Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/November 1906/The African Pygmies

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THE presence of a group of the African pygmies at the World's Fair at St. Louis attracted considerable attention to these little people. It has also revealed a number of erroneous popular conceptions with reference to them.

The word pygmy, of course, comes from the Greek, being derived from the word denoting a unit of measure, the ell. It was used by various Grecian writers, among them Homer, Herodotus, Heliodotus and Aristotle, to describe a race of small men, about whom tradition had given accounts, and who were usually located toward the sources of the Nile. Historically, then, the word pygmy applies to these Nilotic small peoples, but anthropology has widened the use of the term to include similar peoples scattered all over the globe, and found in many parts of Africa.

Paul du Chaillu was the first eminent modern explorer to find these people. He discovered them in the upper Ogowe basin, west central Africa, in July, 1863. After him others found them in various places. These were Schweinfurth, 1869, on the upper Welle, or Ubangi; Wissmann, 1886, on the upper Kasai; Stanley, 1888, on the upper Aruwimi; while Dr. Donaldson Smith located some south of Abyssinia. Others report them in German Kameruns, in French West Africa, on the borders of Uganda and in the center of the Congo Basin.

The names by which these people are called vary in each locality, but the most widely used term is Batwa. The name Bantu is the word meaning people in a large area of Central Africa. The singular of this is Muntu, meaning a man. These two terms apply to the large or normal people, not to the pygmies. But curiously enough, the name Batwa is the plural for people with the Batwa pygmies, and the singular of this is Mutwa. These last two terms seem to the writer to be diminutives of the words Bantu and Muntu, so that they mean little people and little man, respectively. Sir Harry Johnston, who visited the pygmies in the region where Stanley first found them, spells the name for them Mbute, while Schweinfurth, whose pygmies are not far from those of Stanley and Johnston, calls them Wambutti. It seems to the writer that these are either variations in name or in spelling of the same word. The present governor-general of the Congo, Major Costermans, found some Batwa near Lake Kivu. Wissmann's pygmies
PSM V69 D476 Height differences of a batwa pygmy and a bakuba youth.png

On the left is Bomashulba, a Batwa Pygmy, Age 25 years, Height 4 ft. 7 in., Weight 90 lbs. On right is an ordinary African, Bakuba Tribe; Name, Latuma; Age, 15 years; Height, 5 ft. 2 in. Weight, 135 lbs.}}

in the upper Kasai are also called Batwa, which is the way Stanley spelled the word for his little neighbors, although these regions are six hundred miles apart.

A study of all the writings of explorers reporting discoveries of these people has revealed an average stature of about four feet eight inches for all measured, though the measurements were made upon so few that this average can not be relied upon as a final result.

The plant which furnishes the leaf covering for the huts of the pygmies is the same in the regions, widely apart though they are, explored alike by Stanley and Wissmann. The shape of the house—a rough hemisphere—is also the same. In practically every case the primitive culture of the pygmies is the same, wherever found. The lack of any agriculture in their life is a common characteristic, as are the use of the poisoned arrow and the lack of any centralized tribal organization.

Popular misconceptions about the pygmies are principally as to their height. The general idea having gone abroad that they are the smallest known race of man, there has been produced the impression that they are all veritable Tom Thumbs. Of course, anthropologists know better that this, but the layman can not get clear the difference between a dwarf and a pygmy. Then, too, some travelers have rather unscientifically measured the smallest they could find, and left this as the record of the height of the tribe.

Dr. Mason, of the Smithsonian Institution, and Professor Starr, of Chicago University, concur in making five feet as the limit for the average of a pygmy race. Of course, there will be a few taller than this, and many shorter. It will also be necessary to discriminate against any result of the admixture of alien blood from larger tribes, although there is comparatively little of this going on.

The group at St. Louis came from the region in which the Batwa were found by a number of explorers, though their particular settlement was visited only by the writer and the Reverend W. H. Sheppard, E.B.G.S. These other explorers who found the Batwa in the upper Kasai are the English missionary, Grenfell; the German explorers (under the Congo government), Pogge and Wolff; and Major von Wissmann, who ranks next to Stanley as the explorer of the Congo Basin, and who was subsequently the governor-general of German East Africa. The pygmies at St. Louis were from the forests near Wissmann Falls, the cataracts at the head of the navigation of the Kasai tributary of the Congo. This place is about a thousand miles in the interior of the continent. There are a number of Batwa settlements in the same general district.