A pygmy is a member of an ethnic group whose average height is unusually short; anthropologists define pygmy as a member of any group where adult men are on average less than 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches) tall. A member of a slightly taller group is termed "pygmoid".
The term is most associated with peoples of Central Africa, such as the Aka, Efé and Mbuti. If the term pygmy is defined as a group's men having an average height below 1.55 meters (5 feet 1 inch), then there are also pygmies in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Brazil, including some Negritos of Southeast Asia.
The term pygmy, as used to refer to diminutive people, derives from Greek πυγμαῖος pygmaios via Latin Pygmaei (sing. Pygmaeus), derived from πυγμή – meaning a fist, or a measure of length corresponding to the distance between the elbow and knuckles. (See also Greek pechus.) In Greek mythology the word describes a tribe of dwarfs, first described by Homer, the ancient Greek poet, and reputed to live in India and south of modern-day Ethiopia.
The term pygmy is sometimes considered pejorative. However, there is no single term to replace it. Many prefer to be identified by their ethnicity, such as the Aka (Mbenga), Baka, Mbuti, and Twa. The term Bayaka, the plural form of the Aka/Yaka, is sometimes used in the Central African Republic to refer to all local pygmies. Likewise, the Kongo word Bambenga is used in Congo.
Various theories have been proposed to explain the short stature of pygmies. Some studies suggest that it could be related to adaptation to low ultraviolet light levels in rainforests. This might mean that relatively little vitamin D can be made in human skin, thereby limiting calcium uptake from the diet for bone growth and maintenance, and leading to the evolution of the small skeletal size.
Other explanations include lack of food in the rainforest environment, low calcium levels in the soil, the need to move through dense jungle, adaptation to heat and humidity, and as an association with rapid reproductive maturation under conditions of early mortality. (See also Aeta people § Demographics.) Other evidence points towards unusually low levels of expression of the genes encoding the growth hormone receptor and growth hormone compared to the related tribal groups, associated with low serum levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 and short stature.
African pygmies live in several ethnic groups in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo (ROC), the Central African Republic, Cameroon, the Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, and Zambia. Most Pygmy communities are partially hunter-gatherers, living partially but not exclusively on the wild products of their environment. They trade with neighbouring farmers to acquire cultivated foods and other material items; no group lives deep in the forest without access to agricultural products. It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 600,000 Pygmies living in the Congo rainforest. However, although Pygmies are thought of as forest people, the groups called Twa may live in open swamp or desert.
There are at least a dozen Pygmy groups, sometimes unrelated to each other. The best known are the Mbenga (Aka and Baka) of the western Congo basin, who speak Bantu and Ubangian languages; the Mbuti (Efe etc.) of the Ituri Rainforest, who speak Bantu and Central Sudanic languages, and the Twa of the African Great Lakes, who speak Bantu Rundi and Kiga.
A commonly held belief is that African Pygmies are the direct descendants of Late Stone Age hunter-gatherer peoples of the central African rainforest, who were partially absorbed or displaced by later immigration of agricultural peoples, and adopted their Central Sudanic, Ubangian, and Bantu languages. This view has no archaeological support, and ambiguous support from genetics and linguistics.
Some 30% of Aka language is not Bantu, and a similar percentage of Baka language is not Ubangian. Much of pygmy vocabulary is botanical, dealing with honey collecting, or is otherwise specialized for the forest, and is shared between the two western Pygmy groups. It has been proposed that this is the remnant of an independent western Pygmy (Mbenga or "Baaka") language. However, this type of vocabulary is subject to widespread borrowing among the Pygmies and neighboring peoples, and the "Baaka" language was only reconstructed to the 15th century.
African pygmy populations are genetically diverse and extremely divergent from all other human populations, suggesting they have an ancient indigenous lineage. Their uniparental markers represent the second-most ancient divergence right after those typically found in Khoisan peoples. Recent advances in genetics shed some light on the origins of the various pygmy groups. Researchers found "an early divergence of the ancestors of Pygmy hunter–gatherers and farming populations 60,000 years ago, followed by a split of the Pygmies' ancestors into the Western and Eastern Pygmy groups 20,000 years ago."
New evidence suggests East and West African Pygmy children have different growth patterns. The difference between the two groups may indicate the Pygmies’ short stature did not start with their common ancestor, but instead evolved independently in adapting to similar environments, which adds support that some sets of genes related to height were advantageous in Eastern Pygmy populations, but not in Western Pygmy populations.
Abuse by non-Pygmies
Reported genocide in Rwanda
The Pygmy population was also a target of the Interahamwe during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Of the 30,000 Pygmies in Rwanda, an estimated 10,000 were killed and another 10,000 were displaced. They have been described as "forgotten victims" of the genocide. The current Rwandan Pygmy population is about 33,000, and it is reportedly declining.
Reported genocide in the Congo
From the end of 2002 through January 2003 around 60,000 Pygmy civilians and 10,000 combatants were killed in an extermination campaign known as "Effacer le Tableau" during the Second Congo War. Human rights activists have made demands for the massacre to be recognized as genocide.
In the Republic of the Congo, where Pygmies make up 2% of the population, many Pygmies live as slaves to Bantu masters. The nation is deeply stratified between these two major ethnic groups. The Pygmy slaves belong to their Bantu masters from birth in a relationship that the Bantus call a time-honored tradition. Even though the Pygmies are responsible for much of the hunting, fishing and manual labor in jungle villages, Pygmies and Bantus alike say that Pygmies are often paid at the master's whim: in cigarettes, used clothing, or simply not paid at all. As a result of pressure from UNICEF and human-rights activists, in 2009, a law that would grant special protections to the Pygmy people was awaiting a vote by the Congo parliament. According to reports made in 2013, this law was never passed.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, during the Ituri Conflict, Ugandan backed rebel groups were accused by the UN of enslaving Mbutis to prospect for minerals and forage for forest food, with those returning empty handed being killed and eaten.
In Northern Katanga Province starting in 2013, the Pygmy Batwa people, whom the Luba people often exploit and allegedly enslave, rose up into militias, such as the "Perci" militia, and attacked Luba villages. A Luba militia known as "Elements" attacked back, notably killing at least 30 people in the "Vumilia 1" displaced people camp in April 2015. Since the start of the conflict, hundreds have been killed and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes. The weapons used in the conflict are often arrows and axes, rather than guns.
Raja James Sheshardi of the American University conducted a case study on the Pygmies of Africa and concluded that deforestation has greatly affected their everyday lives. Pygmy culture is threatened today by the forces of political and economic change. In recent times, this has manifested itself into an open conflict over the resources of the tropical rain-forest; it is a conflict that the Pygmy are losing.
Historically, the Pygmy have always been viewed as inferior by both colonial authorities and the village-dwelling Bantu tribes. This has translated into systematic discrimination. One early example was the capture of Pygmy children during the period of the Congo Free State, which exported Pygmy children to zoos throughout Europe, including the world's fair in the United States in 1907. Pygmies are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying jobs. At a state level, Pygmies are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling. Government policies and multinational corporations involved in massive deforestation have exacerbated this problem by forcing more Pygmies out of their traditional homelands and into villages and cities where they often are marginalized, impoverished and abused by the dominant culture.
The greatest environmental problem facing Pygmies seems to be the loss of their traditional homeland, the tropical forests of Central Africa. In several countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo this is due to deforestation and the desire of several governments in Central Africa to evict the Pygmies from their forest homeland in order to cash in on quick profits from the sale of hardwood and the resettlement of farmers onto the cleared land. In some cases, as in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this conflict is violent. Certain groups, such as the Hutus of the Interahamwe, wish to eliminate the Pygmy and take the resources of the forest as a military conquest, using the resources of the forest for military as well as economic advancement. Since the Pygmies rely on the forest for their physical as well as cultural survival, as these forests disappear, so do the Pygmy.
As the forest has receded under logging activities, its original inhabitants have been pushed into populated areas to join the formal economy, working as casual laborers or on commercial farms and being exposed to new diseases. This shift has brought them into closer contact with neighboring ethnic communities whose HIV levels are generally higher. This has led to the spread of HIV/AIDS into the pygmy group.
Since poverty has become very prevalent in the Pygmy communities, sexual exploitation of indigenous women has become a common practice. Commercial sex has been bolstered by logging, which often places large groups of male laborers in camps which are set up in close contact with the Pygmy communities.
Human rights groups have also reported widespread sexual abuse of indigenous women in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite these risks, Pygmy populations generally have poor access to health services and information about HIV. The British medical journal, The Lancet, published a review showing that Pygmy populations often had worse access to health care than neighboring communities. According to the report, even where health care facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, they do not have the documents and identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, and they are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment. Studies in Cameroon and ROC in the 1980s and 1990s showed a lower prevalence of HIV in pygmy populations than among neighboring ones, but recent increases have been recorded. One study found that the HIV prevalence among the Baka pygmies in eastern Cameroon went from 0.7% in 1993 to 4% in 2003.
The African Pygmies are particularly known for their usually vocal music, usually characterised by dense contrapuntal communal improvisation. Simha Arom says that the level of polyphonic complexity of Pygmy music was reached in Europe in the 14th century, yet Pygmy culture is unwritten and ancient; some Pygmy groups being the first known cultures in some areas of Africa. Music permeates daily life and there are songs for entertainment as well as specific events and activities.
Polyphonic music is found among the Aka–Baka and the Mbuti, but not among the Gyele (Kola) or the various groups of Twa.
Negritos in Southeast Asia (including the Batak and Aeta of the Philippines, the Andamanese of the Andaman Islands, and the Semang of the Malay Peninsula) are sometimes called pygmies (especially in older literature).
Negritos share some common physical features with African pygmy populations, including short stature and dark skin. The name "Negrito", from the Spanish adjective meaning "small black person", was given by early explorers.
The explorers who named the Negritos assumed the Andamanese they encountered were from Africa. This belief was, however, discarded by anthropologists who noted that apart from dark skin, peppercorn hair, and steatopygia, the Andamanese had little in common with any African population, including the African pygmies. Their superficial resemblance to some Africans and Melanesians is thought to be due to living in a similar environment, or simply retentions of the initial human form.
Their origin and the route of their migration to Asia is still a matter of great speculation. They are genetically distant from Africans, and have been shown to have separated early from Asians, suggesting that they are either surviving descendants of settlers from the early out-of-Africa migration of the Great Coastal Migration of the Proto-Australoids, or that they are descendants of one of the founder populations of modern humans.
The people from Rampasasa village of Flores, Indonesia are short-statured without being dark-skinned. The presence of pygmy people on Flores has been seen by some researchers as supportive of the thesis that "Flores Man" (Homo floresiensis) is not actually an independent species, but rather a small-bodied population of Homo sapiens.
Frank Kingdon-Ward in the early 20th century, Alan Rabinowitz in the 1990s, P. Christiaan Klieger in 2003, and others have reported a tribe of pygmy Tibeto-Burman speakers known as the T'rung inhabiting the remote region of Mt. Hkakabo Razi in Southeast Asia on the border of China (Yunnan and Tibet), Burma, and India. A Burmese survey done in the 1960s reported a mean height of an adult male T'rung at 1.43 m (4'6") and that of females at 1.40 m (4'5"). These are the only "pygmies" noted of clearly East Asian origin. The cause of their diminutive size is unknown, but diet and endogamous marriage practices have been cited. The population of T'rung pygmies has been steadily shrinking, and is now down to only a few individuals.
Short-statured aboriginal tribes inhabited the rainforests of North Queensland, Australia, of which the best known group is probably the Tjapukai or Djabugay people of the Cairns area. These rainforest people, collectively referred to as Barrineans, were once considered to be a relict of the earliest wave of migration to the Australian continent, but this theory no longer finds much favour. These Rainforest People tended to live in the first variety of Jykabita, a wood and mud structure renowned for incubation of plants.
An anthropologist, Norman Gabel, mentions that rumours exist of pygmy people in the interior mountains of Viti Levu in Fiji, but explains he had no evidence of their existence. Another anthropologist, E.W. Gifford, reiterates Gabel's statement and claims that tribes of pygmies in the closest proximity to Fiji would most likely be found in Vanuatu.
Tribes of very short people are also found in the mountains of New Guinea.
During the 1900s when Vanuatu was known as New Hebrides, sizable pygmy tribes were first reported throughout northeastern Santo. It is likely that they are not limited to this region of New Hebrides. Nonetheless, there is no anthropological evidence linking pygmies to other islands of Vanuatu.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to African Pygmies.|
- African Pygmies: Hunter-Gatherer Peoples of Central Africa
- The Pygmies' Plight Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 by Paul Raffaele
- Survival International: Pygmies
- Pygmy Survival Alliance
- Undated footage of Pygmy tribe constructing a vine bridge
- Mbuti Net Hunters of the Ituri Forest, story with photos and link to Audio Slideshow. By Todd Pitman, The Associated Press, 2010.