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European among African pygmies
Baka dancers in the East Province of Cameroon

Pygmy is a term used for various ethnic groups worldwide whose average height is unusually low; anthropologists define pygmy as any group whose adult males grow to less than 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches) in average height. A member of a slightly taller group is termed pygmoid. The best known pygmies are the Aka, Efé and Mbuti of central Africa. There are also pygmies in Thailandmarker, Malaysiamarker, Indonesiamarker, the Philippinesmarker, Papua New Guineamarker, and Brazilmarker. The term also includes the Negritos of Southeast Asia. The remains of at least 25 miniature humans, who lived between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago, were found on the islands of Palaumarker in Micronesia.

The term "pygmy" is sometimes considered pejorative. However, there is no single term to replace it that covers all African pygmies. Many so-called pygmies prefer instead to be referred to by the name of their various ethnic groups, or names for various interrelated groups such as the Aka (Mbenga), Baka, Mbuti, and Twa. The term Bayaka, the plural form of the Aka/Yaka, is sometimes used in the Central African Republicmarker to refer to all local Pygmies. Likewise, the Kongo word Bambenga is used in Congo.


The term pygmy, as used to refer to diminutive people, derives from Greek Pygmaioi via Latin Pygmaei (sing. Pygmaeus), a measure of length corresponding to the distance between the elbow and knuckles. (See also Greek pechus). In Greek mythology the word describes a tribe of dwarves, first described by Homer, and reputed to live in Indiamarker and south of modern day Ethiopiamarker.


Batwa dancers in Uganda

Various theories have been proposed to explain the short stature of pygmies. One explanation points to the low ultraviolet light levels in rainforests. This might mean that relatively little vitamin D can be made in human skin, thereby limiting calcium uptake from the diet for bone growth and maintenance, and leading to the evolution of the small skeletal size characteristic of pygmies.

Other explanations include lack of food in the rainforest environment, low calcium levels in the soil, the need to move through dense jungle, adaptation to heat and humidity, and most recently, as an association with rapid reproductive maturation under conditions of early mortality. A recent study has suggested that growth in these populations is held back by smaller amounts of IGF (Insulin-like Growth Factor) during adolescence. Other evidence points towards a mutation in the IGF1 receptor causing short stature

African Pygmies

Pygmies live in several ethnic groups in Rwandamarker, Burundimarker, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congomarker, the Central African Republicmarker, Cameroonmarker, Equatorial Guineamarker, Gabonmarker, the Republic of Congomarker, Angolamarker, Botswanamarker, Namibiamarker, and Zambiamarker. Most Pygmy communities are partially hunter-gatherers, living partially but not exclusively on the wild products of their environment. They trade with neighbouring farmers to acquire cultivated foods and other material items, and there is no evidence that they ever lived independently of their agricultural neighbors. It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 600,000 Pygmies living in the Congo rainforest.


There are several Pygmy groups, the best known being the Mbenga (Aka and Baka) of the western Congo basin, the Mbuti (Efe etc.) of the Ituri Rainforest, and the Twa of the Great Lakesmarker.
  • Mbenga or Ba-Mbenga (AKA Ba-Binga [derogatory]) (west Congo basin)
    • Aka or Mò-Áka (AKA (Ba-)Yaka, Ba-Yaga, Gba-Yaka, Bi-Aka, Beká, Yakwa, Yakpa, Yakpwa) (Central African Republic, Republic of Congo) speak a Bantu language close to Lingala
      • M-Benzélé or Ba-Benzélé (Western Aka, Central African Republic)
      • Ba-Sese (Eastern Aka)
    • Baka (AKA Bi-Baya) (Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo) speak closely related Ubangian languages of the Ngbaka branch
      • Baka proper
      • Ganzi
      • Gundi or Ngondi
    • Gyele or Ba/Bo-Gieli (AKA Bonjiel(i), Ba-Ko, Be-Koe, Ba-Kola, Ba-Kuele, Li-Koya) (Cameroon) speak a Bantu language of the Makaa-Njem branch
  • Mbuti or Bambuti (Ituri rainforest, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo)
  • Twa or Ba-Twa (AKA Ge-Sera) (Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda) speak the Kirundi and Kinyarwanda languages
  • Elsewhere in Africa some of the San (Bushmen) of the Kalahari are of Pygmy size.

There are a number of Twa populations along the southern border of Angolamarker and neighboring countries, living in swamps and deserts far from the forest. They are little studied, and it is not known if they are indigenous to the area or more recent migrants from the forest.

Relationship with other Africans

Ancestral relationship

A commonly held belief is that African Pygmies are the direct descendents of the Late Stone Age hunter-gatherer peoples of the central African rainforest, who were partially absorbed or displaced by later immigration of agricultural peoples, and adopted their Central Sudanic, Adamawa-Ubangian, and Bantu languages. This view has no archaeological support, and ambiguous support from genetics and linguistics.R. Blench and M. Dendo. Genetics and linguistics in sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge-Bergen, June 24, 2004.Klieman, Kairn A. The Pygmies Were Our Compass: Bantu and BaTwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900, Heinemann, 2003.

Some 30% of the Aka language is not Bantu, and a similar percentage of the Baka language is not Ubangian. Much of this vocabulary is botanical, deals with honey collecting, or is otherwise specialized for the forest and is shared between the two western Pygmy groups. It has been proposed that this is the remnant of an independent western Pygmy (Mbenga or "Baaka") language.

Genetic evidence for origins

Genetically, the western Mbenga pygmies are extremely divergent from all other human populations, suggesting they have an ancient indigenous lineage. They represent the most ancient divergence right after that of Khoisan's. The overall genetic picture suggests that the original Mbenga population, possessing Y-chromosome haplogroup B and mtDNA haplogroup L1, was slightly influenced by gene flow from Bantus.

The closest relatives of eastern Mbuti pygmies appear to be the Hadzabe, who live in the savannas east of the forest and were quite short in stature, before heavy recent intermarriage with their taller neighbors.

Reports of genocide

In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum that during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. In neighbouring North Kivu province there has been cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs ("the erasers") who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation. Both sides of the war regarded them as "subhuman" and some say their flesh can confer magical powers. Makelo asked the UN Security Council to recognise cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. According to Minority Rights Group International there is extensive evidence of mass killings, cannibalism and rape of Pygmies and have urged the International Criminal Court to investigate a campaign of extermination against pygmies. Although they have been targeted by virtually all the armed groups, much of the violence against Pygmies is attributed to the rebel group, the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, which is part of the transitional government and still controls much of the north, and their allies.


In the Republic of Congomarker, where Pygmies make up 5 to 10% of the population, many Pygmies live as slaves to Bantu masters. The nation is deeply stratified between these two major ethnic groups. The Pygmy slaves belong from birth to their Bantu masters in a relationship that the Bantus call a time-honored tradition. Even though the Pygmies are responsible for much of the hunting, fishing and manual labor in jungle villages, Pygmies and Bantus alike say Pygmies are often paid at the master's whim; in cigarettes, used clothing, or even nothing at all. As a result of pressure from UNICEF and human-rights activists, a law that would grant special protections to the Pygmy people is awaiting a vote by the Congo parliament.


Non-African Pygmies

Asian Pygmies


Negritos in Southeast Asia (including the Batak and Aeta of the Philippinesmarker, the Andamanese of the Andaman Islandsmarker, and the Semang of the Malay Peninsula), and occasionally Papuans and Melanesians in adjacent Oceania, are sometimes called pygmies (especially in older literature).

Negritos share some common physical features with African pygmy populations, including short stature and dark skin. The name "Negrito", from the Spanish adjective meaning "small and black", was given by early explorers.

The explorers who named the Negritos assumed the Andamanese they encountered were from Africa. This belief was, however, discarded by anthropologists who noted that apart from dark skin and curly hair, the Andamanese had little in common with any African population, including the African pygmies. Their resemblance to some Africans, it is generally believed, is due to adaptation to a similar environment, rather than shared origins.

Their origin and the route of their migration to Asia is still a matter of great speculation. They are genetically distant from Africans, and have been shown to have separated early from Asians, suggesting that they are either surviving descendants of settlers from an early out-of-Africa migration, or that they are descendants of one of the founder populations of modern humans.


The Rampasasa of Flores in Indonesia are short-statured without being dark-skinned. They have been indicated as suggestfully resembling Homo floresiensis.


Frank Kingdon-Ward in the early 20th century, Alan Rabinowitz in the 1990s, P. Christiaan Klieger in 2003, and others have reported a tribe of pygmy Tibeto-Burman speakers known as the T'rung inhabiting the remote region of Mt. Hkakabo Razi in Southeast Asia on the border of Chinamarker (Yunnanmarker and Tibet), Burmamarker, and Indiamarker. A Burmese survey done in the 1960s reported a mean height of an adult male T'rung at 1.43 m (4'6") and that of females at 1.40 m (4'5"). These are the only "pygmies" noted of clearly East Asian origin. The cause of their diminutive size is unknown, but diet and endogamous marriage practices have been cited. The population of T'rung pygmies has been steadily shrinking, and is now down to only a few individuals.



Short statured aboriginal tribes inhabited the rainforests of North Queenslandmarker, Australia, of which the best known group is probably the Tjapukai of the Cairns area. These rainforest people, collectively referred to as Barrineans, were once considered to be a relict of the earliest wave of migration to the Australian continent, but this theory no longer finds much favour. The Rainforest People tended to live in the first variety of Jykabita, a wood and mud structure renowned for incubation of plants.

See also


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica: Pygmy
  3. The Negrito of Malaysia.
  4. Darwin's Children
  5. Pygmy human remains found on rock islands, Science | The Guardian.
  6. Hewlett, Barry S. "Cultural diversity among African pygmies." In: Cultural Diversity Among Twentieth-Century Foragers. Susan Kent, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  7. Forest peoples in the central African rain forest: focus on the pygmies.
  8. Online Etymology Dictionary.
  9. A note on the ultraviolet light levels in tropical rainforest (North Queensland).
  10. O'Dea, JD. Possible contribution of low ultraviolet light under the rainforest canopy to the small stature of Pygmies and Negritos. Homo: Journal of Comparative Human Biology, Vol. 44, No.3, pp. 284-7, 1994.
  11. Short lives, short size - why are pygmies small? « Not Exactly Rocket Science.
  12. World Bank accused of razing Congo forests, The Guardian.
  13. Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, ed. African Pygmies. Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1986.
  14. Serge Bahuchet, 1993, History of the inhabitants of the central African rain forest: perspectives from comparative linguistics. In C.M. Hladik, ed., Tropical forests, people, and food: Biocultural interactions and applications to development. Paris: Unesco/Parthenon.
  15. Wood, E. et al. 2005, Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome and mtDNA variation in Africa: evidence for sex-biased demographic processes. European Journal of Human Genetics (2005) 13, 867–876. doi:10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201408
  16. Tishkoff, S. et al. 2007, History of Click-Speaking Populations of Africa Inferred from mtDNA and Y Chromosome Genetic Variation. Molecular Biology and Evolution 2007 24(10):2180-2195; doi:10.1093/molbev/msm155
  17. Pygmies struggle to survive.
  18. DR Congo Pygmies 'exterminated'.
  19. DR Congo Pygmies appeal to UN.
  20. rebels 'eating pygmies'.
  21. Congo's Pygmies live as slaves,
  22. As the World Intrudes, Pygmies Feel Endangered, New York Times.
  23. Liu, James J.Y. The Chinese Knight Errant. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967 (ISBN 0-2264-8688-5).
  24. Kashyap VK, Sitalaximi T, Sarkar BN, Trivedi R 2003. Molecular relatedness of the aboriginal groups of Andaman and Nicobar Islands with similar ethnic populations. The International Journal of Human Genetics, 3: 5-11.
  27. Tindale's Catalogue of Australian Aboriginal Tribes: Tjapukai (QLD).
  28. Australia for the Australians.
  29. "Australia, the other white meat" Aaron Pirini, 1982.

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