Sunday, August 20, 2006

BOOK: Colin Turnbull, "The Mountain People"

Colin Turnbull: The Mountain People. London: Triad/Paladin, 1984. (First ed.: New York: Simon and Schuster, and London: Jonathan Cape, 1972.) 0586084886. 253 pp.

This book is about the Ik people, who live (or used to live when the book was written — I don't know whether they still do) in northern Uganda, near the border with Kenya. They used to be a perfectly ordinary tribe of migratory hunter/gatherers, but at some point most of the territory where they had been used to roam was declared to be part of a national park and, in order to protect the wildlife there, its human inhabitants such as the Ik were forbidden from living or hunting in the park any more.

They had little choice but to embark on a more settled way of life. What was left of their traditional range was a largely mountainous area where they now started to build semi-permanent villages (usually abandoned after a few years, and a new village built not very far from the old one) and rely on farming to a much greater extent than before. But the area was not fertile enough; every four years or so there was a severe drought (ch. 5, p. 117), and sometimes there were such droughts for several years in a row. Years upon years of permanent scarcity exerted a relentless pressure upon them, turning their lives into nothing but a ceaseless struggle for survival.

Under this pressure, their society eventually disintegrated. What remained was little but a mass of supremely selfish individuals to whom most of the principles that we naively imagine to be universally human, e.g. the notion that parents should look after their children, or that people should help their close friends and relatives, seemed simply absurd.

A transformation like this is, of course, somewhat shocking; one would hardly expect that a whole tribe, a formerly quite viable society, could go down the drain like this. This is what makes this book so interesting and worth reading. But there are also other interesting things besides the description of Ik society; the author's travels throught he land of the Ik, the beautiful mountainous scenery, his efforts to establish good contacts with the Ik and become familiar with their society, the neighbouring tribes, the Police Post, the incessant cattle raids — all in all it's an interesting view of what sort of things an anthropologist's field work in Africa may consist of (or may have consisted of, a few decades ago, but probably much remains the same).

One also appreciates the style in which the book is written: the author simply describes what he has seen and experienced, without unnecessary wringing of hands or passing judgment on the Ik. In fact he doesn't hesitate to admit that given the circumstances in which the Ik found themselves, the path they took was logical and natural and the one by which each individual tried to maximize his or her own survival. Here's an illustrative comment on the way people stopped caring not only for the elderly, but even for their children: “there simply was not room, in the life of these people, for such luxuries as family and sentiment and love. [. . .] The children were as useless as the aged, or nearly so; as long as you keep the breeding group alive you can always get more children. So let the old go first, then the children. Anything else is racial suicide, and the Ik, I almost regret to say, are anything but suicidal.” (Ch. 5, pp. 108–9.)

“For those positive qualities we value so highly are no longer functional for the Ik; even more than in our own society they spell ruin and disaster. It seems that, far from being basic human qualities, they are superficial luxuries we can afford in times of plenty, or mere mechanisms for survival and security. Given the situation in which the Ik found themselves as I headed toward them, man has not time for such luxuries, and a much more basic man appears, using much more basic survival tactics.” (Ch. 1, p. 27.)

“[T]here is one common value, apart from language, to which all Ik hold tenaciously. It is ngag, ‘food.’ This is not a cynical quip — there is no room for cynicism with the Ik. It is clearly stated by the Ik themselves in their daily conversation, in their rationale for action and thought.” (Ch. 6, p. 112.)

Parents kick their children out of the house at the age of three. Children from age three to seven live in ‘bands’ of 6–12 children, in which a newcomer of course begins on the lowest rung and then gradually progresses as he or she grows older. In the end his or her next younger colleagues kick him or her out of the band, and he or she has to join a new band consisting of children age eight to thirteen, where he or she is again the youngest and thus least important member. At thirteen or so he or she is again kicked out by his or her next younger colleagues, and from then one is an adult. “These friendships [between children of similar age in a band] are temporary, however, and inevitably there comes a time, the time of transition, when each turns on the one that up to then has been the closest to him; that is the rite de passage, the destruction of that fragile bond called friendship. When this has happened to you three or four times you are ready for the world, knowing friendship for the joke it is.” (Ch. 6, p. 114.) “For most the plump years, the stomach-filled years, the good years, were between about fifteen and nineteen&rdquo (ch. 9, p. 191).

This weakening of social ties doesn't mean that there is absolutely no cooperation between individuals; they have a system of mutual obligations where doing one person a favour makes the recipient ‘indebted’, meaning he must repay you the favour when you ask him to. But since he doesn't want to be indebted in this way, he'd often really rather prefer that you not help him. But since you want him to be indebted to you in this way, you try to help him in such a way that he cannot refuse... “[A]nd so you have the odd phenomenon of these otherwise singularly self-interested people going out of their way to ‘help’ each other. In point of fact they are helping themselves, and their help may very well be resented in the extreme, but is done in such a way that it cannot be refused, for it has already been given. Someone, quite unasked, may hoe another's field in his absence,” etc. (ch. 6, p. 121).

In a harsh life like this, people age quickly. At twelve or thirteen, one is grown-up; “a happy man in his late middle age, which is to say he was in his early twenties” (ch. 3, p. 68). “Giriko at twenty-five was forty, Atum at forty was sixty-five, and the very oldest, perhaps a bare fifty, were centenarians.” (Ch. 9, p. 190.) This reminds me of a shocking scene from some Holocaust-memoir type of book I once read, but I forget which one (perhaps The House of Dolls), where a high-school girl ends up in a concentration camp relatively late in the war; at some point she has a conversation with another inmate, an elderly grey-haired woman — and it turns out that they are the same age, only that the second woman had been in the camp since the first days of the war.

There are many heart-rending scenes of people meeting their end in this most selfish of societies, where the old and weak would end up being the butt of everybody's jokes and have the food stolen out of their very mouths. The plates are also quite touching, as are the curiously terse and matter-of-fact captions next to them. “Blind Logwara . . . when he tried to reach a dead hyena for a share of the putrid meat, his fellow Ik trampled him underfoot. He thought it quite funny.” “Losiké in happier days, still active as a potter. In a few months she was, like all useless things, to be abandoned to her fate.” Most of the Ik shown in the plates came to a sad end.

Ch. 7, p. 138 has some curious facts about “the splendid pastime of wife beating, which, surprisingly, among the Ik follows a formal procedure”.

Ch. 5 also describes their marriage customs. The bride had to be ‘captured’, although the thing was really agreed upon in advance. “The time was invariably the evening, to give the cover of darkness. The opportunity offered itself when the girl to be captured left the outer stockade, after dark, for a final defecation. [. . .] At this rather delicate moment she was seized and made off with” (p. 106).

The Ik seem to be the ultimate libertarians. “It is certainly difficult, through a study of Icien behavior, to establish any rules of conduct that could be called social, the prime maxim of all Ik being that each man should do what he wants to do, that he should do anything else only if he is forced to.” (Ch. 8, p. 152.)

They had formerly had some religious beliefs, but most of that was gone during the disintegration of their society. “There was an undeniable contrast between the reverence shown by the old for tales of long ago, including those of Didigwari [a sky god], and the total lack of interest among the young.” (Ch. 8, p. 158.) (This reminds me of a similar difference between the young and old in WW2-era Ukraine, observed by Malaparte in his Volga Rises in Europe, see e.g. ch. 16 there.) They used to have ritual priests, the last of which, Lolim, died, old, weak, denied food or shelter by his children, while Turnbull was there (ch. 8, pp. 165–70). Turnbull and a colleague later tried to help Lolim's widow, which moved her to tears: “she was crying, she said, because all of a sudden we had reminded her that there had been a time when people had helped each other, when people had been kind and good” (ch. 9, pp. 187–8).

Their views on sex: “It was even unique to her [Nangoli's] family that sex should be an occasion for pleasure, for it was more commonly and openly referred to as a necessary chore, and mildly pleasurable, like defecation.” (Ch. 10, p. 208.) Men often considered it a waste of money, as “[f]or the girls it was their major asset, and they were not going to dispose of it wastefully. The second factor was the expenditure of energy involved, and the young men, the only ones smitten by this ridiculous urge, pointed out that it required much less energy to masturbate.” (Ch. 10, p. 209.)

This will illustrate the kind of climate the Ik had to deal with: on one “particularly good night” there were two rainstorms, the first lasting ten seconds, the other thirty-two seconds (ch. 10, p. 212).

On the Ik language: “Archie Tucker, the English linguist, accepted an invitation to come up and see just what this extraordinary language was, for it certainly was not Sudanic or Bantu. Archie finally pronounced, with no little satisfaction, that the nearest language he could find to this one was classical Middle-Kingdom Egyptian!” (Ch. 2, p. 35.) And one of the Ik with whom Turnbull had the most dealings is named Atum (“another tantalizing connection with ancient Egypt!”, ch. 3, p. 53). I wonder if it's true, and if yes, how did a pocket of speakers of Eyptian get so far south, and how it managed to preserve itself throughout so many centuries.

The disintegration of Ik society was not a sudden process. It took some time before the old people died, the ones who could still remember the times when people would occasionally help each other or do something at least moderately altruistic. But once this process was complete, it seems that there is no way back (ch. 9, p. 192).

Near the end of the book, the author mentions a famine relief effort organized by the government. Food was provided for everyone, but the government only transported it as far as the nearest town. The strong and healthy Ik could get there from their villages and were supposed to pick up the food not just for themselves but for their weak, elderly, or ill relatives as well and carry it to them. But almost without exception this idea of bringing food to a weak or elderly person struck them as absurd, as a laughable waste of food, and they would routinely stuff themselves full of it on the way home, even to the point of vomiting, rather than bringing any of it to their starving neighbours and relatives (ch. 11, pp. 232–3).

Turnbull ends with a very bleak view on the future of the Ik: after this disintegration of their society, there is no doubt that they will eventually die out if left to themselves; and as there seems to be no practicable way to help them rebuild their society, Turnbull suggests that it might be best if they were divided into small random groups and forcibly resettled, so that they would lose their identity and merge into the still normally functioning societies among whom they would be settled. But he realizes that this sort of thing couldn't be done, as it would cause an outcry among the human rights organizations (ch. 11, pp. 233–6). Now that more than 30 years have passed since this book was written, whatever was destined to be the fate of the Ik has probably already played itself out; but I wonder what it was.

Of course, a question one can hardly help wondering about when hearing of something like the Ik is whether anything similar could also happen to our modern society. Unfortunately, what Turnbull offers on this subject (ch. 12) is little more than a few generalized rants against modern society. From them it isn't quite clear what specifically it is that bothers him, why he feels that those developments suggest that our society may be disintegrating among similar lines than that of the Ik, what he feels to be the causes of this supposed disintegration (as there clearly is, in the modern world as a whole, no such extreme scarcity of food as the Ik had been subject to), and why he feels (as it seems clear he does) that further disintegration of our society along those lines is so very likely. Perhaps his rants and doomsday-mongering are simply an artefact of the period in which his book was written; the late 60s and early 70s were no doubt a turbulent period, especially in the U.S. (where the author lived and worked when he wasn't doing fieldwork).

As for me, I agree that some amount of disintegration of society clearly is going on, and has been going on for decades before Turnbull's book was written as well as in the three or so decades since it has been written. But at the same time we haven't seen this process go as far as it has in the case of the Ik, nor does it seem likely to go so far in the foreseeable future. We may be more individualistic now than people were fifty or a hundred years ago, but we are not completely oblivious to the notions of kinship, friendship, affection, and so on.

Most of us in the at least moderately developed world live only in relative scarcity, not absolute one. That is, I'm neither starving nor naked, and I own a computer and a bicycle and could even buy a car if I wanted one. But I want, of course, more than that; one wants an SUV, a gigantic plasma TV, a villa, an exotic holiday; things some people have, but most of us don't: that is relative scarcity. I suspect that complete disintegration of society the way we saw in the case of the Ik is only possible in conditions of absolute scarcity, not only relative scarcity such as we have now.

And our society functions entirely on relative scarcity: the basic needs of most people are met, and they therefore have the time to contemplate other less necessary wishes; and the whole of the capitalist economy is based on the process of encouraging these wholly unnecessary desires, so that people buy all sorts of unnecessary products and services: and to earn the money with which to pay for them, they seek jobs, in the process of which they simultaneously create these unnecessary products and services and, most important of all, enrich the capitalists — which is of course the motivation for this whole vicious cycle.

Thus, as long as our present lamentable capitalist system persists, we will probably have as much relative scarcity as possible, but no more of absolute scarcity than is inevitable. Therefore I don't doubt that disintegration of society will continue (it's in the interests of the capitalist class after all — weak, disconnected individuals are more easily made insecure through advertising and thus induced to buy unnecessary products and services), but not quite along the same lines as that of the Ik.


  • For more examples of how societies can collapse due to environmental reasons, see Jared Diamond's excellent book Collapse. Although Diamond doesn't mention the Ik, they are an illustrative example of how dramatic, and how irreversible, the social consequences of extreme environmental pressure can be.

  • Earlier in his career, Turnbull had done a lot of work among the Congo pygmies, and wrote a book about them, The Forest People. This also sounds potentially interesting.


Blogger Sir G said...

Thanks for linking -- i've just linked back.

What an interesting blog you run -- a sort ill-advised review of books (or ill-advised books?) :) It so happens many of them are books I would have read myself; or actually -- like this one -- wanted to read for a long time but was unable to locate (its hard to locate specific books while travellingin in the third world). I am grateful to you for this review -- it's the next best thing to reading the original.

I am not sure that I agree with your remarks about disintegration of our society (whatever that is): Americans are the most helpful people I have ever known -- and consummate favor traders. (But perhaps that is a sign of disintegration, what do i know: part of the problem is that it is not clearly stated). I am also not sure that disintegration is helpful to capitalists any more than integration. Here in Thailand people wear yellow shirts on Mondays to express their support for the monarchy (we have a good king). Some capitalist is making money off that -- so in this case, it is to a capitalist's benefit that the society is integrated. But hey, that's not as important as the fact that you run a great -- and useful -- blog. For which I thank you.

Sunday, August 27, 2006 2:34:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

its hard to locate specific books while travellingin in the third world

I get most of my books from eBay and; my impression is that most sellers who ship to Slovenia would also ship to Thailand, and PayPal is also available in Thailand. So maybe it's worth trying through these websites, as long as you have at least a moderately permanent address to which they can ship you the book.

But perhaps that is a sign of disintegration, what do i know: part of the problem is that it is not clearly stated

I agree, the notion of disintegration is somewhat unclear. I'm not particularly familiar with the American society, so I really shouldn't be criticizing it too much, and I certainly don't have any hard facts by which to judge how disintegrated it is. When I refer to disintegration, what I chiefly have in mind is the amount and strength of connections between people, and preferrably connections that are not based solely on economic or selfish motives, but on common interests and experiences and a shared feeling of belonging to some wider community or group of people.

I would suggest the following as signs that disintegration is taking place (and I admit upfront that I have no hard facts with which to back up the claim that these things are occurring at all): people know increasingly less of their relatives, especially outside the immediate family; and insofar as they do know them, the connections with these relatives are increasingly fragile and superficial; fewer and fewer people know their neighbors, and have any sort of meaningful and non-trivial interactions with them; and in general, more and more everyday interactions take place between people who are essentially strangers to each other. In the olden days one would have known one's baker and butcher and postman and so on, but nowadays one just goes to the big supermarket and interacts there with the anonymous, faceless, nameless corporate drones whose misfortune it is to be employed there. And ties of friendship are increasingly more fragile, shallow, and difficult to maintain, as people are tossed hither and thither by ever greater economic turmoil, having to switch jobs all the time and having little spare time in which to maintain such ties. A rolling stone, after all, gathers no moss.

Now as I said, I (1) don't really know to what extent these things are true; (2) don't really know to what extent these things, if true, are bad, as I'm not old enough to have experienced the society of yore, which was supposedly better connected and integrated, and in which it was still possible for an individual to feel himself as being part of something larger, of a community.

It is in fact entirely possible that my beliefs in the disintegration of society are a consequence of (1) my own personal inability to form meaningful connections to other people, and (2) my general fondness for feeling, and claiming, that everything is going irredeemably down the drain.

I am also not sure that disintegration is helpful to capitalists any more than integration.

My impression is that if a person is well-integrated into a community, many of his or her needs will be satisfied through interactions with other members of the community. On the other hand, if you can get the people to be isolated, atomized individuals, they will need to resort to the market for many of their needs, thus creating a lot more demand for many goods and services, which is much better for the capitalists. Such atomized individuals will also more easily be made insecure through advertising. For example, many people feel a need for companionship, for belonging, for being a part of something, and for being acknowledged by other people as valuable. The more you weaken the ties between people, the more likely they will be to try achieving these things by buying unnecessary and unnecessarily expensive brand-name products and by purchasing basically unnecessary leisure-time activities and services.

I agree that integration can also be helpful to capitalists, but I suspect that disintegration is easier to bring about than integration. You just have to keep encouraging each person's innate tendency towards selfishness and individualism, and disintegration will follow naturally. On the other hand, integration is more difficult, and if you try to promote it too vigorously, people will eventually rise in revolt. As another example, in communist countries, propaganda tried to integrate, and people universally laughed at it; in capitalist countries, propaganda is mostly of the disintegrative sort, and it often actually works.

But hey, that's not as important as the fact that you run a great -- and useful -- blog. For which I thank you.

You're welcome! Thanks for the praise :) Your blog is really splendid too. Keep up the good work!

(we have a good king)

Good for you :) We have a kooky president -- after a not-quite-successful struggle with cancer, he has turned into a purveyor of new-age nebulosities. Needless to say, his popularity soared :)))

Sunday, August 27, 2006 3:05:00 PM  
Blogger Sir G said...

yes, i do the same -- import books, though I usually do this via alibris.

you are probably right about there being less social contact -- the extended family is gone, we dont know our butchers and bakers, and dont know our neghbors. this can be a blessing, though -- i am GLAD i dont know my neighbors and can imagine -- with dread -- the sort of crap i would have to put up with if i were obliged to have social life with THESE fellows. i feel the same about most of my extended family, too, and certainly miss none of them. though, on the other hand, my best human contact -- my maternal grandfather (a rarity in all cicrumstances) came via extended family. the picture, imho, is mixed -- there is change, certainly, but it may not be all for the worse, or it may be difficult to say whether it is. what i miss is communal dancing -- and may move to Bali for that next year. :)

Monday, August 28, 2006 4:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work with Australian aboriginal people in central australia. There seem to be many parallels between some of Turnbull's descroiptions of the Ik and what is happening in the western desert in Australia. As for Turnbull's account - it is judgemental without basis, full of analogies, and without any intellectual rigour. Although I can see his point through my understanding of the tumultuous changes facing aboriginal australians, he has over-simplified and drawn pre-concieved conclusions of his experiences.

Friday, September 01, 2006 7:51:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous -- I'm glad to hear the opinion of some anthropologist about this book, since I myself, knowing more or less nothing about anthropology, am not in a very good position to form an opinion about his work.

But, admittedly, I didn't get the impression that Turnbull is judgemental towards the Ik -- in fact it seemed to me that he scrupulously avoids judging the Ik, and always points out that their choices were a natural and reasonable response to the terrible circumstances in which they lived.

As for intellectual rigour, I agree that maybe it isn't a terribly intellectual book, but this seems like a good thing as otherwise it would not be as accessible to the general public. For me, the most interesting part of the book were Turnbull's descriptions of the habits, customs, opinions, and actions of the Ik -- I'm not quite sure to what extent this is affected by the presence or absence intellectual rigour. These things are simple reports of matters of fact; I'll be very happy to complain if it turns out that Turnbull's reports are false, i.e. counterfactual, but I don't see what a lay reader like me would gain from more intellectual rigour in the book.

Sunday, September 03, 2006 8:11:00 PM  
Blogger David Wilson said...

I am reading the book now, just about done, I am not an anthropologist, initially I was favourably impressed but as I have progressed it seems that his descriptions have less and less substance, it almost seems as if he had something serious to prove

I also disagree that Diamond's book is 'excellent' - again, at first I was impressed - but when I got to the chapter on Chevron I choked, not that Chevron may not be the best of a bad lot, but his praise of them is simply 'over the top'

so ... has anyone else done any work with the Ik since Turnbull that you know of? I have seen on Flickr that there are apparently various missionaries in the zone now snapping pictures, so maybe someone has a serious opinion about Turnbull's work? in retrospect so to speak? if so I would like to hear of it

the best I have seen so far on Collapse is Tainter's book, but there too I have questions

thanks for your post, be well, David WIlson.

Monday, March 15, 2010 4:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Sam said...

Thank you so much for this excellent review. I was in a restaurant the other day that has old books on the shelves for folks to peruse, and I saw this one and got through about the first 4 chapters of what I found to be a remarkably interesting book. In looking for more info on it today, I ran across your blog.

I think I will cross-post to your blog entry here from my own blog in a future posting on the subject of resources vs. human behavior.

I often say in my survival classes, "Let me play God with resources and I can turn any number (6 to 6 billion) of people in a closed system, into complete animals in less than a year."

That is admittedly an exaggeration, because we have learned (through milleniae of abundance) as a species how to interact with love and compassion. However, I do agree with the point that given a few generations time (as in this book), all of this can be unlearned.

Please keep up the great work with your blog. I'm going to read some more when I have the chance. I agree wholeheartedly with many of your own viewpoints on this particular subject.

Monday, July 12, 2010 8:44:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Great post. I am in the process of reading Turnbull's "The Forest People" which presents a completely different picture of a pygmy society in the Congo region that is not stressed by lack of resources. They are warm, close, sweet and helpful to each other.
When societies are stressed through lack of food and shelter (the first level of basic human needs-as per Maslow's Hierarchy and basic common sense) chemical changes occur in individuals. Especially in males, where Serotonin levels spike making them more aggressive which probably helps them have a better chance of survival in an unfriendly environment.
Females are more abused in stressed societies, and it's every man, woman and child for him/herself, which is portrayed so tragically clearly in "The Mountain People". We should, as you say, take a lesson from this that any society is capable of fast social deterioration when faced with extinction.
Western and American society is probably far from this level of stress, however, from the rhetoric of extreme conservatives one would think we are on the verge of extinction. Perceived extinction is all it took to propel Germany into an organized state of murdering Jews and any other undesirables (Gays, actors, blacks, mentally retarded, etc).
If we perceive that we are close to our own imminent disaster it is possible to alter our chemical structure enough to make ourselves more violent, more aggressive and more individualistic. Even if that perception is entirely false.

That's my hypothesis based on Turnbull's work and others' studies on monkeys and prisoners with high serotonin levels.

thanks for such a thorough look at this great man's work.

Sunday, July 25, 2010 2:36:00 PM  
Blogger David Wilson said...

great man you say? whatever, try Bernd Heine:

I bought a copy, I would post it but it is full of odd characters I can't reproduce, so buy one yourself or if you can get an email to me I will send a copy

also Curtis Abraham:

good from far but far from good :-)

Sunday, July 25, 2010 3:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Those who question Turnbull's assertion that we risk going the way of the Ik, must be walking around with blinders on. Perhaps it is a function of the relative youth of many who post. In the middle of my sixth decade, I have seen startling changes in our society, and in the way people relate to each other. "Primitive" societies understood that the survival of an individual and of the group were interlinked. We have turned this ancient wisdom on its head. Here in the States, there has been a shift towards terminal selfishness, and away from the modulating influences of a society in which caring for and about each other was a virtue. We are, indeed, following in the path of the Ik, and Turnbull saw it coming. No one likes to have their flaws unmasked, which is why I think Turnbull is so reviled in some quarters. I recommend "The Forest People" and "The Mountain People" to all who care about the fate of our species. An added bonus of Turnbull's work is the quality of his writing, which, like that of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, is fluid, clear, and graceful.

Sunday, January 29, 2012 3:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Turnbull taught a class at NYU (1968 or 69) just after he finished his work with the Ik. It was called something like "Conflict and intregation in human society." I was employed in Sulawesi Indonesia for three years in the mid70`s and about 150 local hire employees some of which did not speak the national Indonesian language. This was my most useful college course. It was fascinating to manage a rather complex operation often doing it their way and not my way. Half of workers were Muslim and half were Christian, all were people of the forest. The perspective gained from his body of work has universal application.

Monday, February 24, 2014 7:39:00 AM  

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