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Pygmy peoples

Related subjects: Peoples

Background Information

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Baka dancers in the East Province of Cameroon
Batwa dancers in Uganda

Pygmies (singular: Pygmy) refers to various peoples of central Africa whose adults have an average height of 150 centimetres (4 feet 11 inches) or shorter. The term is also sometimes applied to the so-called Negrito peoples of Asia, and occasionally indiscriminately to individuals of unusually short stature. The term is considered by many as derogatory, with many instead preferring to be called by the name of their various ethnic groups. Nevertheless, the term is widely used as no other term has emerged to replace "Pygmy".


The term pygmy as used to refer to diminutive people derives from Greek Pygmaioi and Latin Pygmaei (sing. Pygmaeus), a measure of length corresponding to the distance between the elbow and knuckles. (See also Greek pechua (πεχυα)). In Greek mythology the word describes a tribe of dwarfs, first described by Homer, and reputed to live in Ethiopia.

The term "Pygmy" is often considered pejorative. However, there is no single term to replace it that covers all African Pygmies. 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.


A commonly held view is that the Pygmies are the direct descendents of the 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, Adamawa-Ubangian, and Bantu languages. This view has no archaeological support, and ambiguous support from genetics and linguistics. There is some common botanical and honey-collecting vocabulary between the Aka and Baka, who are both western Pygmy populations but speak quite different languages. This has been taken by some as the remnants of an indigenous (western) Pygmy language.

Genetically, the eastern Mbuti pygmies are extremely divergent from other human populations, as well as being the shortest of the Pygmy populations, suggesting they are an ancient indigenous lineage. Their closest relatives appear to be the Hadzabe, who live in the savannas east of the forest and were quite short in stature before heavy recent intermarriage with their taller neighbors. Other Pygmy groups which have been genetically tested are not very distinct from their non-Pygmy neighbors, suggesting either that their indigenous ancestry has been diluted through interbreeding with neighboring agricultural populations, or that they have a different ancestry than the Mbuti. Indeed, the genetic mutations responsible for the short stature of the eastern and western Pygmies are different and unrelated, supporting the view of some scientists that the Pygmies, or at least some Pygmies, are the descendants of the initial waves of Bantu and Adamawa-Ubangi speakers who took up living in the deep forest.

There are a number of southern " Twa" populations in Angola and neighboring countries, living in swamps and deserts far from the forest. They are little studied, and it is not known if they are indigenous to the area or more recent migrants from the forest.

Various theories have been proposed to explain the short stature of pygmies: lack of food in the rainforest environment, low calcium levels in the soil, the need to move through dense jungle, as an adaptation to heat and humidity, and most recently, as an association with rapid reproductive maturation under conditions of early mortality.

Ultraviolet light levels are very low 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. This could lead to the evolution of small skeletal size, that is to a "pygmy".


During the Congo Civil War, Pygmies were hunted down like game animals and eaten. Both sides of the war regarded them as "subhuman" and some say their flesh can confer magical powers. UN human rights activists reported in 2003 that rebels had carried out acts of cannibalism. Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, has asked the UN Security Council to recognise cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide.


Distribution of Pygmies according to Cavalli-Sforza

Pygmies live in several ethnic groups in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. Most pygmy communities are 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.

There are several Pygmy groups, the best known being the Mbenga (Aka and Baka) of the western Congo basin, the Mbuti (Efe etc.) of the Ituri Rainforest, and the Twa of the Great Lakes.

  • Mbenga or Bambenga (AKA Ba-Binga [derogatory]) (west Congo basin)
    • Aka or Mòáka (AKA (Ba)Yaka, Bayaga, Gbayaka, Biaka, Beká) (Central African Republic, Republic of Congo) speak a Bantu language close to Linguala
      • Mbenzélé or Babenzélé (Western Aka, Central African Republic)
      • Basese (Eastern Aka)
    • Baka (AKA Bibaya) (Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo) speak closely related Ubangi languages
      • Baka proper
      • Ganzi
      • Gundi or Ngondi
    • Gyele or Ba/Bo-gieli (AKA Bonjiel(i), Bako, Bekoe, Bakola, Bakuele, Likoya) (Cameroon) speak a Bantu language of the Makaa-Njem branch
  • Mbuti or Bambuti ( Ituri rainforest, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo)
    • Efé speak a Central Sudanic language related to Mangbutu
    • Asua or Asoa (AKA Aka) speak a Central Sudanic language related to Mangbetu
    • Kango or Bakango (AKA Batchua) speak a Bantu language related to Komo
  • Twa or Batwa (AKA Gesera) (Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda) speak the Kirundi and Kinyarwanda languages

Other "pygmies"

Some so-called 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), and occasionally Papuans and Melanesians in adjacent Oceania, are sometimes called pygmies (especially in older literature). Some of them are small-statured, dark-skinned and are hunter-gatherers, like many African Pygmies. It has been suggested that they arrived during migrations from Africa to Southeast Asia and Oceania as much as 60,000 years ago. On the other hand, there is evidence that they are more closely related to the surrounding Asian populations than to Africans.

The name "Negrito" comes from the Portuguese "little black" and was given by early explorers who assumed the Andamanese they encountered were from Africa. This belief was discarded when anthropologists noted that apart from dark skin and curly hair, they had little in common with any African population, including the African pygmies.

Short statured aboriginal tribes inhabited the rainforests of North Queensland, Australia, of which the best known group is probably the Tjapukai 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.

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