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Anthropology 100

Turnbull, Colin: The Forest People

An “ethnography” or “ethnographic report” is the most important production of a cultural

anthropologist who works “in the field,” studying other people. It is a factual account of

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observations, mixed with the anthropologist’s own interpretations of the meanings of the cultural

events that s/he observes.

In anthropology, the word “Culture” is generally understood to mean “all of the beliefs,

behaviors, and practices that are learned by, shared among, and meaningful to the members of a

society.” Everything from what clothing to wear, what foods are considered good to eat, “table

manners” about how to eat those foods (e.g. with fingers, forks, or chopsticks), what kind of

music to make, how and when to dance and sing, where to sit, how close to stand to others, and

all of the other little things that seem “obvious” to us because “everybody (in our society) does

them” are all aspects of our culture.

The ethnography The Forest People is one of the classic and most widely read books in cultural

anthropology. Colin Turnbull spent several years living with the BaMbuti “pygmies” of the

nation of Congo, and recording, describing, and explaining their daily experience of life. The

BaMbuti culture is about as different from American culture as it can be, and yet despite the

differences, Turnbull’s descriptions of the Mbuti people are easily understood, due to the

similarities that all humans share.

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Read The Forest People, and reflect on the ways that their culture differs from our own. While

you read this ethnography, consider the similarities and differences between Mbuti life in the

Ituri forest and your own life here in the United States.

We have an economy, we have ways of settling disputes between citizens, we have ways of

building homes and communities, and we have ways of engaging in religious rituals. So do the

Mbuti people, although their ways are markedly different from our ways. Anthropologists do not

ask “which way is right?” Instead, we ask “what makes their behavior appropriate for them,

while our ways are appropriate for us?”

Your essay should address the following issues:

1) In what ways are Mbuti cultural practices similar to our own?

Despite our cultural differences, all human societies have some things in common (a need to get

food, water, shelter, and social stability, as well as the need to make friends, teach children,

protect ourselves against dangers, etc.). Consider the cultural practices from the ethnography and

ask yourself “in what ways are the Mbuti similar to us?” Select a minimum of three similarities

between Mbuti culture and your own experiences in life – these may be “general” similarities,

such as “respect for elders,” or “sharing food among relatives,” or they may be more specific

topics, such as “they don’t like to be teased by their neighbors,” or anything else. Describe three

events in the book that are similar to events in your own personal experiences.

2) In what ways are Mbuti cultural practices different from our own?

Each society adapts to its own natural and cultural environment. The Ituri forest is very different from the environment in which most of us live. Select a few aspects of Mbuti culture (“learned, shared, meaningful behavior”) and ask yourself “what makes their culture appropriate for their environment?” You can do this by contrasting their behaviors with our own. (For example, Americans and Mbuti both need food, but they get most of their food from hunting and gathering wild resources in the forest, while we get our food from the store.) Why do we do things in such different ways? What makes their way of life suitable and a “good fit” to their

Environment? What makes our way of life suitable for our environment? Why would their way of life not work well here? Why would our way of life not work well there? Are they trying to be just like us, but they “can’t quite manage to do so”? Or is there a better explanation for why they are different from us?

3) Why is there cultural diversity?

We have grown up in a society with a specific set of cultural “rules” that tell us which behaviors are appropriate, and which are not. The Mbuti people have also grown up with a set of cultural rules for appropriate behavior. We often assume that our way is “right,” and the Mbuti are just as certain that their way is the “correct” way to be a human.

What is the benefit to cultural diversity? What makes variation in cultures a valuable and desirable thing? In what ways (if any) might life be better if all humans shared just one culture, and in what ways would it be worse?

Your paper should be a minimum of 7 pages, in 12 point font.

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