Sunday 29 May 2011

Colin Turnbull, The Mountain People.

A pack of pernicious lies & fabrications.
Up, Down, Postscript, Appendices.

Joseph Towles & Colin Turnbull, 1971.Colin Turnbull's story of The Mountain People fills a niche in the interior mental landscape & ecology - in the 'social imaginary' as Charles Taylor calls it. This story tells us that if our civilization fails so will our morality. It says not only are psychopaths grossly flagrantly outrageously - egregiously - immoral; so is everyone, and innately. It tells us that humanity's basal moral metabolism is weak and contingent.

This story is a whole note, or a primary colour, on the xylophone of ideology; so it rings clearly in the human ear and shines brightly in the human eye. It has a kind of a 'sense of truth' about it. It is a nursery rhyme of a story. It sticks.

There are not so many stories in this particular niche, especially not with a vague scientific patina like this one - so it tends to get taken up and becomes 'important' becomes an exemplar, a paradigm. It gives people who set out wanting to believe that Gaia should very well eradicate humanity with flea-powder or worse a place to hang their hat.

The problem is that the story is false.

Turnbull's book, The Mountain People, was published in 1972. You will probably have to get a copy and read it if you are going to make sense of what follows. There are lots of cheap copies at Abe's. Here is some of the response from the community of anthropologists:

1973, March: The Mountain People, Review, Thomas Beidelman.

1973, December: The Mountain People, Review, Paul Spencer.

1974 (written April 1973): On Responsibility and Humanity: Calling a Colleague to Account, Fredrik Barth.

1985: The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda, Bernd Heine.

1988: The Collapse of Complex Societies 1988 excerpts, Joseph Tainter.

2000: In the arms of Africa: the life of Colin M. Turnbull excerpt, Roy Richard Grinker.

2002: The Mountain People revisited, Curtis Abraham. (This link will open in a separate Tab/Window.)

There are more than enough clues in the book itself to know that Colin Turnbull's process, both tactical and intellectual, was flawed - Barth's rant deals with some of them.

What does it say about Western intellectual life that such obvious nonsense could spread so easily across the Anthropological borderline into popular culture and thence into the received wisdom of the age?

There doesn't seem to have been any response by Turnbull to any of the challenges presented. Anyway, why would he? Hobnobbing with Dick Cavett & Peter Brook and the crème de la crème, on up to the Dalai Lama's third-cousin's mother-in-law ... Grinker's saccharine hagiography doesn't mention much about the controversy beyond what I have excerpted. And the controversy is just exactly mentioned and then passed over; excused perhaps as a temporary psychosis - which is even plausible - except that surely during the time spent writing the book he was not under the same pressures. Was he?

Converting these documents from pdf to HTML was a challenge too (and the scanning software is so full of bugs that there are certainly bad pieces that I missed - apologies for that). In that process of intimate text manipulation what seem (to me) like subtleties emerge: Heine's forebearing pettiness; Spencer's ... gullibility; Barth's choking-on-itself indignation; it almost seems to be a conspiracy of damning with faint praise, or praising with faint damns, whatever. And the documents all so well out-of-sight and protected behind $30 copyright firewalls.

Maybe it is simply that no one wanted to push too hard on a homosexual and his black boyfriend, both dying of AIDS - too many correctitude pitfalls. Is that it?

According to the OED 'pernicious' means, "Having the quality of destroying; tending to destroy, kill, or injure; destructive, ruinous; fatal." And an obsolete tinge that it "harbours evil designs; wicked; villanous." For me the word also includes a tendency of the quality to be carried forward, to propagate itself like a 'rootkit virus' in computer realms, to resonate.

On the off chance that someone conjectures that this is an NDP hand-wringing exercise ... If Turnbull indeed believed that humanity is inherently evil and that eradicating the Ik would somehow ... improve things, then what he is revealing is simple stupidity - on a par with the Vatican. I don't think humanity is evil though whatever evil there is certainly comes from it - but I do think humanity is stupid (myself included), to the point of total incompetence - that's to say terminally stupid.

That's it. Read it and weep ... or not. No smileys this week either.

I have ordered a copy of The Ik (a play) by Colin Higgins & Denis Cannan, & with collaboration by Colin Turnbull himself, so there may be more to say when that arrives.

Be well.


Pearls Before Swine.:-)Oh here ... let there be Smileys! Pearls Before Swine seems to have gone downhill in the last year or so. Wazizname ... Steve something? ... oh yeah, here it is, Stephan Pastis, a lawyer/cartoonist. I hardly ever look at it anymore, too often it is just not funny.

But this one is apt. Considering what this post concerns the montage humour is black indeed (if your imagination happens to run to those kinds of associations). Oh well ...

'Those who like this sort of thing will like this sort of thing.' Or maybe 'A cunt is a rose is a cunt.' (Tracey Emin)


1. The Mountain People, Review, Thomas Beidelman, March 1973.

2. The Mountain People, Review, Paul Spencer, December 1973.

3. On Responsibility and Humanity: Calling a Colleague to Account, Fredrik Barth, April 1973 (published 1974).

4. The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda, Bernd Heine, in Africa 55(1), 1985.

5. The Collapse of Complex Societies 1988 excerpts, Joseph Tainter, 1988.

6. In the arms of Africa: the life of Colin M. Turnbull excerpt, Roy Richard Grinker, 2000.

The Mountain People, Review, Thomas Beidelman, March 1973.

REVIEWS OF BOOKS in Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Apr., 1973), pp.170-171.

The Mountain People. By COLIN M. TURNBULL. New York: Simon and Schuster, I972. 309 PP. $7'95.

THIS is apparently intended to be an unpleasant book, for it describes a society that has been reduced to a level of harshness that would seem horrifying and inhuman to persons from many other cultures. However, the author's manner of presentation is also distasteful and his general comments about the nature of man and society are both simplistic and questionable.
     The Ik (Teuso) are a group of some two thousand hunters and gatherers now also practising some agriculture. Today they reside in northern Uganda; their traditional mode of life was severely disturbed by the creation of a national park and game refuge out of the major portion of their habitation. Their consequent displacement into an area ill suited to their needs led to an erosion of their customary values and mode of life, so extreme that Dr. Turnbull compares Ik social relations today as more shocking than those in a Nazi concentration camp (236). The author maintains that
'... the Ik as a society has survived. They still insist on living in villages even though the villages have nothing that could be called a truly [sic] social structure, for they encompass no social life, and despite the fact that members of a village mistrust and fear each other more than any others, in direct proportion to their proximity and completely without regard to family and kinship. The mistrust begins even within the compound, between a man and his wife, and between each of them and their children' (133-4).
     Numerous examples are provided to support this grim picture. However, when any act or belief is manifested which contradicts the overriding picture of a horrid society, the author credits this as being a survival from happier days. Furthermore, Dr. Turnbull assigns emotions to Ik even when he could not possibly be sure what their feelings might be. Thus, a mother is said to view her child '... almost hoping that some predator will come along and carry it off' (146).
     This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field. We are assured of the author's intrepidity (30), sensitivity (114), and given passages of embarrassingly purple prose (3o). Dr. Turnbull clearly had a dreadful field-trip and has succeeded in conveying this to the reader. One may sympathize with his experiences and still dislike his analysis and conclusions that '... the Ik clearly show that society itself is not indispensable for man's survival, that man is not the social animal he has always thought himself to be, and that he is perfectly capable of associating for purposes of survival without being social' (289). In the final pages he compares the Ik's misfortune to the crises of our own culture; one can care little for much of modern life and still find the author's romantic comments on primitive societies and his damnation of technology and individualism to be ill considered, misguided, and simplistic. Dorothy Parker wrote somewhere, 'Those who like this sort of thing will like this sort of thing.'

The Mountain People, Review, Paul Spencer, December 1973.

BOOK REVIEWS in Man, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 651-652.

TURNBULL, COLIN M. The mountain people. 309 pp., illus., plates. New York: Simon &
Schuster, I972. $7.95

The mountain people are the Ik (or Teuso) of northern Uganda. Both in style and ethnographic detail, this book is comparable to the author's The forest people. It is not, in other words, primarily intended for an anthropological audience. In turning his attention from the Pygmies of the Ituri forest to the Ik, it is evident how deeply Turnbull's attitude towards small-scale societies and society in general has been affected. He still maintains a Rousseauesque image of hunters and gatherers in general and Pygmies in particular, displaying 'kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity and others' (p. 31), and this is assumed to have typified the Ik in the recent past. With 'progress', however, the Ik have been forced to abandon their nomadic existence and to settle to a precarious form of agriculture and illegal poaching insufficient for their basic needs. It is this, he suggests, that led by I965 to new qualities of acrimony, envy, suspicion, the pursuit of immediate self-interest, and the abandonment of loyalty and trust. There was no materlnal love, children were turned out of their homes at three years old to fend for themselves and older people died prematurely, neglected and denied food even by their own children. There was evidence of earlier institutions that sustained a degree of control and co-operation among the Ik, but with hunger and endemic famine these have largely been abandoned and even the family, we are told, had ceased to exist.
     Clearly, Turnbull is vulnerable to criticism from his professional colleagues, especially as he is widely quoted as an authority on small-scale societies, lending respectability to the popular notion that such people lead an idyllic, trouble-free existence, wisely conserving their population size and environment, until they are tainted by progress (cf. Wilkinson, Poverty and progress, reviewed p. 649). There is no evidence that the Ik ever conformed to such a model (indeed, there are no references at all to earlier writings on this area). At the other end of the scale, one may question whether the Ik today really represent the total negation of society. For all their perverted sense of humour and prolonged silences, there is ample evidence of a people who cling tenaciously to one another and to the area in which they live, with a mutual respect for the prowess to survive.
     There are, however, important issues here that anthropologists should welcome rather than criticise, and it is to be hoped that Turnbull will elaborate on these in a later publication, just as his Wayward servants gave us a fuller insight into the Ituri Pygmies. I would single out two such issues.
     In the first place, he had the privileged misfortune of visiting the Ik at a time of famine in the area and political upheaval in Uganda. Over the period he was with them, most of the older people died and their population size was severely reduced. Rather than regard this as a complete and final breakdown of society and of social transaction that offers only the hope 'that their isolation will remain complete as in the past, until they die out completely' (p. 285!), I would suggest that this could be seen as the reverse side of the coin to which all such marginal societies may be prone. Rather than assume that the hunter/gatherer is 'the best of conservationists' (p. 21) indefinitely adjusted to a low level of exploitation, is it not more feasible on present evidence to posit a more Malthusian process with Turnbull's idyllic model reflecting a period when, in the absence of warfare and epidemic, the population slowly increases towards the limits of its ecological capacity, while his Ik model with its hunger, malaise and neglect of younger, older and weaker dependants reflects a sharp and inevitable reaction when some ecological shift reveals overpopulation for what it is. This would be demographically more dynamic, and sociologically more challenging with regard to the nature of social institutions under stress and of social transaction. The attempt to settle the Ik, in other words, may have produced a sharp unprecedented shift in their ecology, but it could be misleading to assert a perfect ecological balance before that time.
     Secondly, although Turnbull shows only a minor interest in the topic, Ik society occupies an interesting interstitial position between neighbouring Karamojong-speaking pastoral tribes, trading with theni, blacksmithing for them, spying for them, and guiding them on their cattle raids through the area. A number of cases are also cited of intermarriage and intermigration with them. Individual ties (nyot) tend to be developed between Ik and pastoralists that are ideally inheritable by the families on both sides. What is so revealing is that during a period of famine and malaise when even the family is held no longer to exist, these nyot ties should have been fully sustained despite the fact that they are essentially contractual with no mystical or religious backing. In this one institution alone, the Ik are prepared to display a longer term self-interest and a degree of trust that is lacking everywhere else (p. I62). Here again, Turnibull appears to be trapped by his own model of an isolated self-contained hunting and gathering horde. The pastoralists are not presented as intruders in quite the same way as the Uganda administration, but they have no place in his conception of an earlier scene despite their presence in this area for countless centuries. There is ample evidence from other studies in eastern Africa that this boundary association between pastoralists and hunter/gatherers is part of a wider pattern of population movement and alliances, in which the warring pastoralists have shifted their ground in response to opportunities and pressures, while the more wily and less aggressive hunter/gatherers have remained in one area and adapted themselves to new neighbours as necessary. The value of Turnbull's study is the closeness with which he was able to observe this relationship, which is so peripheral to other more pastorally oriented accounts, and could be so central to his.
     Thus, in contrast to his account of the Ituri Pygmies where one is prepared to accept his model of relatively isolated and well integrated bands of hunter/gatherers whose links with the neighbouring Bantu agriculturalists on whom they prey entailed deceit, immediate self-interest and disregard for institutional constraints, Turnbull's study of the Ik seems to invert this pattern: it is the external ties that are respected and appear to sustain the Ik as a people, while the internal ties, in his terms, are those of a hunter preying on his fellows. They are, it would seem, an outward-looking people who do not (and perhaps never did) match an inward-looking model.

On Responsibility and Humanity: Calling a Colleague to Account, Fredrik Barth, April 1973 (published 1974).

From Current Anthropology, 15 (1), March 1974 pp. 99-103.

Bergen, Norway. 7 iv 73 - The crisis of anthropology (cf. Hymes 1972) today can hardly arise from any irrelevance of comparative knowledge of cultures and societies to man's contemporary situation. To my understanding, it arises rather from our relative failure to transform anthropology from a rich man's hobby to a concerned human discipline. Anthropology needs the discipline of rigorous intellectual standards and an informed, critical attitude to all aspects of one's own and others' work. It must be human in recognizing the social and cultural construction of reality while yet seeking inter-cultural translatability and universality in participation. It must be concerned in its striving to transcend complacent tolerance and value-freedom to create deeper understanding of the human condition. Since our steps are still so uncertain in these directions, we cannot allow many serious mistakes in the profession, and must be highly critical of ourselves and others. In our common interest I therefore feel we are justified to demand full accountability of each other. I am moved to react by a recent and highly successful book — The Mountain People, by Colin M. Turnbull — since I feel it exhibits a number of anthropological difficulties and failings in such a crass form that it deserves both to be sanctioned and to be held up as a warning to us all.
     Let me make some of my premises more clear. The pursuit of research in social and cultural anthropology entails circumstances of fieldwork and analysis which are rather special, and which therefore require special ethics and competences both of professional and personal kinds.
     1. We impose ourselves unasked and in many ways incompletely perceived on other people in other countries and societies. There are no standards in those worlds for the intellectual and moral operation of making an anthropological study; and as "marginal natives" we are free of many of the constraints of society — both ours and theirs. This entails that we ourselves set the standards and impose the constraints, and that we carry full responsibility for what happens.
     2. We legitimize — and finance — our activity as research, perhaps even with a vague promise of applied usefulness. In so doing, we surely commit ourselves to certain standards of intellectual integrity and competence, and objectivity, by which our work should be judged and used by others.
     3. We use ourselves as a research tool in participant observation: our intuition, our charm, our emotions, and our abilities. For this reason we are particularly dependent on our own self-awareness and understanding, and we can not afford to lose our judgement without noticing.
     Turnbull's description of himself and the Ik mountain people of northern Uganda gives the impression of seeking to be self-consciously honest and concerned with most of the difficulties I have mentioned. My judgement is nonetheless that his book fails on all these points. Though presented as a popular account, it reveals itself as poor anthropology in method, in data, and in reasoning. It is emotionally either dishonest or superficial. It is deeply misleading to the public it sets out to inform. Most disturbingly, it is grossly irresponsible and harmful to its unwitting objects of study.
     To give a key to some of my indignation, let me illustrate how named Ik are exposed in the anthropologist's text. Their illegal activities are publicized to anyone who bothers to read the book: named persons are accused of cattle theft or fencing stolen cattle (p. 110); the location of corrals for such purposes is given (p. 278); photographs are provided showing named persons forging forbidden spears or engaged in illegal poaching {facing p. 128). Perhaps the anthropologist trusts that the authorities (referred to as "Obote's specially trained thugs," p. 108) will be ineffective in utilizing such information. But what can justify letting an illiterate family live forever in the libraries of the West in the following description (pp. 122-23)?
Atum's family seemed more fly-ridden than most, although he and his brother Yakuma kept themselves reasonably clean and fly-free. Bila was always crawling with them, as was her ill-tempered and mean little daughter, Nialetcha. Nialetcha, being over three, no longer lived in the house, however, so possibly had fewer lice. Yakuma's wife, Matsui, I would probably have liked if I had been able to stand either the sight or the smell. Poor Matsui had eye sores, and the flies were constantly at them and had of course enlarged them and had gradually, in this way, eaten away at the eyebrows and eyelashes. Her eyes offered such a tempting meal to the flies that there was never enough room, and they crawled all over her face. Matsui never seemed to think of brushing them away, and often when she opened her mouth in a smile of welcome the flies would crawl in and explore it. I do not think that Matsui had the least idea that there was anything wrong with her. She was the mother of three sons and three daughters, two of whom were truly beautiful, all the more so, in my eyes, because they were the only people who seemed to share my opinion of their incredible younger brother, Lokwam, and who used to treat him much as he treated Adupa. It was one of the few real pleasures I had, listening to his shrieking and yelling when they caught him and did whatever they did (for it was always out of sight behind their stockade) and then watching for him to come flying out of the odok holding his head and streaming with tears, while Kimimei and Lotukou laughed with happiness.
     Ik persons are used in this way to provide material for a truly bizarre picture of a culture and a society. Let it be that they practice that "very early form of marriage, marriage by capture" (p. 126); that they terrify each other with accusations of sorcery (p. 180), although they have no knowledge of such things in their society (p. 202); that children pass through a series of rites de passage by which they autonomously organize their social groups (pp. 136-40); that children support themselves from the age of three (p. 135). More staggering, perhaps, this is a society without the institution of the family and one in which "they still insist on living in villages even though the villages have nothing that could be called a truly social structure, for they encompass no social life ..." (p. 133). And the general public is here informed of an African society which offers us (pp. 236, 237)
an opportunity for testing the cherished notion that love is essential to survival. If it is, the Ik should have it. Whether it makes them or us any different from other animals is a matter of opinion, but I must confess that early during fieldwork I wrote back that I could not believe I was studying a human society; it was rather like looking at a singularly well-ordered community of baboons. ... I searched for evidence of love almost from the beginning, I found more of it in ... two baby leopards than I did among the Ik.
     In all this, Turnbull for some reason sees a spectre of the future of the West, a theme he develops in his last chapter to a level of sophistication where he agonizes in one paragraph about "what has become of the Western family" (p. 291), in the next about the decline of religion and the growth of the state where "the loud-mouthed anti-intellectual blabberings of heads of state and their assistants show as well as anything that we are well along on the Icien road" (p. 292), in the next about "the sorry state of society in the civilized world today" (p. 293). In conclusion {pp. 293-94):
Even supposing we can avert the disaster of nuclear holocaust or that of the almost universal famine that may be expected by the middle of the next century if population keeps expanding and pollution remains unchecked, what will be the cost, if not the same already paid by the Ik? They too were driven by the need to survive against seemingly invincible odds, and they succeeded, at the cost of their humanity.
This is what "the Ik teach us" (p. 294). Judging from the popular reviews, such philosophizing sounds authoritative and sells well to a public that searches for understanding.
     What method is used to establish these sensational data and insights? Sometimes it is hard to say, as when we are told that "there is ample evidence in their language that they once held values which they no longer hold, that they understood by 'goodness' and 'happiness' something very different from what those words have come to mean now" (p. 287). But in other cases we can see the steps whereby the picture is built. One procedure is the classical error of imputing thoughts and motives: Describing how mothers handle infants, we learn how a mother "goes about her business, leaving the child [in the bush], almost hoping that some predator will come along and carry it away" (p. 136). We learn about "the splendid pastime of wife-beating, which, surprisingly, among the Ik follows a formal procedure: one of their rare formalities, but observed with diligence and exquisite pleasure" (p. 166). Of the informant who describes traditional custom for punishing adultery we are told: "I do know that Atum enjoyed the vision as he conjured it up, and would doubtless have been first in line to throw his daughter on the fire had I suggested that the custom should be revived" (p. 181). The anthropologist's pathetic "empathy" is clearly exemplified, but not generalized, in the following passage (pp. 111-12):
I had been desperately looking for something that would warm me to these difficult people, some human trait that I could enjoy and share, and I had thought I had found one when I first started living in my house and I saw that every morning men and women spent a lot of time just over the edge of the descent into Kidepo, simply sitting and staring at that great and wonderful stretch of country as the sun came up behind Meraniang. I used to sit outside my stockade and enjoy the view with them until I found that all they were doing was combining their morning toilet with their first hopeful search for signs of food. Then I began noticing the odors, but I did not have the courage to say anything about it. At the same time, I was frustrated because here was one massive toilet on my doorstep. ...
     The indignation when it is apparent that the Ik do not suit Turnbull is pervasive (pp. 129-30):
I had seen no evidence of family life. ... I had seen no sign of love. ... I had seen things that made me want to cry, though as yet I had not cried, but I had never seen an Ik anywhere near tears or sorrow. ... So it was with curious pleasure that I awoke one night to hear a distinct mournful wailing, such as heralds death. ... I got up feeling better than I had for a long time, hoping that I was actually right that someone was actually crying over someone who had died ...
So in his preface he exercises his own compassion against the accepted premise that "most of us are unlikely to admit readily that we can sink as low as the Ik ..." (p. 12).
     How can a reputable anthropologist with previous extensive field experience get himself into such a mess? The book supplies clues in the form of a series of grotesque descriptions of scenes and events during fieldwork. The account we are given is a systematically false record of these events, since it depicts Turnbull alone in the field, handling his relations and judging the situations, whereas he was in fact throughout accompanied by the African medical doctor Joseph Towles,1 "who shared much of the experience with me. ... He does not appear in these pages because he has his own story to tell ..." (p. 12). But I assume it is correct that the anthropologist from the very first let himself be the passive object of competition between self-appointed assistants (pp. 55-66); that his monotonous complaint about the Ik's begging and his continuous gifts to them correctly reflect an extensive use of (reluctant) gifts to buy rapport (e.g., p. 54); that he let himself be tricked into buying extensive supplies, which were immediately stolen from him (p. 57, 64-70); etc.
     He then proceeded to hire a considerable number of the population he had come to study to be his workmen — some to build a road up to the point where he wished to have his house, some to build the house. This dislocation of the local work force of a starving population for several months finally resulted in the triumphal entry of the landrover (p. 95):
The car made it all right, with a bit of pushing here and there, though it nearly toppled over twice due to the sideways slant of the track. . . . When I breasted that last ridge up by Kauar's village and drove down to where my boma stood waiting for me, I felt that now everything was going to be all right. I drove in and they closed the wide entrance after me, piling thorn scrub up against it so that it was as impregnable as any other part of the stockade. I could not see the view, of course, but then neither could I see the Ik, and even though they were the people I was meant to be studying and I had been there only three months or less, the privacy gave me intense pleasure.
The car inside its stockade turned out to be useful: "The constant rustling and cracking of twigs as the prier pried got so much on my nerves that I gave up eating outside or doing anything else in the courtyard, and used to shut myself up in the landrover again to cook my meals and eat them there" (p. 95).
     Besides such bizarre behaviour, and general gullibility, the face which the anthropologist presented to the Ik seems strongly marked by the Bwana complex. One of the clearest expressions is found in his relationship to Kauar, who emerges from the description (pp. 88-89) as a true Uncle Tom, who
used to volunteer to make the long two-day walk into Kaabong and the even more tiring two-day climb back to get mail for me. ... He was always pleased with himself when he came back, and asked if he had made the trip more quickly than the last time. ... Then he used to sit and watch while I read the mail, studying the expression on my face to see if all was well. When we drank tea together he always took exactly the same number of teaspoons of sugar that I took, and helped himself to exactly the same number of biscuits, never more, never less.
When one day Kauar fell dead on his return marathon, Turnbull is indignant at the lack of compassion shown
by the Ik, while "I still see his open, laughing face, see him giving precious tidbits to the children, comforting some child who was crying, and watching me read the letters he carried so lovingly for me. And I still think of him probably running up that viciously steep mountainside so that he could break his time record, and falling dead in his pathetic prime because he was starving" (p. 89).
     Indeed, it was months before the anthropologist recognized that the population he lived among was in the process of starving to death. His statements about the character and distribution of starvation are characteristically contradictory (e.g., pp. 88-89, 123, 141). What does not seem in doubt is his own egocentric response to the situation: "I liked old Lolim. ... I also liked his daughter, Nangoli, who was almost as bald as he was, and who was on several occasions a true friend to me. ... So ... I brought him a double ration that evening" (pp. 123-24). "There she lay, day and night, skin and bone, but still trying to flash those wonderful teeth in a smile. She also went on the list for my daily food rounds" (p. 126). With such capricious gifts he apparently expected to endear himself to the Ik. He also seems to feel he has set an example so he can be highly critical of a government relief operation arranged on the contrasting principle of equitable distribution based on census lists, because he "estimated that the records indicated a population about twenty percent in excess of the surviving population" (p. 282) and the scheme was thus "administered in a way that was little short of criminal [and] a waste of good government money" (pp. 281-82).
     Naturally, the relationship that developed between the anthropologist and the Ik was as much a creation of the latter as of the former. Turnbull gives tantalizing glimpses only of this other party as partners to human interaction and not only as the objects of ponderous moralizing, ridicule, and defamation. At one point he involved himself very actively in pleading the cause of some Turkana who were illegally pasturing their cattle in Uganda. The Ik reaction to this effort (p. Ill) was
laughter, that quite obviously, from the sideways glances and even open looks, was at my expense. I gathered it had something to do with my intervention on behalf of the Turkana. Atum did try to explain once, wiping the tears from his eyes. He asked me if I knew that, to start with, the Turkana had thought I was a government official, and I said yes. That brought laughter. And did I know that when they first led me down to their cattle camps some of them had wanted to kill me? I said I did not think that was so, and this brought lots of laughter. Then he said that I had helped them a lot and talked to the government for them and written letters for them, and what had I got out of that? When I said "nothing" the group just split its sides. "That," said Atum, "is what we are laughing at." And his clear blue eyes sparkled with pleasure.
     To this same Atum, who seems to have been his main crutch and source of information, he developed a petty hate relation which blossoms through the text in passages such as "The unpleasantness of returning was somewhat alleviated by Atum's suffering on the way up the stony trail. Several times he slipped, which made Lojieri and me laugh, and he kept stopping to rest, clutching his back with both hands. In spite of the fact that I had already lost both big toenails, it was a pleasure to move rapidly ahead and leave Atum gasping behind . . ." (p. 216). Indeed, this quality in relations to people seems to be rather in tune with Ik culture, except that they practice it with a macabre self-irony in which Turnbull is lacking (pp. 204-5):
Lolim became ill and had to be protected while eating the food I gave him. Once I caught Lomongin stealing out of Lolim's tin mug while Lolim was eating. Lolim was crying, but did not have the strength to pull the mug away; all he could do was to hold on to the mug with one hand and convey as much of the food as possible from mug to mouth with the other. As soon as I appeared Lomongin reversed his actions and pretended he had been feeding Lolim, saying the old man was so blind he could not see where his mouth was to put the food. The old man had enough strength to retort, "At least, I didn't put it in yours!" at which they both rocked with laughter and held on to each other as though they were the closest of friends.
     Unable to function in this kind of relationship, Turnbull remained the clumsy outsider till the very last — and blames the Ik for it. On one of his last days of fieldwork he nearly fell off a cliff for reasons which he claims looked contrived (p. 273):
"You took the wrong turning," said Atum, "you could have fallen over." For a moment his face was serious, almost cross, and I was warmed at his concern. Then I heard a muffled snort behind me and found Lojieri doubled up with laughter, at which Atum could control himself no longer, and laughed and slapped his side until his eyes just streamed with tears. "You don't like heights, do you?" he asked and, leaving the question unanswered, continued ahead, now leading the procession, still laughing. It is difficult to tell whether they would have laughed harder if I had fallen or would have felt deprived of future possibilities for fun.
     On another occasion that same day they managed to lose me for nearly two hours. ...
     There will be many anthropologists who recognize undercurrents from some of their own emotions during less happy fieldworks in the reactions and attitudes which Turnbull gives free play in this book. What is frightening is how they distort his judgement, erode his integrity, and ultimately must have developed into a paranoid hate towards the people he lived among so that all genuine anthropological ballast is lost. In his own words: "For the individuals one can only feel infinite sorrow at what they have lost; hatred must be reserved for the so-called society they live in. ... It is that survival machine that is the monster, not the Atums and Lojieris ..." (p. 285). So, when asked for advice by the Uganda government on relocation of the Ik as a measure against their recurrent famines, this Iciebam, "Friend of the Ik," has his moment of revenge and solemnly develops a final solution, a plan for systematic culturcide (pp. 283-84):
My suggestion was simple enough. It recognized that physical coercion would be necessary to relocate them, for they would never move of their own accord. They would have to be rounded up in something approaching a military operation. The terrain, although difficult, was not spacious, and a well-organized operation could have enclosed them and caught most of them before they could flee. Then they would have to be taken to parts of Uganda sufficiently remote for them not to be able to return to Northern Karimoja, for as long as they were within reach they would always try to return. The territory for relocation would have to be mountainous and capable of being worked productively. All this might have been acceptable except for the use of force, which would have put the government in a bad light if misreported, as it almost certainly would have been by the international press. But my last stipulation was doomed to rejection. In discussing the use of force I said that men, women, and children could be rounded up at random and should be dispersed throughout the country, in its mountainous regions, in small units of about ten. Age, sex, or kinship was immaterial. Such random grouping would do no violence to the family structure, but would, if anything, be beneficial, for it would complete the fragmentation already complete in all but their continued localization, and would compel their integration into the life of the communities to which they would be allocated. If kept in larger units, they might well be able to band together to work their magic around them wherever they went, perpetuating their survival system and perhaps corrupting still others. Whereas if dispersed in small groups, they would be forced to find their own individual ways, which would suit them temperamentally, and would quickly lose their language and with it their last sense of belonging to a world long gone beyond recall.
     This culturcide plan, and the vituperation against the Ik, are advanced under the flimsy cover of a representation of present Ik culture and society as a recent, monstrous perversion developed under the stress of starvation. I do not doubt that hunger drove the Ik population to extremities, but very much doubt the conclusions as to future creative capacity which Turnbull draws from this. He himself makes the passing comparison to World War concentration camps (e.g., p. 236), without pursuing the thought either to deepen his compassion or qualify his prognosis. And surely, even had he been right, there would still be no justification for such a clandestine program of persecution.
     Fortunately "Obote's specially trained thugs" had the humanity not even to take his suggestion seriously; so the powerless intellectual has only been able to use words, and through them in senseless ethnocentricity turn die tragedy of a whole people into a banal parable of himself and his understanding of his own society's problems. Yet in the world of men trafficking in words, surely this must be the ultimate in intellectual imperialism?
     In my opening paragraphs I spoke about accountability. Where an anthropologist fails to practice the competences and ethics of our discipline in his relations to other societies and cultures, and evades the sanctions of those most concerned, it must be up to his colleagues to speak and act for those who are not given the right of self-defence. The blurb, however, quotes Desmond Morris ("beautifully observed and beautifully written"), Ashley Montagu ("the parallel with our own society is deadly ... we would do well to read it"), and Carleton Coon ("a masterpiece ... a magnificent if ghastly tale"). For the hygiene of our discipline and for our mutual instruction, I call on the Associates of CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY to take a different stand, and help clarify the ethical and practical issues this publication raises.

Note: 1 This phrase was corrected by Barth to read "... he was much of the time accompanied by the young anthropologist Joseph Towles ..." in a letter dated May 23, after the critique had been sent to Turnbull for possible reply. — EDITOR.

The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda, Bernd Heine, in Africa 55(1), 1985.


[words prefixed with * contain characters which could not be rendered in HTML by this technician]


Bernd Heine

Colin M. Turnbull's publications form virtually the only source available on Ik culture and society. His book The Mountain People has found wide distribution, far beyond anthropological circles.1 The problems it raises have been discussed in a number of reviews (see especially Beidelman, 1973; Spencer, 1973; Barth, 1974; Winter et al., 1975). Through the present article, I wish to show that there is an urgent need for a more comprehensive and less biased study of Ik culture and society.


The Ik (own name: ic-áám, pl. ika),2 called Teuso by their Dodos and Turkana neighbours, inhabit some twenty villages in north-eastern Uganda, strung out along the escarpment between Timu Forest in the south and Kidepo National Park in the north (see map). Together with Nyang'i (Nyangiya) and So (Tepes), Ik forms the Kuliak group of languages (Heine, 1976). The external classification of Kuliak has been the subject of several controversies. Greenberg (1963: 86) assigned it to the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family - a position that has been defended more recently by Ehret (1981). Tucker (1976a, 1976b, 1971-73), on the other hand, has pointed to Afro-asiatic ('Hamito-Semitic') connections. Others again (cf. Laughlin, 1975) have proposed to leave the Kuliak languages unclassified. On the basis of evidence so far available it would seem that no uncontroversial genetic classification is possible.
     It was with the expectation that I would be provided with easier access to Ik culture that I studied Turnbull's writings before embarking on linguistic fieldwork among the Ik in February-March 1983. This work was carried out in the Kamion and Timu areas and focused on a study of Ik grammar. Unfortunately, Turnbull's work became more of an obstacle than an asset to my research. Firstly, it made it difficult to gain the confidence of the Ik. After they had been informed by the Roman Catholic mission, Kaabong, of the content of Turnbull's publications they were shocked about the way their name had been 'spoilt' in them, and they were reluctant to provide any more information to white researchers. At a meeting I had with the elders of Kamion, Moruatap, Lomoli'j and Nawa'dou on 27 February, 1983 I was asked whether it was not possible to take legal action against Turnbull. Should he ever dare to come back to Ik country they would force him 'to eat his own faeces'. Secondly, Turnbull's account of Ik culture turned out to be at variance with most observations we made - to the extent that at times I was under the impression that I was dealing with an entirely different people. The main purpose of this article is to comment on some of the points made by Turnbull, offering alternative descriptions wherever this appears necessary.
     Since Turnbull carried out his research between 1965 and 1967 some changes have occurred. They were caused in particular by a drought in 1979-80, accompanied by an outbreak of cholera, in which hundreds of Ik lost their lives. Pirre, the place where Turnbull spent most of his lime, was especially affected by

The territory of the Ik. Villages: 1 Kamion A, 2 Lomolij, 3 Moruatap, 4 Nawadou, 5 Narukeng, 6 Lousuna, 7 Lokwarumae, 8 Kokosowwa, 9 Kuba-au, 10 Napitiro, 11 Losil, 12 Lomii, 13 Pirre (uninhabited), 14 Nariwore, 15 Lokitoi, 16 Gahladi-au, 17 Singila, 18 Ts'adi-au, 19 Kaikoba, 20 Loita (Naita).

cholera, and it has since been abandoned as a settlement. Former Pirre residents nowadays live in the Lomil-Losil, Kamion and Timu localities. The police posts of both Pirre and Kalapata were abandoned. There are now two full primary schools in Ik-speaking territory, a government school in Kamion and a mission-sponsored school in Timu. There is no reliable information on present population figures, but it would seem that it is at least twice as high as given by Turnbull, who mentions a figure of 1,300 (1967: 64). A survey carried out by the Red Cross in 1982 for purposes of food programmes yielded 2,696 persons as living in the 'Kamion/Teuso Parish', including 1,096 heads of family, 1,010 wives but only 580 children. According to estimates of the Roman Catholic mission of Kaabong, these figures are slightly exaggerated for adults but much too low for children. This was confirmed by our own observations, according to which there are definitely more than 3,000 Ik. The modest number of cattle and goats owned by the Ik in the 1960s and 1970s became the prey of raiders (mostly Turkana), and in 1983 I did not come across any livestock owned by Ik people.
     Although many people Turnbull consulted are no longer alive, I was able to interview a number of Ik who met him and are mentioned in his writings. As my informants include the then parish chief (mkungu) of the Ik, Mr Filipino Long'oli, his Pirre headman (mnyampara), Mr Faustino Lopye, and various elders who had undergone tasapeti, i.e. initiation to elderhood (to be described below) already by 1965, it was possible to get fairly accurate information on that period.
     Turnbull's research suffered from a number of unfavourable conditions. One of these was that he appears to have chosen the wrong area. Pirre was then the only place in Ik country having a police post, and, because of security problems, it became the centre of attraction for people from three different countries: Diding'a and Toposa refugees from the Sudan, Turkana from Kenya, and Dodos from Uganda. At times Pirre had more non-Ik than Ik inhabitants. Three out of the six villages chosen by Turnbull for his research were headed by non-Ik: Lokalia (Lokeléa)3 was Toposa, while Lomeja and Kawar (Kauar) were Diding'a. Almost every second person appearing in the photos of The Mountain People is not Ik but rather Diding'a, Dodos or Toposa.
     That Pirre was ethnically more heterogeneous than any other place in Ik country need not in itself have been an adverse factor. However, it would seem that Turnbull was not always aware of the ethno-linguistic membership of the people he was dealing with. Some of his main informants for Ik culture were not Ik at all but rather Diding'a. Lomeja, for example, whom he calls a 'true Ik' (Turnbull 1974: 128), helped him to learn the Ik language (Turnbull, 1974: 71), yet Lomeja was undoubtedly Diding'a, who, according to our informants, spoke only broken Ik.


Another factor that is likely to have had a negative effect on Turnbull's work can be seen in his expectation of meeting a hunter-gatherer people. After his work on the Mbuti pygmies (Turnbull, 1961) this would have enabled him to compare two different groups of hunters living in different environments. Yet the Ik turned out to be essentially farmers rather than hunters, thus rendering the envisaged comparisons impossible. Since he was not prepared to accept that the Ik had been farmers long before the first Europeans set foot on East African soil, he invented a history of an earlier hunter culture:
It seemed that just before World War II the Teuso had all been encouraged to settle in northern Uganda, in the mountainous north-east corner bordering on Kenya to the east and Sudan to the north. Until then they had roamed in nomadic bands, as hunters and gatherers, through a vast region in all three countries. [Turnbull, 1974, 17]
With the creation of Kidepo National Park, he claims, the Ik were driven from their major hunting grounds and forced to become farmers.
     It remains unclear on what evidence his assumption of an earlier hunter-gatherer economy is based. According to linguistic reconstructions, the proto-Kuliak-speaking community, from which the modern Ik, Nyang'i and So are likely to have derived, already practised cultivation, side by side with hunting and gathering. This is suggested by the fact that words for sorghum, finger millet and beans, as well as for agricultural tools, can be reconstructed for proto-Kuliak, for which a time-depth of at least 3,000 years has been calculated (Heine, 1976: 67-68). Such information was not available to Turnbull. However, he had other evidence at his disposal to suggest that agriculture was not a recent innovation in the Ik economy. Wayland's brief account of the Ik, with which Turnbull was familiar (cf. Turnbull, 1967: 63), clearly shows that already in the 1920s agriculture was an important part of Ik economy:
The Wanderobo [Ik.-B.H.] are the tobacco growers of Karamoja ... In addition to this they grow a litle semsem (nunem), Indian corn (nyaburrigi), and millet (ripp). [Wayland, 1931, 213, 214]
     Wayland goes on to note that attendance on the crops is a major task of men and boys, while grinding grain is part of the duty of girls and women. But even from his own data Turnbull should have become aware that his assumption of an earlier hunter existence is without foundation. He notes, for example, that according to Ik belief God gave the Dodos and Turkana cattle, whereas the Ik were given nakut, the digging stick (Turnbull, 1974: 154). Nakut (more correctly: nakúta) used to be their major cultivation tool before it was replaced by the hoe.
     More important, however, Turnbull would have come to a better assessment of Ik history if he had tried to study some of their major cultural institutions. The vital role played by agriculture in the traditional economy is reflected, inter alia, in their ritual calendar. By far the most important social and religious event in the annual cycle is itówé-és, the 'blessing the seeds' ceremony. This ceremony, which usually takes place in late December or early January, marks the beginning of the agricultural year. In 1983 it was celebrated as late as 26 February. A sacred tree *(lɔk'ɔiŋu) is planted and people bring their seeds to be blessed under it. Dancing around the tree completes the first day of itówé-és. The next morning, the elders gather around the tree and taste the beer that has been brewed, strictly observing the rule that no one starts drinking before all members of the next higher age group have done so. Itówé-és takes place simultaneously in different settlements of the Ik, and it may extend over three days.
     The second most important Ik ceremony, called dzíber-ika mεs ('the beer of the axes'), equally relates to agriculture. Its purpose is said to be to enable the men to demand beer from the women for clearing the fields. During this ceremony, which usually takes place in November or December, each family brings a pot of beer and all their hoes, axes and machetes to the diwa (di, as Turnbull puts it), the elders' meeting place. The beer is drunk and the remainder sprinkled over the agricultural tools to bless them.
     Of almost equal importance is *múnúm-εs ('opening the harvest'), which is celebrated around August. It involves the communal consumption of the first grains, which are cooked and eaten at the diwa by men only.
     As far as oral traditions suggest, these as well as other public functions relating to cultivation have always been part of Ik culture. It is difficult to imagine why Turnbull did not take any notice of them.


In spite of the dominant role played by agriculture in the traditional economy, hunting and gathering are also important economic activities. Turnbull claims that formerly the Ik were a nomadic people moving in an annual cycle between the Kidepo valley in Uganda, the Diding'a mountains in the Sudan, and the area just west of Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolf) in Kenya, the search for seasonal hunting grounds and honey being the principal reason for moving. It remains unclear what observations justify this claim. All Ik elders consulted strongly denied that such a cycle ever existed, and this is supported by oral traditions I was able to collect among the Dodos, Diding'a and Turkana. I am not aware of any evidence suggesting that the Ik ever practised nomadism. Hunting expeditions may lead them far away from their home villages for more than a week, but usually they involve only smaller groups of men and do not affect the sedentary settlement structure. Hunting is carried on throughout the year; there are no special seasons for it.
     While some of Turnbulls remarks on hunting have been confirmed by our own investigations, others have not. Contrary to his statement (Turnbull, 1967: 67), the net hunt has never been abandoned, for it is still practised today, although it is much less common than hunting with neck snares (nyákola) or leg traps (nyátatsa). Furthermore, meat is not eaten on the spot, but is invariably taken home. Usually only parts which spoil quickly, like liver, are consumed immediately by the hunters. If the meat is too heavy to carry, other men are called for assistance. Typically, it is only after the elders have ceremonially tasted the soft parts (heart, kidney, etc.) that the meat is released for general consumption.
     Most of Turnbull's observations on gathering are at variance with our own findings. He notes, for example, that the Ik like to catch dang, termites, and that they build tangau, termite traps, for this purpose (Turnbull, 1974: 183). The idea of eating termites is as strange to the Ik as it is to Europeans. What they do eat, however, is white ants, which are called danŋ, while the cages built at the foot of anthills around white ant holes are referred to as daŋa ho ('white ant house'). The trapping of white ants, like honey collecting, forms a significant part of Ik gathering activities. It usually takes place immediately after planting between April and June, and involves almost the entire population. Since parties collecting white ants may be away from home for up to two weeks, temporary grass huts are likely to be erected near the anthills, the latter being private property, as Turnbull rightly observes.
     It might seem that the Ik are not well qualified for gathering, since Turnbull tells us that they are not traditionally familiar with their fauna and flora (Turnbull, 1967: 63). During my research I conducted a survey on plants, which yielded almost 250 species, each with a distinct Ik name. This survey suggests that every grown-up Ik, man or woman, not only knows the names of between 200 and 350 plants but is also able to point out for each of them what their roots, leaves, fruit, bark or stem may be used for. In my list of 248 plants, which is by no means exhaustive, since it is confined to species for which I could find identifiable samples, there are only eighteen which are not put to any practical use. A similar situation obtains with reference to fauna. In the light of such observations Turnbull's conclusion is hard to accept.
     One may wonder, on the other hand, just how advanced Turnbull's own knowledge of the fauna and flora of Ik territory was. As far as I was able to ascertain, only three names of plants are mentioned in his work. One is the 'sim tree', which, he says, is useful for its bark (Turnbull, 1974: 198). There is no tree called sim in Ik. The word sim rather means string or rope, which are both made from a large variety of plants. Another one he refers to as 'a special Pirre tree called mos' (Turnbull, 1974: 161). He probably means musa (Euphorbia candelabrum), which is certainly not a special Pirre tree, since it is perhaps the most characteristic plant of the entire Ik country and is common all over East Africa. Its ashes are used by the Ik as their preferred fertilizer for tobacco fields. The third is 'adokana: palm tree providing fruit eaten by elephant' (Turnbull, 1974: 244). There is a word ŋí'dukan in Ik, borrowed from Karimojong, which denotes the borassus palm (Borassus aethiopum). Probably more than by elephants, its fruit are favoured by the Ik themselves, who consider them a delicacy.
     Turnbull mentions that, in addition to hunting and gathering, the Ik derive an income from selling information on cattle raids to the Turkana, Dodos and Jie. He concludes that they live 'as parasites on the neighbouring herding tribes', 'frequently doing a double deal by selling information concerning the raid to the proposed victims'. He concludes that the Ik 'are very much of an administrative headache', and that the administration therefore attempts to resettle them to an area where 'they would be less able to intrigue' (Turnbull, 1967: 68; 1974: 124; 1976: 260).
     The Ik, unlike most other people in those parts of Uganda, Kenya and Sudan, maintain friendly relations with all their neighbours. While it is conceivable that they pass information from one people to another, they certainly do not do 'a lively business as spies and guides'. The monthly reports of the Dodoth County Chief and the files of the Administrator in Moroto between 1963 and 1969 suggest that the largest number of cattle raids occurred in parts of Dodoth County, where any involvement of the Ik can be ruled out. There is not a single mention of the Ik with reference to livestock raiding and hence no indication of them forming an 'administrative headache'. The only 'headache' that the Ik may have caused during this period was in 1963, when fifty-four Ik living in Lotukei, Sudan, wanted to be repatriated to Uganda. After a lengthy correspondence between the Administrator in Moroto and the Local Government Inspector, Kapoeta, these Ik were returned to Uganda and arrived at Pirre on 4 September 1963. They had left Uganda in 1961-62 in fear of Turkana raids. Once more, it remains unclear on what evidence Turnbull's findings are based. His claim that the Ik do 'double deals' (see especially Turnbull, 1974: 124) appears particularly strange. They are well aware that this would amount almost to self-extermination, since their much more powerful neighbours have enough direct lines of communication. Once they learnt about the Ik doing double deals they most likely would take bloody revenge.


Turnbull's observations on Ik social structure equally turn out to be at variance with our own findings.
     He notes, for example, that the word for the compound gate of a village, asak, also denotes an individual family, while odok refers to the gate between different family compounds, as well as to village entrances and to the group of families sharing one outer entrance (Turnbull, 1974: 96). I have not been able to confirm this. As with most other linguistic data, he failed to provide adequate translations for the Ik terms he used. asaka does not denote a gate but rather the entrance to any roofed structure, in particular house doors or openings of granaries, whereas the word for (nuclear) family is tsá'dí-ékwa ('eye of fire'). ódoka, on the other hand, refers to any gate, be it the compound gate, the gate between different compounds, the village entrance, or the gate of animal enclosures. In their transferred meanings, however, asaka and ódoka are used as synonyms: both denote the agnatic lineage, up to its widest extent, the exogamous patrician.
     The Ik are divided into twelve such clans:
 1.  Sigetíá I  7.  *Ŋí'dɔtsa
 2.  Sigetíá II  8.  Talεki I
 3.  Komokua I  9.  Talεki II
 4.  Komokua II  10. Ga'dukúnv 
 5.  *Nyɔrɔbata 11. *Ŋíbɔŋrana
 6.  Iléŋiika 12. Uzεte
This order largely reflects the relative sizes of clans. While Sigetíá I appears to have the largest membership, Uzεte consists of four families only. Sigetíá and Komokua are said to have split into two separate clans each because of the large number of families they contained, while it was a food taboo that is claimed to have been responsible for the split of Talεki: whereas members of Talεki I do not eat spleen, those of Talεki II do. The latter are also referred to by the Karimoj'ong name' ni-nyama-tid ('those who eat spleen').
     Information received from elders in Timu suggests that the Sigetíá originate from Oribo, while the Iléŋiika, *Ŋí'dɔtsa and Uzεte used to live at Loitanit, and the *Nyɔrɔbata, Talεki, Ga'dukúnv and *Ŋíbɔŋrana at Kalepeto. According to Turnbull (1974: 154), there are four original clan settlement areas: Loitanet, Kalepeto, Niagum and Lomil. The Komokua are said to have been scattered between Loitanit and Kalepeto. Oral traditions of the Napore people (northern Nyangiya mountains) indicate that their ancestors included a people called ŋi-komokwa. Modern clan distribution shows no significant territorial bias, except for one remarkable exception: the Uzεte are confined to the Timu area.
     While The Mountain People contains hardly any information on clan structure, six clan names are listed (Turnbull, 1967: 70). Turnbull states that the Ik name for clan is bonit (Turnbull, 1974: 133), which is not entirely wrong, since bonita denotes the mother's patrician, to which exogamy applies as well. His claim, however, that 'women invariably give the clan membership of their husband, and at times seem genuinely unable to recall their own patrilineally inherited clan membership' (Turnbull, 1967: 71) strongly contradicts my own observations. Although her children belong to her husband's clan, a woman retains her clan membership even after marrying. All women interviewed, both young and old, were able to recall the name of their father's clan. It would be surprising indeed if they could not, since this is their own clan as well.
     Only one specific type of social organization based on age is discussed in Turnbull's work: a division of boys into junior and senior bands (Turnbull, 1974: 113-16). It frequently happens that boys unite for hunting and/or gathering trips, but there are no restrictions on age or the number of participants. I did not find any evidence that such bands exist, or ever existed. Persons who were children at the time Turnbull stayed in Pirre were unaware that there might have been organized bands, and so were their parents.
     On the other hand, Turnbull failed to notice that there are indeed age-based institutions which are vital for an understanding of Ik social relations. The main ones involve rites de passage and relate to men only: ipéyé-és and tasapeti. Ipéyé-és marks the initiation to manhood. The candidate is required to spear a big he-goat from the right side. If either the spear point comes out on the opposite side or the animal does not die instantly, another goat is to be provided and the procedure repeated. Ipéyé-és is preceded by the extraction of two lower incisors, which takes place between the age of twelve and eighteen and is obligatory for boys and girls.
     More important, however, is tasapeti, the initiation to elderhood. It is the elders who decide on whom to admit to this rite de passage and at what time, according to certain general rules. For example, a man is not eligible for tasapeti unless all his older brothers have undergone it (see below). Once a man has been admitted, his front hair is shaved and he is taken into the bush, where he has to stay for roughly a month under the supervision of selected elders. Ik elders are worried about the future of this institution, in particular since killing a bull, which is an indispensible part of tasapeti becomes increasingly difficult in view of the extraordinary prices they have to pay in order to acquire cattle from their Turkana or Dodos neighbours.
     But up to now tasapeti has not lost its importance. It determines a man's position in society, what political and social influence he has, where he sits and when he is allowed to eat, drink or address others during public functions. Men who have undergone tasapeti are in a distinctly privileged situation vis-a-vis the rest of society. No major decision can be made without their consent, and they are able to curse people who question their authority. That the Ik cannot curse, as Turnbull (1974: 167} claims, is certainly inaccurate. Among the cases of cursing that our informants listed there were some that took place during the time Turnbull stayed with the Ik. Most of them relate to younger people behaving disrespectfully to elders. The curse can be averted only if a sacrifice to be determined by the elders is made. It usually consists of beer, honey or even a goat.
     The time one undergoes tasapeti determines what age group one is allocated to. The age groups are referred to by animal names: Vervet monkey (ka'dokóí), Eland (basawúrré), Ostrich (lεwεny), Buffalo (gasara), Giraffe (*gwεεts'a). Grant's gazelle (kodowa) and Ox (rágwa). There is a special relationship between an age group and the animal whose name it carries. There is, for example, a taboo on hunting that animal. However, if members of another age group kill the animal, it can be claimed from them and eaten ceremonially.
     As long as men have not yet undergone tasapeti they are treated as junior members of their father's age group. There is remarkable solidarity uniting the members of an age group, which is considered by some to be as strong as kinship ties. Offences committed by one person are usually blamed on the entire age group, and the age group therefore takes a keen interest in the behaviour of individual members.


Turnbull has not much to report on marriage. He tells us that the Ik practise a marriage by capture; that he witnessed only one marriage, which broke down within a week; that adulterers used to be burnt but that adultery is nowadays almost universally practised; and that wife-beating, executed in two different varieties, is considered a 'splendid pastime' (Turnbull, 1974: 105-6, 138-42, 216). It would seem that there are a few other aspects of married life which Turnbull failed to record; I will briefly sketch some of them.
     Marriage by capture does in fact occur, but it is rarely practised. Usually marriage negotiations are entered into only when all the parents concerned have indicated their approval. Already when she is between seven and ten years a girl may be given a bracelet as a sign of engagement. From then onwards she is watched by her future husband, e.g. to prevent her from meeting other boys. The amount of brideprice paid varies, but is usually the same as that paid for the girl's mother. The boy's obligations include working for his future parents-in-law, clearing, weeding or cultivating their fields. He is assisted by his brothers and friends, whom he provides with agricultural tools, food and drinks.
     Marriage starts with a ceremony called tsáŋ-és ('smearing'). The girl is handed over by her parents, or captured in cases where no agreement was reached (see above). Seated next to each other, arm in arm, the couple are rubbed with oil by an elderly woman in charge of tsáŋ-és. The next morning this woman leads the bridegroom to a tree and he is asked to throw a spear at it. If he misses he is said to become a poor hunter. The bride is directed by the woman to grind grain and to cook for the bridegroom's family, one calabash for the old men, another for the old women, another for relatives and friends and a portion for her intended husband and herself - the remainder being given to the children.
     During the following days and weeks the bride is supposed to serve her husband's clan. She is told to fetch water, collect firewood and to help the other women with their domestic duties. This is a period when her ability to get along with her husband's clan is tested. She may be slapped if she does not work hard or behaves disrespectfully.
     The second part of the marriage ceremonies is devoted to strengthening the social ties between the families and clans concerned. Equipped with a bull, a goat, corn and fried meal for brewing beer, the bridegroom's family pay a visit to the girl's parents. They are welcomed with beer, and the same evening a discussion takes place where any problems between the two families are settled. The following day the bridegroom's family brew beer and slaughter the animals they have brought. After two or three days the visit ends and the bride is escorted by her sisters to her new home.
     With this visit, wedding ceremonies in the narrow sense (buk'a) are completed. There are, however, some subsequent ceremonies which serve mainly to integrate the new couple into Ik society, in particular:
     íd-itín ('breasts'), also referred to as payment for touching the bride's breasts. The husband has to please the members of his age group by serving them food. Failure to do so would mean that his wife did not produce enough milk to feed her children.
     nyalakutsa. The husband has to slaughter a cow or a goat, or, if he is unable to raise any, to brew beer for the people of his home area, i.e. his own as well as the neighbouring villages.
     deka. The husband has to slaughter a goat for the age group of his father and his father-in-law.
     k'waz ('clothes'). Beer is brewed in the homes of both families concerned and exchanged between them. Old women sew a back apron from goatskins for the young wife.
     *nyε'díá. This is the last ceremony, by which the husband shows his gratitude to the people of his own village for having assisted him. He provides them with beer and/or honey, or even a goat.
The brideprice is delivered in instalments. Since a man is not expected to complete brideprice payments before all his elder brothers have done so, this may take quite a number of years.
     Contrary to Turnbull's claims, adultery is, and has always been, extremely rare. According to my informants, there was only one case during the roughly two years Turnbull stayed in Pirre. Adulterers have to provide a bull and are smeared with the contents of its stomach; they may even be beaten in public. All Ik elders interviewed stated that there are no indications whatsoever in the oral traditions to suggest that adulterers were burnt in the past. Furthermore, Turnbull's remark that wife-beating by means of thorny branches was used as a preliminary to divorce (Turnbull, 1974: 138-9) was considered by them as horrifying fiction. If a man is dissatisfied with his wife's behaviour he will invariably consult his parents-in-law.5 He may send her back to her family for some time, and if, after returning, she does not change her behaviour, he may initiate a divorce. The use of thorny branches as a means of solving marital problems is unknown among the Ik. Conceivably Turnbull got this information from his various non-Ik informants.


I have given some examples which suggest that Turnbull's work is a dubious source on Ik culture and social structure. Many more could be added. In the remainder of this article I wish to consider what seem to be the main sources of the shortcomings of his book.
     One of them relates to language. When interviewing the Ik I found it hard, sometimes even impossible, to find out what the Ik terms he gives stand for. Most sentences and words are either wrongly transcribed or wrongly translated, or both. This applies, for example, to personal names, e.g. (Turnbull's spelling in brackets) Nyekibe (Lokwimé), Lobok (Lokbo'ok), Amurukwara (Amuarkar), Lowar (Logwara), Lojore (Lojieri), Lourien (Lorijin), Ng'iriko (Giriko), Kinume (Kinimei).
     Usually one of the first things an anthropologist in the field learns is the greetings. Turnbull made an effort, but with limited success. He notes, for example, that 'the common, everyday greeting' is ida piaji (Turnbull, 1974: 246). The Ik have a wide range of greeting forms, depending in particular on the time of the day. One of them is i-ída? ('Are you [all right]?'), to which one replies, i-ída 'bia 'jí? ('Are you [all right] as well?'). It is probably the latter which he calls the 'traditional' or 'common, everyday greeting'. It would seem that for all the two years he lived among the Ik he was not aware that he was greeting them with a reply to a greeting, furthermore with one which is used neither during the morning (ep-ída) nor during the afternoon hours (iria-ída).
     What he calls Jakite, the Dodos chief (Turnbull, 1974: 132), turns out to be jakait, the title of any sub-county chief; 'mountain people' are not called kwarikik (Turnbull, 1974: 39, 134) but rather kwár-íká-ika, and koromot is not 'the traditional beehive-shaped Ik hut' (Turnbull, 1974: 24) but the name the Ik use for the Toposa, their north-eastern neighbours.
     Cases like these appear insignificant compared with those that are meant to convey some information on Ik culture or social structure. We are told, for example, that there is gor, the soul, which 'flies past the moon that is good and the sun that is bad, and on to the stars, where the abang have their eternal existence' (Turnbull, 1974: 161-2). We are furthermore informed that 'A soul is round and red, but it has no arms or legs. It rests somewhere in the vicinity of the stomach ...' (Turnbull, 1974: 161). This is hardly surprising, since gor (more precisely gora) is the Ik word for heart, which is occasionally used to mean 'spirit', 'soul'. That gor is able to fly to the stars where the abang live is, however, a strange idea to the Ik. The word aban means 'my father' and in no way refers to 'ancestors' or 'ancestral spirits', as Turnbull (1974: 153, 167) claims. There is no proper word for 'ancestors'. Occasionally they are referred to as bɔbá-Ín ('our grandfathers'), although this term also includes living persons. Dead people are buried together with their gura, and if they are to be found anywhere, then it is down in the earth. I have found no indication of Ik believing that their ancestors and/or their souls travel all the way to the stars.
     Another term to which he attributes some importance is what he calls anazé, the elder (Turnbull, 1974: 133). I have looked in vain for such a word in the Ik language. Most probably he means ama ná zea ('big person*), which simply refers to any grown-up or adult person. There is another word, ámá-ze-áám, which has roughly the same meaning but may also be used to refer to respected persons such as distinguished visitors or village heads. Neither term, however, means 'elder'. The word for 'elder', which has a significant social meaning, is 'jak-áám, pl. 'jaka. It appears nowhere in Turnbull's work.
     In much the same way as his treatment of language, his description of personalities is suggestive of a highly superficial and in many cases distorted analysis. I shall confine myself to two typical examples.
     Turnbull's comments on Ik leadership include the following (Turnbull, 1974: 132): 'Both Atum and his brother Yakuma had served as mkungu. The present mkungu was Longoli; he had no children, and he was popular because he was content to live with the Dodos in Kasilé and to leave his people as much alone as possible.' Now Yakuma (more correctly: Nyakuma) has never been mkungu, i.e. parish chief. Pilipino Long'oli, on the other hand, the then parish chief, was not childless but had two wives and three children when Turnbull visited him in Kasilé; one of his sons, Marco Lomeri, was already in Standard II of Kamion Primary School. Long'oli stayed at Kasilé only for roughly three months, and there was a good reason for doing so. While Kaabong was the famine relief centre for Timu, all Ik people of the Kamion and Pirre areas received their famine relief from Kasilé. By supervising the distribution of food in Kasilé, a Dodos village, Long'oli was able to make sure that his people received a fair share of it.
     On Nang'oli, Lolem's6 daughter, Turnbull reports:
There had been a big fight when she had accused someone of stealing her tobacco, and the police had had to intervene. Everyone blamed Nangoli for starting it, and since she refused to defend herself the police had to send her to Kaabong. To keep her there the Ik added accusations that she was a witch and was cursing them and their fields so that they would all die. [Turnbull, 1974, 223-4]
     My informants described this account simply as nonsense, with one exception. Nang'oli was indeed imprisoned in Kaabong, though for a quite different reason: she was caught by game rangers near Koculut in Kidepo National Park when on a gathering trip and arrested for entering the park without lawful authority. The same, however, happened to many other residents of Pirre, including its Ik headman.
     Another shortcoming that Turnbull's work appears to suffer from can be seen in his readiness to use some casual observation in order to construct customs, habits and social institutions. Some examples have been offered; here is another. He notes that Ik fields are 'only farmed for two years or so at a time', and that three years 'is the maximum life an Ik village can expect' (Turnbull, 1967: 64; 1974: 96). There are no general rules regarding any of these. Depending on rainfall, soil fertility or the owner's inclination, fields may be allowed to lie fallow after one year or may be cultivated successively for six years, as is not uncommon in the high-altitude regions of Timu. The same applies to villages. Some of them, like Nawa'dou, have lasted for over twenty years, while others have been abandoned after less than a year because they were infested by termites or lice, or because of the death of a prominent personality.


At first it was difficult to understand how Turnbull came to treat the Ik in his writings the way he did. The longer I was able to talk to the Ik about his work the more I got the impression that he tended to project his own feelings on to his research subjects. There are in fact some indications that what he claims to be typical Ik behaviour is rather an indication of his own mentality. For example, although dealing with a people he suspected to be hunter-gatherers his writings suggest that he was entirely ignorant of the plant and animal life of Ik country. Yet, as I have shown above, he concludes that it is not he himself but rather the Ik who are unfamiliar with their fauna and flora (Turnbull, 1967: 63). When he observes that for the Ik 'Misfortune of others was their greatest joy' one is reminded of passages like the following, his descriptions of his own feelings and behaviour, which seem to point to his own frustrations:
It was one of the few real pleasures I had, listening to his shrieking and yelling when they caught him and did whatever they did ... and then watching him come flying out of the odok holding his head and streaming with tears ... [Turnbull, 1974, 102]

... it was a pleasure to move rapidly ahead and leave Arum gasping behind so that we could be sitting at the di when he finally appeared and laugh at his discomfort. [Ibid., 178]

The unpleasantness of returning was somewhat alleviated by Atum's suffering on the way up the stony trail. Several times he slipped, which made Lojieri and me laugh ... [Ibid.]
     The frustrations he encountered among the Ik are described in great detail, but he goes on to note: 'For want of something to do, I used to measure the amount of rain that fell ... The exactness of detail was no measure of my academic zeal, simply of my own frustration and boredom' (Turnbull, 1974: 212). He describes the lack of mutual trust that he finds characteristic of the Ik, but he himself is not prepared to trust anybody, as sentences like the following suggest: 'I disbelieved every word of this on principle ...' (Turnbull, 1974: 228).
     The Ik are portrayed as a people lacking social integration, but if there is anyone who shows no interest in social integration it is Turnbull himself. He isolates himself behind a stockade 'even bigger and stronger than that of my neighbours' (Turnbull, 1974: 63), and 'I used to shut myself up in the Land-Rover again to cook my meals and to eat them there' (Turnbull, 1974: 79). It is not surprising, therefore, that my Ik informants frequently told me, 'He made his observations in the bush, not where people were.' To conclude, my observations have confirmed the claim made by Beidelman (1973: 171) in his review of The Mountain People:
This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this, is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.


     1 Quotations in the present article refer to the Picador edition of The Mountain People, published in 1974.
     2 Raised vowel symbols denote devoiced vowels.
     3 Most names appearing in Turnbull's writings are inadequately transcribed. His spellings are added in parentheses.
     4 The following observations are based essentially on a collect ion of texts supplemented by informant statements.
     5 More precisely his father-in-law. There are a number of taboos relating to the communication with his mother-in-law.
     6 Turnbull uses the incorrect spelling Lolim. Lolem is more widely remembered under the name Natúrim.


Barth, Fredrik. 1974. 'On responsibility and humanity. Calling a colleague to account,' Current Anthropology, March, 99-102.

Beidelman, T. O. 1973. Review of Colin M. Turnbull, The Mountain People, Africa, 43 (2), 170-1.

Ehret, Christopher. 1981. 'The classification of Kuliak', in T. C. Schadeberg and M. L. Bender (ed.), Nilo-Saharan. Proceedings of the First Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Colloquium, Leiden, 8-10 September, 1980, 269-90. Dordrecht and Cinnaminson: Foris Publications.

Greenberg, Joseph, H. 1963. The Languages of Africa. The Hague: Mouton.

Heine, Bernd. 1976. The Kuliak Languages of Eastern Uganda. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

Laughlin, Charles D. 1975. 'Lexicostatistics and the mystery of So ethnolinguistic relations', Anthropological Linguistics, 17, 325-41.

Spencer, Paul. 1973. Review of Colin M. Turnbull, The Mountain People, Man, N.S., 8 (4), 651-2.

Tucker, A. N. 1967a. 'Erythraic elements and patternings. Some East African findings', African Language Review, 6, 18-25.

------ 1967b. 'Fringe Cushitic. An experiment in typological comparison', Bulletin of SOAS, 30 (3), 655-80.

------ 1971-73. 'Notes on Ik', African Studies, 30, 341-54; 31, 183-201; 32, 33-48.

Turnbull, Colin M. 1961. The Forest People. Bungay, Suffolk: Chaucer Press.

------ 1966. 'The Ik. Mountain farmers', in Colin M. Turnbull (ed.), Tradition and Change in African Tribal Life, 119-36. Cleveland: World Publishing.

------ 1967. 'The Ik: alias the Teuso', Uganda Journal, 31 (1), 63-71.

------ 1968. 'The importance of flux in two hunting societies', in Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore (ed.), Man the Hunter, 132-7. Chicago.

------ 1974. The Mountain People. London: Pan Books (Picador edition). First published 1972, Bungay, Suffolk: Chaucer Press.

Wayland, E. J. 1931. 'Preliminary studies of the tribes of Karamoja', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 61, 187-230.

Winter, J. C., B. Groth, K. Heuser, H. Hoff and R. Vossen. 1975. 'Der soziale Untergang der Ik (Nord-Uganda) Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung' [The social decline of the Ik (northern Uganda) A critical approach], Internationales Afrikaforum, 12 (4), 344-58.


I wish to express my gratitude to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Society) for having sponsored this research, to the government of Uganda for having granted me research permission, and to the Ik for their patience and co-operation. Furthermore I feel deeply indebted to Johannes Fabian, Franz Rottland, Rainer Vossen, Derek Nurse, Mathias Brenzinger, H. Lang, Rolf Weber and Ulrike Claudi for valuable comments on an earlier version of the article.

The Mountain People: quelques observations sur les Ik d'Uganda du nord-est

Les Ik d'Uganda du nord-est ont acquis une large publicité grâce au livre de Colin M. Turnbull intitulé The Mountain People. Les recherches entreprises parmi les Ik par I'auteur en 1983, se concentrant sur l'étude de leur langue, suggèrent que les publications de Turnbull présentent une vue quelque peu érronée sur la culture et la société Ik. Le but principal de cet article est de corriger un certain nombre de constatations faites dans ces publications. Les recherches de Turnbull ont souffert d'un certain nombre de conditions défavorables. Pirre, la location où il a éfféctué la plupart de ses recherches, comprenait au cours de certaines périodes plus d'habitants non-Ik que Ik, et certains de ses informateurs sur la vie sociale et culturelle Ik étaient des Diding'a plutôt que des Ik.
     Turnbull a assumé qu'il s'agissait d'un peuple traditionnel chasseur-ramasseur. II y a par contre un certain nombre d'évidences qui démontre que l'agriculture a toujours été l'une des activités économiques principals des Ik. Sa description de la structure sociale et des institutions socio-culturelles est soit fragmentaire ou déformée. Certains des traits majeures de la vie sociale des Ik ne sont même pas mentionnés dans son ouvrage. Sa description de personnalités Ik figurant dans son livre a très peu en commun avec celle que I'auteur a rencontré au cours de ses propres recherches parmi les Ik.
     Une évaluation globale de 1'ouvrage de Turnbull suggère qu'il a tendu a projeter ses sentiments personnels sur ses sujets de recherche et que la plupart de ses constatations et conclusions sont par conséquent fortement partiales. Grand besoin est d'effectuer une analyse plus complète el moins subjective de la société Ik.

The Collapse of Complex Societies 1988 excerpts, Joseph Tainter, 1988.

pp 17-18

The Ik

The Ik are a people of northern Uganda who live at what must surely be the extreme of deprivation and disaster. A largely hunting and gathering people who have in recent times practiced some crop planting, the Ik are not classifiable as a complex society in the sense of Chapter 2. They are, nonetheless, a morbidly fascinating case of collapse in which a former, low level of social complexity has essentially disappeared. Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be considered societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don't form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can't build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident.

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child's food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

Although little is known about how the Ik got to their present situation, there are some indications of former organizational patterns. They possess clan names, although today these have no structural significance. They live in villages, but these no longer have any political meaning. The traditional authority structure of family, lineage, and clan leaders has been progressively weakened. It appears that a former level of organization has simply been abandoned by the Ik as unprofitable and unsuitable in their present distress (Turnbull 1978).

p 210

Faced with such an array of imposing problems, and constantly bombarded with media attention to these and other dilemmas, people are naturally concerned. For reasons that are more or less rational, a respectable segment of the population of Western industrial societies fears that one or several of these factors will bring a breakdown and a new dark age. Only a veneer of complexity lies between us and the primordial chaos, it is thought, the Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all. A considerable level of political activity results from such fears, and both national priorities and international policies are to a significant degree influenced by this popular concern. Some people store food or dig fallout shelters, in expectation of the failure of a political process to resolve the situation. Others go to greater lengths, stockpiling weapons and conducting paramilitary training, even engaging in military games, in anticipation of the day when the ghost of Hobbes emerges, when we are all reduced to the conditions of the Ik.

In the arms of Africa: the life of Colin M. Turnbull excerpt, Roy Richard Grinker, 2000.

The Edge of Humanity

"IN WHAT FOLLOWS, THERE WILL BE MUCH TO SHOCK." When Colin Turnbull wrote these words he could not have been more right. The Mountain People, based on Turnbull's fieldwork in Uganda in 1965 and 1966, is a frightening book about the Ik (pronounced "eek"), a group of 2,000 starving and hostile hunters. It remains one of the most controversial and commercially successful books in the history of anthropology. By the time of Colin's second appearance on Dick Cavett's television show in 1973, the book was selling more than one thousand copies a week, and as a result of the publicity, sales of The Forest People, which had been a best-seller on and off for more than a decade, jumped to as high as five thousand copies per week. The same year, the purchase of film rights for The Mountain People was negotiated and the famous director Peter Brook, then head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, began to adapt the book for the theater.
          Graham Greene praised Michael Korda and Colin for their courage; Margaret Mead called it "beautiful"; and reviews in Life and the New York Times saw the work as a powerful commentary on the human capacity for evil. Others called it "unethical" or "dangerous," and in The New York Times Book Review a reviewer called Colin "deranged." A year after publication, one anthropologist called for a professional censure of Colin and his book. Fredrik Earth led the attack and wrote that The Mountain People was "dishonest," "grossly irresponsible and harmful," and threatened the "hygiene" of the discipline.
          The story of the research behind the book takes us into one of the most harrowing experiences of Colin's life, into a world of human cruelty and despair. The public reception of the book, published much later in 1973, leads us into the troublesome and age-old questions of what makes us human and who has the right to decide who is human.
          In Colin's second year in Uganda, as the Ik enjoyed a better harvest and regained some strength, Colin wrote from the field to his boss, Harry Shapiro, at the American Museum of Natural History: "It has been a Hitchcock thriller at its nastiest, watching these poor starving sweet little grey-haired old men and women, on the point of death, having been abandoned by all their children (as indeed was all the case) slowly reacting to the improved food supply. They still look sweet and charming, even as they tear each other to shreds with their new-found strength. Thank heavens they were starving last year, for the unfolding vision of the Ik in full possession of all their faculties is too ghastly to contemplate! There are still a few starving, and likely to starve to death, the very old and the very young. Each have to scavenge for their food as best they can ... leaves of wild plants, a few figs, and an indigestible elephant fruit. But let them beware if their healthier relatives catch them. There is one slightly mental little old lady ... wizened and shrunk and terrified. I have seen her chance on a fig and even as she was picking it up be attacked by a gang of youths and have it snatched from her, and the youths far from starving."
          Colin would eventually call the Ik "sub-humans" and call for the destruction of their culture. "To enter any village," he wrote in 1966, "is like entering an open graveyard, skeletons crawling about to try to pick up a grain that has fallen from the baskets of their healthy offspring." Colin would never be the same; neither would his readers or the scientific community.


No comments: