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Pygmies

In: Social Issues

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Beginning many centuries ago, Westerns have created a sphere of influence that has been widely accepted by the international world as the ‘way of being’. Since its start, Western influence spread throughout touching the bases of many states, especially post-colonial nations.
However, there still remain untouched communities that have not yet adjusted to the global trend of Westernization. Amongst these scarce communities are the ‘Pygmies’ whom are found throughout central Africa. ‘Pygmies’ have been named the ‘Forest People’ due to their lack of integration with the Western world. This essay will mainly discuss how the studies conducted by
Western explorers and experts alike aided in creating the myth of the ‘Forest People’ and will then further explain how media and tourism have also played a role in shaping and sustaining the
Euro-American representation of ‘Pygmies’.
The myth of the Pygmies resurfaced between the 18th and 19th centuries when
Europeans were in the prime of colonizing different African states. During this time, many explorers ventured into the forests where they came into contact with the Pygmies. Nonetheless, explorers were unable to keep up contact with the Pygmies in order to provide any detailed accounts of their appearance, lifestyle and interactions. It was not until Schweinfurth’s reveal that multiple ethnographers such as Colin Turnbull became involved with learning further about these unexplored people and African rainforests (Frankland 2001). Since their discovery,
Pygmies have played an unconscious role of developing racial hierarchies because it is believed that their existence has helped provide the link in Darwin’s theory of evolution. The domineering
West felt strongly about incorporating the Pygmies in the center of its dogma of physical evolution by creating and using the image of the exotic other (Kidd 2009). This is why Western experts began to view Pygmies as the missing link between the progression from ape to human.

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This connection sparked an interest amongst anthropologists. Experts were drawn to the
Pygmies noticeable distinction from the European standard. For example, Pygmies vary greatly physically and socially from the average European. One reason that Pygmies were suspected to be a deviation from the ‘norm’ was due to their to the different features. The most evident difference anthropologists were able to identify was the extreme height difference. Pygmies can be described people of a very short stature, ranging from ‘3 feet to 4 feet 6 inches’(Ballard 2001:
138). It is also stated that the shorter the Pygmy, the closer they stand to their authentic Pygmy identity (Ballard 2001). Other characteristics of the Pygmies include broad, short skulls, dark skin colour, broad flat noses and ‘woolly’ black hair. Thus, it is hard to deduce whether Pygmies are ‘are an extreme variant of the Negro form or something altogether different’ (Ballard
2001:138). However, these experts frequently used derogatory terms in order to describe the differences that were found between Pygmies and Europeans. For example, Stanley labeled the
Pygmies as ‘physically degenerate’ (Ballad 2001:139) and blamed the lack of sunlight in the forests for their body types. He even continues to compare the indigenous people to wild animals because of their contrasting appearance. Here it can be seen that Pygmies were not considered to be an exciting discovery of indigenous people, but instead were seen more as a group of insufficiently developed beings and posed Pygmies to be inferior to the white race. Furthermore, this mythology of the ‘Forest People’ has been further ignited due to their understanding and knowledge of the forest. The Pygmies ability to blend with the forest has led to a stronger belief of ‘Forest People’. The mythology has become so prominent there have even been descriptions of stunted beings with primitive murderous weapons.

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The second reason Pygmies are considered to be different from Europeans is because of their non-bodily traits. One aspect that was most notably absent from the Pygmy society was a developed language. Their language was described to be similar to the babbling of an ape (Ballad
2001). Additionally, it was noted that their society was uninterested in cultivation, clothing and musical instruments. Beliefs of Pygmies beliefs were also beginning to be questioned. There was no sign of any form of religion; however, it was later discovered by Lewis Henry Morgan that there may have been Pygmy monotheism. That theory was also declined later on because it is believed that any indication of Pygmy monotheism stemmed from the influence of Catholic missionaries (Ballad 2001). Again, it can be said that experts viewed this lack of societal development as reason to believe that the Pygmy are secondary to Europeans. They consider the cultural advancements and progression made by the Europeans to be substantially more mature, complex and successful. Thus, they do not portray Pygmies to be at the same standard.
Moreover, tourism may also be seen as a prominent reason behind the reawakening of the mythology of the Pygmy people. Individuals often seek something more unusual and exhilarating to get away from their day to day lives and thus look towards tourism. Tourism allows us to go out and experience the ‘Other’ and leave behind the constrains of the everyday.
The desire of the other became greater as ethnic tourism was introduced (Frankland 2009)
Typically, locations that can offer exotic experiences are highly demanded in the tourism industry. Since Pygmies live in the forests of Central Africa, it can be seen to be the ideal setting for a desired touristic sites. The experts that had been exposed to and studied the Pygmy community managed to take advantage and exploit the indigenous people. Some Pygmies were taken back to Europe where they appeared in theaters and were expected to perform for millions

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of people. Anthropology was taking on a role to spread the myth and ‘savage splendour’ further around the Western world (Frankland 2009). However, this exploitation did not end there.
Instances such as this have caused a dispute drawing a fine line between tourism and anthropology. That may also explain why works published about Pygmies by ethnographers such as Putnam were not acknowledged as pure anthropological findings. Instead, they were deemed to be experts of travel (Frankland 2009). Additionally, Turnbull’s publication of “The Forest
People” led to the outbreak of the Turnbull syndrome which essentially placed all Pygmies under one image of the ‘Forest People.’ Those Pygmies that did not feed into this image were regarded as spurious. This surge fed into the myth of the ‘Forest People’ and the ethnographers who had studied these Pygmies avoided mitigating the rise of this belief. Instead they created a tourist course that included a variety of attractions which included Virunga Volcanoes, homes of mountain gorillas, Pygmies and the Tutsis of Rwanda allowing people to experience the evolution of mankind (Frankland 2009). In the 1960s, Epulu and the Semuliki Valley became the heart of the Pygmy tours. The industry had become so prominent and natural that there were
Pygmy participants who were willing to take photos, go hunting and entertain tourists for compensation. After a century, there still are Pygmy groups today that can be found still involved in the tourism industry (Frankland 1999).
After the influence of tourism, media began its impact on the Pygmy image. Media has allowed powerful reinforcement of the myth. There are three intertwined levels which this myth takes place, and they include the textual, aural and visual levels. The textual level is the most productive level which is comprised of a large selection of both academic and trendy printed materials such as brochures, travelogues and travel guides that are used to exemplify the

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authentic Pygmy. Furthermore, the myth of the Pygmy can be found ranging from covers of popular magazines such as the National Geographic and High Times, and can even be found in comic books like Tarzan and mentioned in novels like the Congo (Frankland 2009). Even though the texts are not as focused due to the fluctuation in the market, the tone of the myth is still very present. However, Turnbull’s work The Forest People played a crucial role in deciding what type of way the myth would be depicted. He idealized the perfect harmony found between the authentic Pygmy and the rainforests, leaving outsiders with the impression of the unspoiled
Other (Frankland 1999). The second level that was to be discussed is where the writings end and allow people to connect on the aural level. Since 1906, the Pygmies musical abilities had been abused and used as an asset. However, Pygmies were not only exploited, but their native form of polyphonic song was changed by ethnomusicologists into romanticized music to match the textual level that had been created (Frankland 2009). They used this as a tool to enliven the myth.
Turnbull and other published sound recordings and even an album of music by the Pygmies, but
Simha Arom’s album played the most significant role in stimulating the myth of the Pygmies and creating icons of pop culture. Their music went on to influence the world of music. Last, is the third and final level which is referred to as the visual level. Pygmies have been found in visual media and have played an influential role in cinema and television productions. Due to their evolutionary role they are depicted in comparable roles. Producer Martin Johnson and Lewis
Cotlow represented them in their early documentaries of the Stone Age. However, the Pygmies appearances did not end there. They were even displayed in cartoons for children such as Mickey
Mouse and Tom and Jerry (Frankland 2009). Turnbull makes an appearance once again, just as he had in the first two levels. Not only did he record the Pygmies tonalities and music but

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captured footage of them allowing him to present his view of the Pygmies way of life and used this material to keep this myth strong. He used this as a tool to reinforce his the image of the
Pygmies strong relationship with the forest; however, his film was not the only visual method used to capture their oneness with nature. Photographs and postcards that were taken back to
Western parts of the world such as Europe and America by tourists and acted as representations of the Pygmy culture showing their characteristics and parts of their lifestyle. The role of the pictures is to again capture their authenticity and freezes particular images of the Pygmies hunting or even focuses on their distinctive features (Frankland 2009). The images of Pygmies working with nature to sustain themselves and their bare-bodied presence helps create a stronger link between the Pygmies and the forest. This image of bare-bodied indigenous hunters helps reinforce their unity with the natural world. This helps feed into the myth of the ‘Forest People’ and strengthens the idea of the ‘other’ because when people view these films or photographs,st they are able to envision the Pygmies and their distinct lifestyle.
The influence of the myth of the ‘Forest People’ can be seen in many various forms and types. Ethnographers themselves played a major role in the start of this trend. With their involvement and further speculations, they were able to learn about these indigenous people further and provided their accounts. However, some ethnographers who undervalued the
Pygmies and looked down upon them as inferior were essentially the ones to create the derogatory form of the myth of the ‘Forest People.’ This information spread around to different regions of the world; enticing Westerners see what was at the time unknown. For some, it was to see the beauty of the natural oneness Pygmies had established with nature and for others it was to look for a vantage point. This could be seen through the exploitation of the Pygmy people that

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were taken to abroad and used as entertainers for the Europeans. It could also been seen in the way tourists used Pygmies for amusement rather than embracing the closed community that was found within the African rainforests. Additionally, media aided in developing and sustaining this frenzy over the myth of the ‘Forest People.’ Three different levels of textual, aural and visual efforts came together to enforce and embody the image that was created by the ethnographers who studied the Pygmy society. The issues that arise from this modern standard is that Pygmies are now expected to behave and act in a manner that embodies the what the rest of the world sees as authentic and true Pygmies to be. This leaves the Pygmy population to be openly scrutinized and unfairly judged by the outside world if they choose not the meet the ‘standard’ of the myth of the ‘Forest People’.

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Bibliography
Ballard, C. 2006. Strange alliance: Pygmies in the colonial imaginary. World
Archaeology 38, 133-151.
Frankland, S. 2009. The Bulimic Consumption of Pygmies: Regurgitating an Image of Otherness. In The Framed World: Tourism, Tourists and Photography M.
Robinson & D. Picard(ed) , 95-116. (1st edition). London: Ashgate
Frankland, S. 2001. Pygmic Tours. In: African Study Monographs, 26, pp. 237- 256.
Frankland, S. 1999. Turnbull's Syndrome Romantic Fascination in the Rain Forest. In Central
African Hunter-Gatherers in a Multidisciplinary Perspective: Challenging Elusiveness. (1st edition). Leiden University.
Kidd, C. 2009. Inventing the “Pygmy”: Representing the “Other”, Presenting the “Self”. In:
History and Anthropology, 20(4), pp. 395-418.

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