The hidden assumption of both Schebesta and Turnbull is the assumption that culture is intimately tied to the environment -- leading to the taken-for-granted notion that pygmy culture must be an expression of the environment provided by the Ituri forest. There is nothing unusual about such an assumption, so it's easy to miss. Culture as an adaptation to the environment, based on Darwin's insight regarding "natural selection," was, and still to a great extent is, in fact, one of the central dogmas of anthropology. Here are some examples, culled from various corners of the Internet:
From Wikibooks, Cultural Anthropology/The Nature of Culture/Adaptation:
Culture provides humans with the knowledge of how to survive in their environment. Methods for food-getting and creating shelter are purely cultural traits- humans are not born with this knowledge.From Wikepedia, Cultural Anthropology :
Since humans acquire culture through the learning processes of enculturation and socialization, people living in different places or different circumstances develop different cultures. Anthropologists have also pointed out that through culture people can adapt to their environment in non-genetic ways, so people living in different environments will often have different cultures.From The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers:
The world's hunting and gathering peoples . . . represent the oldest and perhaps most successful human adaptation (p. 1).From Wikipedia, Sociocultural Evolution:
[Julian] Steward . . . rejected the 19th-century notion of progress, and instead called attention to the Darwinian notion of "adaptation", arguing that all societies had to adapt to their environment in some way. . .There's more to it, to be sure, and over time the notion of "environment" has been expanded to include
Today most anthropologists reject 19th-century notions of progress and the three assumptions of unilineal evolution. Following Steward, they take seriously the relationship between a culture and its environment to explain different aspects of a culture.
the whole social environment, which includes political and economic relations among cultures. . . historical contingencies, contacts with other cultures, and the operation of cultural symbol systems. As a result, the simplistic notion of "cultural evolution" has grown less useful and given way to an entire series of more nuanced approaches to the relationship of culture and environment.The notion of culture as an adaptation to the immediate requirements of the environment, whether "natural," or "social," or both, is so ingrained in our thinking that it's difficult for most of us to imagine any other possibility. While Turnbull goes a bit overboard in this respect, to the point of almost fetishizing the Ituri forest, those who've criticized his "romantic" view of pygmy life have tended to concentrate their attention elsewhere, since they, like so many others, have fallen victim to the same assumption.
It's easy to see how both Turnbull and Schebesta, along with so many others who've spent time among various pygmy groups, could so strongly associate their remarkable lifestyle with the equally remarkable characteristics of the African rainforest, to which they seem so perfectly adapted. As Schebesta noted,
the entire stretch of the central African virgin forest from Lake Albert to the Atlantic Ocean is inhabited by pygmies, and that they are in their element in the virgin forest only and nowhere outside its boundaries.And, yes, as far as the various pygmy groups are concerned, both east and west, they are all at home in the great tropical forests of Central Africa and they do seem perfectly adapted to that environment. And if we were to limit ourselves to the pygmies, as did Schebesta and Turnbull, and not look any farther, we might well convince ourselves that there is no more to be said on this matter.
However, we have already gone well beyond this region of Africa to consider another population living well to the south, in an environment as different from a tropical rainforest as one could imagine: the Kalahari desert. And we have already considered many aspects of Kalahari bushmen culture that would appear to be strikingly similar in a great many ways to the culture of the various pygmy groups. We've concentrated our attention on their musical style, of course, which is, in almost every respect, identical to that of the pygmies. But there are also, as we have seen, a great many other similarities as well, especially when we consider core cultural values, such as egalitarianism, the equal sharing of resources, the (relatively) equal status of women, the value placed on non-violence, the absence of permanent leaders, etc., etc.
We've even noted striking similarities in the ways in which certain of the above core values are violated. For example, despite the value placed on sharing, considerable amounts of squabbling over the division of food have been noted for both pygmy and bushmen groups, along with examples of individuals who will hide certain items for fear they might be expected to share, or even refuse to accept too many gifts for the same reason. We've also seen how violence, though traditionally proscribed and apparently avoided at all costs, can still break out among both populations, sometimes in extreme forms, even leading to murder.
In the realm of material culture, we find certain other striking similarities, often assumed to be environmental adaptations, but apparently not -- for example:
- Bows and arrows with poisoned tips are used for hunting in literally all pygmy groups, including those who, like the Mbuti and Aka, hunt principally with nets. Very similar types of bow and arrow, also with poisoned tips, are the principal hunting tools of many bushmen groups as well. As far as I've been able to determine, non-foragers such as the Bantu farmers and herders do not use poison tips on their arrows. Moreover, both populations can be characterized as, in the words of Turnbull, "pre-stone age," since arrow points are either made of fire-hardened wood or bone, not stone. [Added Oct. 7: After Googling around a bit, I discovered I was wrong about non-foragers not using poison-tipped arrows. Apparently some Bantu groups have used them in the past and may possibly still be using them. While it's possible this was a technique they learned from foragers, it's also possible the Pygmies and Bushmen learned it from them, so all I can now say regarding this issue is that more research is needed.]
- Both pygmies and bushmen are nomadic, remaining in one place only for relatively short periods, then moving on when game in the immediate area has been exhausted.
- Both populations hunt big game, including elephants.
- [Added Oct. 7: Many bushmen are almost as short as pygmies: (from The Wild Source.) Is short stature really an adaptation to forest life?]
- Even their huts are strikingly similar:
[Added Oct. 10:
[Added Oct. 10: from Patterns of settlement and subsistence in southwestern Angola,
By Alvin W. Urquhart (quoting Vedder):
The poverty of the Bushman existence is very clearly indicated by their huts. It is the women's task to erect them. At a distance of from six to eight feet apart, two strong poles are planted in the ground in such a way that the points meet at the height of about five feet. The tops are tied together with the soft bark of a tree. This archway forms the door to the Bushman hut and it is never closed. Further poles are now planted in an irregular semicircle and joined at the top to form a sort of domed roof. This framework is covered with branches with leaves on and dry grass, and the Bushman hut is complete (p. 17 -- my emphasis).From The Baka Pygmies of Cameroon:
They live in huts they call mongulu which are one-family houses made of branches and leaves and nearly always built by the women. After a frame of very flexible, thin branches is prepared, recently-gathered leaves are fit in the structure. After the work is complete, other vegetable materials is sometimes added to the dome in order to make the structure more compact and waterproof. (My emphasis)]
To be continued . . .