Colin Turnbull and the Forest People

Colin Turnbull

Colin Turnbull

On November 23, 1924, British-American anthropologist Colin Turnbull was born. Turnbull came to public attention with the popular books The Forest People on the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire and The Mountain People on the Ik people of Uganda, and one of the first anthropologists to work in the field of ethnomusicology.

Colin Turnbull studied politics and philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford and joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during World War II. He was awarded a grant in the Department of Indian Religion and Philosophy, Banaras Hindu University, India, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in Indian Religion and Philosophy. During 1951, Turnbull traveled to the Belgian Congo (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) together with Newton Beal. There they studied the Mbuti pygmies.

During his time in Africa, Turnbull also worked for Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel. He was hired to assist in the construction and transportation of a boat needed for his film The African Queen, which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

After returning to Oxford, Turnbull specialized in the anthropology of Africa. During the late 1950s he returned for further studies to the Belgian Congo and Uganda and he was awarded his anthropology doctorate from Oxford in 1964. One year later, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States after moving to New York City in order to become curator in charge of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History. Later on, Turnbull became staff member in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.

Colin Turnbull first became famous for his 1961 work The Forest People. In it, Turnbull discusses his three years spent with the Mbuti pygmies community of the then-Belgian Congo in the late 1950s. He managed to contrast his forest-living subjects’ lifestyle with that of nearby town-dwelling Africans and evaluate the interactions of the two groups. Turnbull wrote about his experiences with the tribe from a first person perspective as he trove through many years with the African Pygmies. The Mbuti tribe respected him, and attempted to show him their cultural prospects as a society.

One of Colin Turnbull’s most controversial works was The Mountain People. In it, the scientist describes what happens to a society that is forced to abandon its culture, and the fierce individualism and hardship that results. The Ik were a hunter/gatherer tribe who had been forced to stop moving around ancestral lands, through the seasons, because it now involved the three national borders of Uganda, Kenya and Sudan.They were forced to become stationary in Uganda and without a knowledge base and culture for survival under such conditions, they failed to thrive, even to the point of starvation and death. The book permanentally became part of the reading list of anthropology university courses.

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