says that if the family methods fail, then it becomes a public matter, and if the sick person gets worse, it becomes very significant to the band. Every member of the band is a contributor, and the loss of one affects the entire band.
The sicker an individual becomes, the more of a social effort is used to attempt a cure (Fabrega, 1997). In band societies like the Mbuti, most adult men are healers. The men are used according to the amount of experience they have with the illness. If the sick person still does not improve, then the band will usually call upon the shaman to deal with the spirituality of the situation (Fabrega, 1997). Sickness or death affects the whole band, because of the nature of their subsistence. This causes the members to view it very seriously. The Mbuti believe the Itori forest, has a center, or hearth (Mosko, 1987).
The rounds, spherical huts, in which the nuclear Mbuti families live, also have a hearth in the center. Food is stored in spherically shaped baskets, and placed in a circle along the interior walls of the hut (Mosko, 1987). The layout of the family hut is a smaller representation of the layout of the entire Mbuti community. The locations of the individual band camps form a circle, with the forest hearth in the center. In turn, the camps each have a hearth, and according to Mosko (1987), the circular huts are built in a circle around that hearth. As specialized hunter gatherers, the Mbuti trade with outside tribes.
The trade road runs along the outside of the forest, and the horticulturalists villages and fields are located along that road (Mosko, 1987). An overhead view of the entire layout might look like a sphere (the forest hearth), surrounded by a larger sphere (the Mbuti community). The larger sphere consists of small spheres (the band camps), each with its own hearth. Each of the small spheres is contains even smaller spheres (the family huts), each of those with its own hearth. Finally, the smaller spheres are occupied by nuclear family members, each living within their own individual sphere.
All of this is contained in an even bigger sphere (the Itori), encircled by the trade road, where the outside tribes live (Mosko, 1987). This arrangement reinforces the unique perspective the Mbuti have of their world, the Itori forest. They also have a not-so-common view of kinship and lineal descent, which according to Nowak & Laird (2010), are usually determining factors in the social structures of other foraging societies, as well as horticulturists. The people of the Mbuti society do not openly acknowledge kinship (Mosko, 1987). This is a result of believing that they are all part of the forest nuclear family.
According to Mosko (1987), they do know their lineage, which is evidenced in the way the camps are each laid out. The huts are arranged according to patrilineage, for purposes of supporting each other. The bands, which make up the larger community, usually consist of extended families. The extended families are of bilateral lineage. Mosko (1987) also states that the Mbuti do not marry outside of their tribe, which makes them all biologically related, to one degree or another. Marriage is exogamous to the band in which the individual lives, and is the only area where kinship is openly acknowledged (Mosko, 1987).
Members of the tribe may not marry their kin, and all are biologically related, so the Mbuti have created an exception to the kinship rule. If any of the elders who are still alive knew the common ancestors of the parties involved before those ancestors died, then the parties are related; however, if the ancestors died before any of the living elders knew them, then the parties become “un-related” (Mosko, 1987). This allows the Mbuti people to maintain their rules against kinship weddings and outside marriages. Rules and taboos are kept by the membership as a whole, with no one person in clear authority.
The Mbuti bands are divided into age groups. Experience, which comes with age, is valuable. The elder members have the most experience, and this gives them the most authority and influence (Mosko, 1987). Their authority can, at times, be overruled by younger adults. Because they are all children of the same parent (the forest), and do not practice any kinship system of organization, they are all equal. All foraging societies have a special reverence for nature (Nowak & Laird, 2010), and the Mbuti are no different.
Hunting and gathering brings the members into the wilder parts of nature. The Mbuti live exclusively in the Itori Forest, and this closeness is shown by their beliefs. The forest is God and parent (Mosko, 1987). Trust and respect of nature are encultured. Their spirituality is nature-oriented, with their environment being the center. Possessions have no value, because of their migratory lifestyle. Personal traits and cooperative attitude are more important (Nowak & Laird, 2010). The diet of the Mbuti is very healthy, and helps them stay relatively disease-free (Fabrega, 1997).
The size of the individual bands, and the way they move around, also help to keep disease down. Although the Mbuti need trade with other cultures, they do not marry outside of their community, and stay relatively isolated. There is closeness in their society which may not be witnessed elsewhere. Their non-recognition of kinship may bring a greater equality than in other societies. It is easy to recognize the impact that specialized hunting and gathering has on this society. Every aspect of their lives is nature-oriented, and is viewed in terms of their environment.
The Mbuti people of the Itori Forest are an entire culture that bases every part of its existence on the forest, which is the reason for the subsistence method from which they live. References Bailey, R. C. , Head, G. , Jenike, M. , Owen, B. , Rechtman, R. , & Zechenter, E. , (1989). Hunting and gathering in tropical rain forest: Is it possible? American Anthropologist. New series 91(1) pp. 59-82. Retrieved from http://www. jstor. org/stable/679738 Fabrega, H. Jr. , (1997). Earliest phases in the evolution of sickness and healing. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. New series 11(1) pp. 6-55 Retrieved from http://www. jstor. org/stable/649276 Mosko, M. S. , (1987). The symbols of “Forest”: a structural analysis of Mbuti culture and social organization. American Anthropologist. New series 89(4) pp. 896-913. Retrieved from http://www. jstor. org/stable/677863 Nowak, B. , & Laird, P. (2010). Cultural Anthropology. San Diego, CA. Bridgepoint Education, Inc. Retrieved from https://content. ashford. edu/books Snyder, J. L. , (2002). Anarchy and culture: insights from the anthropology of war. International Organization. 56(1)pp. 7-45. Retrieved from http://muse. jhu. edu/journals/ino/summary