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Baka - “Pygmies” in the Dja animal reserve in Cameroon.

Pygmies is a common term for a group of African peoples that has been naturalized since the 19th century. It describes a large number of culturally diverse societies in Central Africa , to which a total of around 150,000 to 200,000 people belong. A common characteristic is a relatively small height .


"Pygmies" is the Germanization of the Latin name pygmaei , which was adopted from ancient Greek into Latin in ancient times . The ancient Greek word πυγμαῖος pygmaíos means "mitten", "the size of a fist"; it is derived from pygmḗ ("fist"). In ancient times, in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period , the name was used to designate mythical peoples who allegedly lived in Africa or Asia; see the explanations under Pygmies (mythology) .

In the 19th century it became common to use the mythological term pygmies for actually existing societies in Central Africa . However, this use of the term is problematic because it is a collective term for different peoples, with which a physical peculiarity is made the only decisive defining feature. The Africans, known as “pygmies”, do not see themselves as an ethnic unit and therefore do not have their own name for their entirety. In addition to the self-names of the individual pygmy groups, there are also common names that were given to them by neighboring peoples and sometimes have a derogatory meaning (for example "Binga" / "Babinga").

The mean height of the male sex was introduced as a defining feature in the early 20th century; Peoples where this is less than 150 cm were counted among the pygmies. Since this is a purely formal criterion, the term began to be applied to non-African peoples with a similar short body length, for example to peoples in New Guinea , the “ Negritos ” in Southeast Asia and the Motilones in northeast Colombia and western Venezuela . However, this usage has not become generally accepted. Today the term "pygmies" is usually only used for Central African societies; ethnic groups living outside central Africa, such as the Khoisan in south and southwest Africa, are not counted among the pygmies, although they share their relatively small height and other physical characteristics with them.


Prehistoric time

The opinion, already held in early research, that the pygmy peoples belong to the oldest peoples on earth, was supported by population genetic research . The Baka in particular can be genetically clearly delimited from their black African neighbors. Together with the South African ! Kung-San (with whom they share the largest proportion of the so-called haplogroup L of the mtDNA ) they belong to the direct descendants of the oldest Homo sapiens population on earth. The genetic branch of the pygmies is represented by the haplogroup B (Y-DNA) . The relationship with the Khoisan ethnicities is shown externally in the relatively frequent occurrence of the so-called filfil or "peppercorn hair" . Both the genetic special position and the phenotypic short stature go back to the evolutionary adaptation to the tropical climate and / or point to the mixing of Homo sapiens around 35,000 years ago with an extinct sub-Saharan species that has not yet been archaeologically proven , such as the modern DNA research postulates.

Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The oldest written source that reports of pygmies is a letter from the Egyptian pharaoh Pepi II (6th dynasty, 23rd century BC). There is talk of a trade expedition that brought a "dwarf of the god dance" from the kingdom of Jam (today's Sudan ), who apparently was a pygmy. This was considered a gift of the highest value. The same letter also mentions that under Pharaoh Djedkare (5th dynasty, 24th century) an Egyptian had brought a little man with him from Punt . A passage in the pyramid texts (Proverbs 517) also mentions a "dwarf of the god dances". From the time of the 1st dynasty (around 3000 BC), images of dwarfs can be found on grave images. Presumably, the dancing dwarfs often depicted at the royal court are at least partly not pathological dwarfs, but pygmies from the rainforest. Whether the Egyptians had a special name for pygmies to distinguish them from pathological dwarfs is controversial. After the 22nd century BC There is no more reliable evidence of the existence of pygmies in Egypt.

In ancient Greece, independent of the pygmy myth, there was already ethnographic news about small Africans south of the Libyan desert . In the 5th century BC BC Herodotus reported that five young adventurers crossed the desert from Libya ; they were captured by small people who lived by a large river. Herodotus does not refer to these Africans as pygmies, so he makes a clear distinction between the pygmy myth and the report on the expedition.

In the European Middle Ages, people only knew the term pygmy from ancient myths; people believed in the existence of the mythical pygmies. There was no contact with real pygmy peoples. Alleged eyewitness accounts that dead pygmies were brought to Europe are not credible.

Early modern age

In the early modern period, ancient scholars and naturalists debated the question of whether pygmies really existed. From the second half of the 16th century, the view that the pygmies known from ancient literature were mythical creatures became increasingly popular. Among other things, it was suspected that the observation of monkeys gave rise to the legendary tradition. In 1699 the English doctor and zoologist Edward Tyson published the treatise Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, The Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man , in which he used the term "pygmie" to denote the Chimpanzees, whose anatomical proximity to humans he emphasized.

Independently of these theoretical considerations, individual authentic reports about small African peoples reached Europe since the early 17th century, but received little attention. The first report came from the English navigator Andrew Battell, who around 1600 in the Loango area had encountered adults whom he described as boys as tall as twelve years old.


From the early 19th century onwards, explorers traveling to Africa provided increasing amounts of information about the small peoples they had encountered. Initially one spoke of “dwarf peoples”, then in the second half of the 19th century the term “pygmies”, which was linked to the ancient myth, became established, and the anthropologist Felix von Luschan advocated its use instead of “dwarf peoples” . It was not taken into account that in antiquity small Africans were already known from Herodotus' report and at that time no connection was made between these real people and the mythical pygmies.


Pygmies continue to live as hunters and gatherers in the central African rainforest . In the late 20th century and around the turn of the millennium, the total number of pygmies was estimated at 150,000 to 200,000 people; it continues to decline, and the remaining societies are threatened with extinction. The ongoing transformation and destruction of their traditional habitat in the rainforest through logging and slash-and-burn play an important role, but also the disruption of the social fabric through the consequences of an ill-considered transition to sedentarism. The pygmies who have become sedentary become dependent on the neighboring normal-stature population, where the pygmy men are employed as cheap labor in agriculture and the women as domestic helpers. This dependence can in fact become serfdom . Unhygienic living conditions mean that sedentary pygmies are becoming increasingly infected with infectious diseases that they hardly knew before as mobile hunters and gatherers. Another problem is the widespread abuse of alcohol.

Settlement areas of pygmies

There are four main ethnographic groups:

Languages ​​and social conditions

The Pygmies speak various languages, the vocabulary of which largely, but not entirely, matches that of the Bantu languages spoken in their vicinity. The main differences to the Bantu languages ​​are the names for animals, plants and everyday objects, but also the grammar. It is unclear to what extent these peculiarities are remnants of original Pygmy languages ​​or even of a common original language. There is no historical tradition, and in traditional societies people do not know their age. There is little interest in the ancestors.

As hunters and gatherers, if they are not yet settled, they live in small groups in the primeval forests. About ten huts made of branches and leaves, arranged in a circle or oval, form a camp. There is no permanently fixed, traditional hierarchy or social stratification. Not only do the men go hunting, but women and girls also take part in the net hunt. Dogs are also used in the driven hunt. Some pygmy communities only hunt with nets and lances, others use bows and arrows and have highly effective arrow poisons. The women collect fruits, insects and other edible animals, but men are also collectors. Collecting is quantitatively more important than hunting, and women bring in most of the food. There is no strict gender division of labor. There is a taboo of incest and a strong tendency to monogamy , which is the rule in most societies; The community only allows a man to have two wives in certain exceptional cases, for example if he takes the widow of his deceased brother as a second wife or if his first wife is sterile. Social body care (louse) plays an important role. To defend themselves against slave hunters, the Aka and other groups took refuge with their belongings in the 19th century on "escape trees" that were difficult to access for the enemy.

The social psychologist Erich Fromm analyzed the willingness of 30 pre-state peoples, including the Mbuti, to use ethnographic records to analyze the anatomy of human destructiveness . In conclusion, he assigned them to the “life-affirming societies”, whose cultures are characterized by a pronounced sense of community with great social equality, friendly child rearing, tolerant sexual morality and a low tendency to be aggressive. (see also: "War and Peace" in pre-state societies )

Physical characteristics

Pygmy women in southern Cameroon

Pygmies' newborns are usually about the same size as other people's, and up to early adolescence they differ little in the course of their growth. However, there are differences in size between the members of individual pygmy peoples at the time of birth and in the first five years of life. The short stature mainly affects the trunk and limbs, and to a much lesser extent the skull. The absence of a growth spurt during puberty has been observed in some, but not all, pygmy peoples; they have a reduced production of the growth factor IGF I , while the factor IGF II in pygmies is in the range of normal values . For example, Bayaka pygmies aged six to eight years had an IGF-I value that was around a fifth lower than normal control persons, while Bayaka 13 to 15 year olds only had about half (girls) or one Third (boys) of the value present in normal people at this age was present.

The causes of short stature have long been disputed. The IGF-I deficit is genetic and is unlikely to be related to environmental factors. Earlier it was assumed that an evolutionary degeneration could be explained by the influence of unfavorable environmental conditions; It was believed that life in the rainforest favored mutations to short stature, or malnutrition - especially a lack of protein - led to growth disorders. These hypotheses have now been refuted; the nutritional basis and especially the protein supply of the traditionally living pygmies is sufficient and not worse than that of normal-grown farmers in the same habitat. However, protein deficiencies have been found in pygmies who have partially given up their traditional way of life.

Body size and weight differ for the individual peoples or groups of peoples. These differences are not due to genetic mixing with normal stature. The western pygmies are larger than the eastern pygmies; their average weight is 36.9 kg for women and 41.5 kg for men, the average height is 144 cm (women) and 153 to 156 cm (men). The smallest pygmies are the Ituri and among the Ituri the ivy (women an average of 135 cm, men 143 cm). The skull size is in absolute terms in the normal range or below (mean skull volume for the Eastern Pygmies [Ituri] 1332 cm³, for the Western Pygmies 1289 cm³), but the skulls are large in relation to body size.

Another physical characteristic of the pygmies is their relatively light skin color (yellowish brown to copper-colored), which usually darkens with increasing age. This feature is so noticeable that in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo the normal-stature population refers to the pygmies with a word for “whites”, which is also used for Europeans. Newborn pygmies have the same skin color as European newborns; their typical body color only appears after a few weeks. At birth, pygmies have long, straight hair that falls out between the ages of three and five months.


Web links

Commons : Pygmies  album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Armin Heymer: The Pygmies. Human research in the African rainforest. History, evolution, sociology, ecology, ethology, acculturation, future , Munich 1995, p. 152.
  2. ^ Wilhelm Schmidt: The position of the pygmy peoples in the history of human development , Stuttgart 1910.
  3. YS Chen, A. Olckers, TG Schurr, AM Kogelnik, K. Huoponen, DC Wallace: mtDNA variation in the South African Kung and Khwe-and their genetic relationships to other African populations. In: American Journal of Human Genetics . Volume 66, Number 4, April 2000, pp. 1362-1383, doi : 10.1086 / 302848 , PMID 10739760 , PMC 1288201 (free full text).
  4. ^ Martin Pabst: South Africa. 2nd completely revised and expanded edition. Verlag CH Beck, Munich 2008.
  5. Michael F. Hammer et al .: Genetic evidence for archaic admixture in Africa. In: PNAS. Volume 108, No. 37, 2011, pp. 15123–15128, doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1109300108 (see also news of September 5, 2011: Human ancestors interbred with related species. Doi: 10.1038 / news.2011.518 ).
  6. On the localization of Jam (Yam) see Armin Heymer: The ethno-cultural career of apotropaic entanglements of pygmies, chondrodystrophs and dwarf figures . In: Saeculum 44, 1993, pp. 116-178, here: 132-135.
  7. ^ Véronique Dasen: Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece , Oxford 1993, pp. 25-29, 132 f. Martin Gusinde: Knowledge and Judgments about Pygmies in Antiquity and the Middle Ages , Leipzig 1962, p. 8 and Heymer (1993) p. 132, offer a German translation of Pepis II's letter .
  8. Heymer (1995) pp. 41-57; on the extent of the Rgenwald Heymer (1993) p. 134.
  9. Heymer (1993) p. 130 f.
  10. Herodotus II, 32-33; Translated and commented by Martin Gusinde: Knowledge and judgments about pygmies in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Leipzig 1962, p. 6 f.
  11. Janni p. 111; Battell wrote: To the northeast of Mani Kesock, are a kind of little people, called Matimbas; which are no bigger then boys of twelve years old, but are very thick, and live only upon flesh, which they kill in the woods with their bowes and darts. ... The women carry bow and arrows as well as the men ( online text ).
  12. ^ Paul Schebesta: The Bambuti Pygmies from Ituri , Vol. 1, Bruxelles 1938, p. 11 and note 26.
  13. Cavalli-Sforza pp. 26, 361, Bissengué p. 31.
  14. Heymer (1995) pp. 21-33, 409-477.
  15. Cavalli-Sforza pp. 19 f., 23-26; Véronique Dasen: Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece. Oxford 1993, pp. 13-15.
  16. Heymer (1995) pp. 216-218.
  17. Cavalli-Sforza p. 34 f., 392.
  18. Heymer (1995) pp. 145 f., 193-216, 218 f., 237-239.
  19. Heymer (1995) pp. 141-145.
  20. Erich Fromm: Anatomy of human destructiveness . From the American by Liselotte et al. Ernst Mickel, 86. – 100. Thousand edition, Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1977, ISBN 3-499-17052-3 , pp. 191–192.
  21. Robert C. Bailey: The Comparative Growth of Efe Pygmies and African Farmers from Birth to Age Five Years , in: Annals of Human Biology 18 (1991) pp 113-120; Heymer (1995) p. 155 f. See, however, on deviating measurements, which gave 89% of the normal body weight of African children and 93% of the normal body length for newborns, Cavalli-Sforza p. 390 f.
  22. TJ Merimee et al. a .: Insulin-like growth factors in pygmies. The role of puberty in determining final stature , in: The New England Journal of Medicine 316 (1987) pp. 906-911 (online abstract: [1] ); Heymer (1995) p. 155.
  23. Heymer (1995) pp. 153-155.
  24. Cavalli-Sforza pp. 143-152.
  25. Heymer (1995) pp. 156-158.
  26. Heymer (1995) p. 173; According to Cavalli-Sforza p. 389, the average height of adult pygmies is 87% of the African average, but for head size it is 98%.
  27. Heymer (1995) pp. 158 f., 162.