Pygmy - Encyclopedia

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PYGMY, or Pigmy (Gr. 7roryµa s os, from rv'ymii, a Greek measure of length corresponding to "the distance between the elbow and knuckles" of a man of average size), a term for a diminutive human being. We owe the word to Homer, who in the Iliad (iii. 6) uses it to describe a race of tiny folk dwelling in a far southern land, whither the cranes fly when inclement winters and piercing frosts visit the northern shores. Fierce battles were often mentioned by later writers as occurring between the pygmies and cranes, and were even represented on their vases. On these the pygmies were depicted as dwarfs with large heads, negro features, close, curly hair, and sometimes armed with lances. Aristotle firmly believed in the existence of these pygmies, whom he characterized as a race of men of small stature inhabiting the marshes of upper Egypt towards the sources of the Nile. That their existence was a matter of common knowledge and speculation is indicated by the fact that Philostratus describes the sleeping Hercules beset by swarms of pygmies. Herodotus (ii. 32), relying apparently on authentic information, describes graphically how a party of five Nasamonians, while journeying through the African desert, came at last to a plain where fruit-trees grew. While gathering the fruit they were seized by some dwarfish men of strange speech, who led them across forest marshes to a town, where dwelt people of a similar appearance, and near which a great river flowed from west to east containing crocodiles. This river was probably the Niger, and the people referred to were no doubt the ancestors of the existing pygmies of equatorial Africa. Representations of these pygmies have been found sculptured on the tombs at Sakkarah, which are referred to the Vth Dynasty of Egypt, 3366 B.C. The pygmies depicted in bas-relief on these tombs faithfully reproduce the racial characteristics of the present race of pygmies inhabiting the Ituri and Semliki forests. They no doubt served in the households of the Egyptian kings, and figured both in Egyptian and Roman triumphs.

Various writers have localized pygmies in different portions of the earth's surface. Pliny makes mention of dwarfed races in both Asia and Africa. Reference is made to the Catizi dwarfs in Thrace, and to a similar race dwelling in Caria. Ctesias, a century after Herodotus, wrote of a race of pygmies in the heart of India, describing them as black and ugly, and only two pygmai in height. The Chinese author, Chao Fu-Kua, in the beginning of the 13th century, described a tribe of black pygmies dwelling in the Philippine Islands; in the depth of the valleys there lived, he said, a tribe of men called Hai-tan, small in size, with round, yellow eyes, curly hair, and with the teeth showing through their lips. These were no doubt the ancestors of the present Aetas. Relics of a pygmy race are supposed to exist now in Sicily and Sardinia, i.e. along the high road between Pleistocene Africa and Europe. Near Schaffhausen, Dr Kollman found skeletal remains of small human beings, which have been regarded by some authorities as belonging to the European pygmies of the Neolithic period. Some anthropologists of authority, indeed - in spite of the absence of definite data in support of such a view - believe that a dwarf negroid race at one time existed in northern Europe, and may have given rise to the traditional tales of elves, goblins, gnomes and fairies.

At the present time the existing pygmy races may be subdivided into two main groups or sub-races: (a) the African pygmies (Negrilloes), (b) the Asiatic pygmies (Negritoes).

a. The African pygmies are dispersed over a large zone extending right across equatorial Africa, from Uganda to the Gaboon, the width of this zone being about six degrees, i.e. three degrees north and south of the equator. In Uganda they are now principally confined to a belt of forest lying to the east and west of the Semliki River, though many centuries ago these forest dwarfs must have been the principal inhabitants of the whole of the Uganda Protectorate. They are much more abundant in the forests of the Belgian Congo, being found as far south as the range of the Angola, and to the north and north-west as far as the Bahr-el-Ghazal and the German Cameroons. They are also found in the interior of the French Congo and in the Gaboon. They comprise the Akkas (Tiky-Tiky) of the upper Nile, and of the Niam-Niam country; the Wambutti (Mbuti, Mambute, Bambute) of the great Ituri forest, and the Batua (Watwa) living to the south of the great curve of the Congo river. In the vast forest tract lying between the region of the great lakes and the Atlantic Ocean there are other scattered tribes of pygmies differing in no essential particulars from these, and severally known as Afiffi (of the Momfu country); Obongo, Wochua, Akua, Achango (of the French Congo), Ba-Bengaye (of Sanga), Boyaeli and Bayago (of the Cameroons). Negrilloes have also been noted outside these limits, e.g. in the basin of the upper Kasai, as far east as Lake Tanganyika, and even to the north of Lakes Stefanie and Rudolf in British East Africa. There has been considerable mixture of the Negrilloes with the neighbouring Bantu peoples, e.g. Adumas, &c.

b. The distribution of the Asiatic pygmies is mainly Oceanic. The following are the three principal tribes. (t) The Aetas (Philippine Islands). The name "Aetas" is derived from the Malay word hitam, meaning black. These little folk dwell in small groups in the interior of Luzon Island, and are to be met with also in the islands of Mindoro, Panay and Negros, and in the north-east of Mindanoa. The total number of Philippine Negritoes is about 20,000. (2) The Andamanese (Andaman Islands). These live in isolated groups of fifty to eighty persons. They appear to be dying out, and in 1891 numbered less than 4000. The term Mincopis has sometimes been applied to these Negritoes. (3) The Sakai (interior of the Malay Peninsula). Some of these Malay Negritoes are also known as Semangs, Menik, Sen-oi and Jembe. They live for the most part in small groups of from two to three families. In the Ulu-Papung district alone the pure Negritoes in 1890 numbered over 5000. There is much mixture, however, with the surrounding Malay population. Thus the Mintra and Jakhuns are Sakai-Malay cross-breeds. In Malacca the Pangyans of Kelantan and Petani and the neighbouring Tumiors are pure Negritoes, while the Belendas are probably cross-breeds. Some anthropologists believe that the Sakas of the islands on the north-east coast of Sumatra are also derived from Negritoes.

A group of Negritoes - the Karons - has also been discovered in a small area in the north-west coast of New Guinea.' Here also there are Negrito-Papuan cross-breeds. There is much diversity of opinion as to whether the recently extinct Kalangs of Java - in some respects the most ape-like of all human beings - did or did not belong to the true Negrito race.

There seems little doubt that at one time the Negrito element was fairly widespread throughout Malaysia, though there is no positive evidence in support of de Quatrefages's contention that the Negrito race once inhabited a vast domain in Indo-oceanic Asia, extending from New Guinea up to the Persian Gulf, and from the Malay Archipelago to Japan. The Malay Peninsula, and possibly some parts of India, are the only portions of the Asiatic mainland where traces of a distinct negroid substratum have been discovered.

A passing reference may here be made to the Bushmen of South Africa, whose average height (4 ft. 8 in.) approximates to that of the true pygmies. Some authorities believe that there is a distinct ethnical relationship between the Negrilloes and the Bushmen, though in many respects the forest pygmies seem more closely allied to the West African Bantu negroes than to the BushmenHottentot group. Professor Elliot-Smith is, indeed, of opinion the pygmies of Central Africa are essentially dwarfed negroes. Schweinfurth, who rediscovered the Akka pygmies of equatorial Africa, believed that they and the Bushmen of South Africa were the remnants of the aboriginal population of the continent, now becoming extinct. The Bushmen have totally different characteristics from the true pygmies. The steatopygia, the dolichocephalic cranium, the lozenge-shaped face with its deep wrinkles, the high protruding cheek-bones, the narrow oblique eyes, the peculiar speech with its marvellous "clicks," the fawn-yellow skin, the absence of downy hair on the body, and other characteristics of the Bushmen, sharply differentiate them from the true forest pygmies.

Consideration of the distribution and general characteristics of the existing pygmy races - Negrilloes and Negritoes - has induced many anthropologists to conclude that we are dealing with the but little modified descendants of an extremely ancient race - the ancestors possibly of all the pegro tribes. Sir W. H. Flower himself, as far back as 1880, stated that he was inclined to regard the Negritoes as representing an infantile, undeveloped, or primitive form of the type from which the African negroes on the one hand, and the Asiatic Melanesians on the other, with all their various modifications, may have sprung. If this view be correct, it seems probable that the members of the pygmy races are the existing human beings which most closely resemble primitive man. On the other hand, there are those who regard ' In The Times of June 3, 1910, was reported a discovery, made by an expedition organized by the British Ornithologists' Union, of a tribe of pygmy people (probably Negritoes) in the great snow mountains of Dutch New Guinea, at an altitude of about 2000 ft. The average height of these pygmies is about 4 ft. 3 in.

the pygmies as a retrograde and degenerative type of the negro race and therefore' of comparatively recent growth. Though the balance of evidence seems in favour of the former hypothesis, the question must still be regarded as sub judice. The first hypothesis would certainly go far to explain the present distribution of the pygmy races. If we regard, as many authorities do, the Indo-African continent, submerged in comparatively recent geological times by the waters of the Indian Ocean, as being the original home of primitive man, then it is easy to understand how he migrated from the subsiding Indo-African continent westward into the heart of Africa, and eastward to the Malay Peninsula by way of the Eastern Archipelago, at that time forming part of the mainland. Those members of the primitive race who migrated westward are supposed to have spread over the larger portion of the continent of Africa. They appear to have divided off into two main branches, the Negrillo pygmies of central Africa and the Bushmen of the southern portion of the continent. These two sub-races appear to have been the aboriginal inhabitants of the country, though their direct descendants have now been driven into the great forest fastnesses by the more powerful Bantu races which sprang from the parent stem at a later date. A. H. Keane, who considers the recently extinct Kalang pygmies as the aborigines of Java, thinks it probable that this island was the first region reached by primitive man and his Miocene precursor during the eastward migration from the subsiding Indo-African continent.

General Characters of the Pygmy Races

As regards stature, the smallest are the African Negrilloes, their average height being 1.38 m. (42 ft.). One of the six Mambute Negrilloes brought to England by Colonel Harrison in 1906 measured just over 32 ft. Individuals not exceeding 3 ft. are met with, though the midgets of one or two pygmai in height, whose existence is indicated in the early Greek writings, must be relegated to the realm of mythology.

The Philippine Aetas measure 1.47 m., while the average height of the Sakai and Andamanese is 1.49 m.

The present writer estimated the weight of six adult Mambute pygmies (four males and two females) from the Ituri forest, and found the average weight to be seventy-seven pounds. Two of these, one man and one woman, each weighed only fifty-three pounds. All the pure pygmy tribes - whether Negrilloes or Negritoes - in addition to their small size have certain well-marked characters in common. The most notable of these are crisp, closely-curled hair, flattened nose, broad at the base, deeply depressed at the root and with exaggerated development of the alae nasi, long upper lip with the mucous membrane moderately everted, large ape-like mouth, receding chin, pronounced prognathism, abundant fine woolly hair on the body, brachycephalic cranium, proportionately long arms and short legs, and a general simian appearance.

The colour of the skin shows considerable variation. The pureblooded African Akkas are of a peculiar dirty reddish-yellow colour, the Mambute pygmies of the Ituri forest have a skin of a deep chocolate-brown hue, while that of the Oceanic Negritoes is of a dark brown or blackish colour, differing but little from that of the surrounding Papuans and Melanesians. The eyes of the pygmies are often large and staring, giving a characteristic "wild appearance." The abdomen is protuberant in the case of the African pygmies, but not so in the case of .the Oceanic Negritoes. The mid-point of the body is above the umbilicus, instead of being below as in the case of Europeans and Asiatics. There is no definite steatopygia, though in a few individual cases among the black Negrillo women the buttocks attain considerable dimensions.

The feet are large and turned slightly inwards, while the toes are relatively longer than those of Europeans. In some there is a tendency for the four smaller toes to diverge from the great toe. Being wonderfully adroit climbers, they sometimes make use of their feet by grasping branches between the great toe and the rest of the toes.

Their clothing is chiefly conspicuous by its absence. The African pygmies go about, for the most part, quite naked, except for the occasional presence of a small covering over the pudenda, the men wearing a small piece of deer-skin, and the women one or two bunches of green leaves, which they renew daily. The resemblance to the traditional fig-leaf covering is obvious. The Andamanese wear practically no clothing. The Karons of New Guinea wear a few strips of bark dangling from a string round the loins. The Negrilloes seldom, if ever, tattoo their body. They are fond of beads and other articles of adornment; the upper lips are often pierced with holes, through which quills are thrust. They cut their short curly hair into all sorts of fantastic patterns, and often twist some of it into peaks into which they plait feathers.

Pygmy dwellings are extremely primitive structures. In Africa they are simply arbours constructed of bent interlaced branches and plantain leaves, about 7 ft. in diameter and 4 ft. high, with a small hole near the bottom, through which the pygmy crawls on all fours. Ten or twelve of these arbours constitute a village. These arbours are only temporary habitations, as the pygmies are always moving on to different portions of the forest in pursuit of game. The Philippine Aetas show the same nomadic tendencies. The dwellings of the Malay Semangs are mere lean-to's, constructed of matted palm-leaves, while the Karons of New Guinea live in wretched hovels of foliage and branches, and in some districts have no habitations whatever.

The pygmies are seldom if ever tillers of the soil. The African forest dwarfs live mainly on the flesh of birds, deer and other animals, which they shoot with bows and arrows. They eat white ants, bee grubs and the larvae of beetles, also honey, wild beans and mushrooms. They are fond of fruits, particularly bananas, which they obtain from their bigger neighbours by barter or by plunder. They eat the vegetables raw, while the meat is broiled in the ashes of the fire until quite dry. Their utensils consist solely of a few clay cooking-pots and gourds for water. There is no record of cannibalism among the pygmy races. The six Mambute pygmies brought to England in 1906 soon became acclimatized. They took most kindly to European diet and clothing. At the expiry of eighteen months they went back to the Ituri forest much improved in health, having each gained on an average 92 lb in weight.

They are most daring hunters, and marvellously skilful archers. Though of small size they are well made and agile, and are able to dart in and out with the greatest of ease amongst the tall tangled vegetation of the tropical woodlands. The Batwa, from the south of the Congo, successfully attack elephants, shooting them with their tiny poisoned arrows. The poison is obtained from the juice of certain plants, and also from decaying animal matter derived from the putrefaction of ants. The Andaman pygmies live exclusively by hunting and fishing.

The African pygmies marry at a very early age, often when only nine or ten years old. Marriage is simply a question of the purchase of the girl from her father; the purchase-price being from ten to fifteen arrows, occasionally supplemented, in the case of a desirable wife, by one or two spears or some tobacco. A man may have as many wives as he can afford to buy. A mother gives birth to her offspring in the forest, severing the navel-cord with her teeth, and burying the placenta in the ground. The families are usually small, rarely exceeding three in number. There is great rejoicing when a boy is born, while the unlucky girl baby is beaten by her father with plantain leaves. The boys are often circumcised. There is great affection between the husband and the wife and between the parents and the children. The duration of life is short in the equatorial forests, death usually taking place before the age of forty. The dead are buried in graves, the chief's wives being sometimes killed and buried along with him.

The African pygmies have little if any belief in life after death. They say death is the end of everything. They have a vague belief in "Oudah," a sort of pygmy devil, who is respoisible for sudden death and such-like calamities. There is no trace of spirit or ancestor worship. The Andaman Islanders have a vague belief in a sort of god - "Piiluga" - an invisible being who lives in a large stone house in the sky, and who made all things. They also believe in an evil one, to whom they attribute sickness and death.

There is no hereditary chief. In many cases a group of pygmies simply cluster round a skilful hunter. In the case of the Mambute pygmies, a chief is succeeded, not by his son, but by his best friend. There are no governmental laws. Murder in the Ituri forest is punished by the next-of-kin lying in wait for the culprit and killing him.

The Negrilloes are fond of music and have numerous folk-songs. They also twang on stringed bows, and beat drums made of hollowedout tree trunks covered in at the ends with antelope skin. They are also great dancers, keeping perfect time to the beating of the drums their bodies going through the most extraordinary contortions. They all dance together in a long line, which twists about like a snake.

The forest dwarfs have some idea of drawing, each arrow shaft having its distinctive carving. The Andamanese display a considerable degree of intelligence. The Karons of New Guinea, on the other hand, seem to be of a low type of intelligence.

The Negrilloes have acquired a great reputation among the neighbouring tribes for their knowledge of poisons and their antidotes. Their treatment of all pains and inflammations consists in linear scarification of the skin of the affected part. They invariably use sharpened arrow-heads for this purpose.

Close observation has convinced the present writer that the African pygmies are endowed with a high degree of intelligence. Sir Harry Johnston believes them to be the intellectual superiors of the big negroes. They exhibit vivacity and adroitness, quickness in picking up information and languages, and surprising readiness in grasping the salient points of a subject. They are wonderful mimics, and have a marked sense of humour, making witty remarks which set the others off into peals of laughter. They are as a rule bright and cheerful in disposition, will sometimes fly into sudden fits of ill temper and as quickly recover their good humour. They are cleanly in their habits, have a natural sense of modesty and refinement, and punctiliously observe the ordinary decencies of life.

The pygmies of the Malay Peninsula have a perfectly distinct language of their own. A glossary and grammar with phonetic rules of the Sen-oi dialect has been published, showing no connexion with any other known language.

The African pygmies, for the most part, speak a more or less corrupt form of the language of the adjacent negro tribes, e.g. Keswahili, Bantu, Momfu. They have some words, however, peculiar to themselves, which may be the fragments of their own original language. (R. M. L.)

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