Deep in the forest in the darkest heart of dark Africa, where little sunlight penetrates the mist and where thick foliage shades out most of the remaining light before it can reach the ground, the humid silence is broken by the sound of an elephant lumbering along a trail. Through the dim light, the great beast fails to notice, crouched in a dense thicket beside the trail, a tiny human with a rather large head, bulbous forehead, protruding eyes, and wide nose. This homunculus waits in ambush, smeared with elephant dung to conceal his own smell.
Just as the elephant steps past, the hunter darts under it. In one quick motion he thrusts a poison-tipped spear into his prey’s unprotected belly. By the time the elephant has turned to trample its assailant into human hamburger, the hunter is already concealed under tree roots in the thicket, leaving the giant beast to die an excruciatingly slow death. When it finally expires, more tiny people creep out of the dark undergrowth to carve up the carcass. Once again the little folk of the forest dance, sing, and feast on meat obtained through their hunting prowess.
Such are the exotic scenes that most of us grew up associating with the word Pygmy. Alas, as happens so often with the fantasies of our childhood, much of this scenario is turning out to be wrong. For one thing, although most of us think of Pygmies as little people living on the African continent, anthropologists usually define them as members of any human population whose adult men average less than 4 feet 11 inches in height. That means Pygmies are actually native not just to the deepest parts of the fabled Dark Continent but to other areas scattered throughout the tropics, including lands less than 1,000 miles south of the United States. Furthermore, while many Pygmies today do live in the forest, they may well have originated elsewhere; in fact, they may even have been unable to survive in the forest until recently. And finally, while most Pygmies do hunt, it turns out that they get most of their food by a less heroic method.
Our old, romantic image of Pygmies is thus changing under the impact of new research. But the picture emerging is just as fascinating and exotic--and puzzling, because we still don’t have a generally accepted answer to the most obvious question about Pygmies: Why are they small?
Pygmies aren’t just of interest as an anthropological curiosity. They’re part of a much broader concern, the question of why people differ in size. Anyone who has ever seen a professional basketball game is surely aware of the broad range of adult human body sizes. Part of this variation is, of course, individual: people within any human society differ considerably in height. For example, adults of my immediate family of European whites range from 5 foot 2 to 6 foot 3. But the differences don’t stop at the individual: there are differences in average size between entire human populations. The world’s tallest people are the Dinka of the Sudan, whose adult men average 6 foot 1. Icelanders, Polynesians, the Irish, and some North American Indians are also tall on average. At the opposite extreme, the world’s shortest people are the Efe of Zaire--one of the peoples we commonly call Pygmies--whose men and women average 4 foot 8 and 4 foot 5, respectively.
If we concentrate on the Pygmy end of this spectrum, the question "Why are Pygmies smaller than other people?" really delves into four separate areas of science. We can ask it genetically: Do Pygmies’ genes foreordain that they will be small, or is their small size entirely a result of poor nutrition? We can look at it developmentally: At what age do Pygmies fall behind other peoples in size? We can examine it physiologically: What mechanisms in the body produce that growth lag? Or we can take the long, broad view: Why did evolution program Pygmies to be small? What good, if any, does smallness do?
To understand the Pygmies, you have to understand their lifestyle. And a good group with which to begin is the smallest of the small, the Efe of the Ituri Forest, whom a friend of mine, UCLA anthropologist Robert Bailey, has been studying in Zaire for the last dozen years. The Efe spend more than half their time at temporary campsites in the forest, where the men use bows and poisoned arrows to hunt monkeys, small antelopes, and deer. However, the meat from this prey contributes only 9 percent of the Efe’s calories, while other forest products like honey and fruit yield just another 28 percent. For those of us reared to think of African Pygmies as forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers, it comes as a shock to learn where they actually get most of their nutrition: from the gardens of the Lese, the black African farmers who live just outside the forest! The Efe work for the Lese and bring them meat, honey, and other goods from the forest. In return the Lese pay the Efe with garden-grown vegetables and fruits, along with iron tools, cloth, pottery, and tobacco.
If you ask the Lese about their relationship with the Efe, they’ll tell you they own the Efe as their hereditary serfs. Socially they regard the Efe as the lowest of the low. Poor Lese men sometimes buy Efe women as wives (because they cost less than Lese wives), but it would be unthinkable for the Lese to permit one of their own women to marry an Efe man.
For a long time anthropologists accepted the Lese view of the relationship. And in fact, the Efe connive in this fiction in order to maintain their existence and freedom. Like a sailor with several wives, each in a different port, the Efe pretend simultaneously to be the serfs of several different farmers in different villages scattered many days’ walk apart. In that way, if one Lese village has a temporary food shortage, its Efe can move to another village. Most important, this curious arrangement preserves the Efe way of life. The Lese don’t interfere with it, because they profit from the Efes’ presence.
In all these respects, as well as in their appearance and their genes, the Efe are representative of the nearly 200,000 Pygmies who live in bands scattered through the equatorial African forest. Like the Efe, the other African Pygmies live as clients of neighboring farmers and speak languages derived from the farmers’, having lost whatever their original Pygmy language was. Astonishingly, it’s now clear from archeological evidence that this arrangement could have arisen only within the last few thousand years, since it was around 2000 b.c. that black farmers speaking Bantu languages began to occupy sub-equatorial Africa, expanding out of their homeland in present-day Cameroon. Before that, Pygmies probably occupied the entire humid zone of equatorial and subequatorial Africa. The encroaching farmers must have driven the Pygmies out of open savannas suitable for farming, leaving them in fragmented groups in whatever forest the farmers had not yet felled.