They lack farming, livestock breeding, permanent settlements, multi-kin social grouping, warfare for conquest, tribute, or capture of victims, social classes, civil rules, and such technical knowledge as ceramics, heddle-loom weaving, basketry, and religious or civil architecture.
The best known Pygmy groups are those who live in scattered parts of tropical Central Africa (Zaire, Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Rawanda and Brundi). The various tribes of African Pygmies are classified into the eastern, central and western groups.
The eastern Pygmies of Africa the Mabuti live in the Ituri forests of Zaire, the central Pygmies are scattered in the Congo Republic, and the western Pygmies, such as the Bongo, are found in Gabon. Another well-known group in the Congo basin is the Twa (Batwa) who live in the high mountains and plains around the Lake Kivu in Zaire, Rawanda and Brundi in symbiosis with the pastoral Tutsi, the agricultural Hutu and other tribes.
Westward in the marshes south of the Congo River is the large groups of Tswa (Batswa), who like the Twa, have adopted much of the culture and language of the neighbouring tribes.
The Tswa live largely on fishing and trapping. North of the Congo, in the forests of the Ubangi River, live the Babinga who are also culturally very close to Pygmies.
The Twa and Tswa are still mainly nomadic hunters and food gatherers. Farther to the west, in Cameroon and Gabon, there are other scattered groups that are even closer, physically to the true Pygmies.
Some of the slightly taller groups are termed as Pymoid. The total population of Pygmies is estimated at more than 200,000 (2001 A.D.).
Generally, the stature of Pygmies varies from 1.33 metres (52 inches) to 1.49 metres (58 inches), averaging 1.46 metres (57 inches) for males and 1.38 metres (54 inches) for females. The colour of the skin ranges from yellowish or reddish brown to very dark brown.
They have prognathic jaws, broad flat nose, large eyes and dark woolly hair. Culturally as well as racially, they differ from their Negro neighbours, lacking domestic food animals and skills in agriculture, iron working and pottery. Pygmies are essentially hunters and food gatherers who live in symbiotic relationship with neighbouring sedentary farmers.
They hunt small game, fish, and collect plant foods and insects in the forest. They live on hunting, trapping, and gathering wild foods, and trade forest products with their Negro neighbours for agricultural produce. They live in small communities in the forest in simple huts which are about 1.3 metres (4 feet) high, 3 metres (10 feet) long and about 3 metres (6 feet) wide.
The Congo basin, being situated on both sides of the equator, has hot and humid climate throughout the year. The average monthly temperature reads around 27°C across the year except the areas of high altitudes where the average temperature decreases steadily.
Rainfall which is convectional in character also occurs all through the year, the maximum being recorded in the months of March and September along the equator.
Moving north and south of the equator, there are marked seasonal variations. The weather remains stifling, damp and hot. The average annual rainfall over the greater parts of the Congo basin is well above 250 kms (100 inches).
The hot and humid climate of the Congo basin is ideally suited to the luxurious growth of vegetation. In fact, the forests of the Congo basin are one of the most luxuriant on the earth.
These forests consist of many kinds of broad-leaved evergreen trees. In the Congo basin, the forests originally extended from sea level up to the tops of the mountains.
The characteristic inland forest of the lowlands extend from about sea level up to the beginning of the hill forest, which may be about 62 metres (200 feet), though it may be higher or lower.
The forest canopy is almost complete and has an average height of 50 metres (160 feet) or more, with occasional trees projecting above it.
There are in many places more than fifty species of trees per hectare. There is wide variety of epiphytes also. Most trees have shallow roots, and many develop huge buttresses for support.
The vegetation in the Congo basin is arranged in several stories. The first or top story consists of very large trees requiring more light at maturity, and whose crowns start at 20 or 30 metres above the ground.
The second story is made up of trees whose crowns spread out at a lower height and begins as low as 16 metres above the ground.
The third story is made up of smaller trees whose crowns are below the top story. The fourth story consists of the trees which are less than 20 metres in height.
The trees are generally covered with numerous epiphytic floras on their trunks and branches. Trees of the upper two stories are generally free from climbers.
The forests most valuable varieties are generally found on gentle slopes or on flat land. The number of tree species is great, sometimes as many as 100 in one acre, but the proportion of species of economic importance is small. The greatest volume of timber products comes from about a few, often closely related species.
The Pygmies obtain firewood, tannin extracts, dyes, rubber, gutta-percha, rattan, bamboo, kapok (cotton), wood oils, resins, timber, rubber, and various medicines, like quinine, cocaine, camphor, etc., from the forest. These products have great value in the international market.
The food gatherer and hunter Pygmies live in small groups in the forests of Congo basin. They live in the areas of isolation and relative isolation and move about continually.
They hunt with bows and poisoned arrows and some groups have dogs, but their main food supply is often derived mainly from trees, plants, nuts, birds, insects and small games.
The Pygmies depend mainly on vegetable food, hunting and occasional fishing. They gather a wide variety of berries, nuts, pith, and leave, shoots and especially roots and tubers of which the long tuberous growths of the wild yam are the most important.
The main meal of the day is usually made towards sundown, but they eat also in the early morning, and have frequent snacks. Food that is not eaten is usually boiled in tubes, cut from long lengths of green bamboo, which withstands the flames long enough to cook the food.
At certain season of the year, a number of fruits are available in abundance, and at this time the group returns to its own territory to gather this rich supply and feast.
The hunting of Pygmies is sporadic and confined to relatively small game. The large carnivores, like tiger, panther, leopard and elephant, are dreaded and avoided. Rats, squirrels, birds, lizards, and occasionally monkeys and wild pigs, are the usual games. Apart from a heavy hardwood stake with a fire-hardened point the bow is their only weapon.
It is a simple curved wooden bow, made from a length of pliant longest tree branch, tapering at each end strung with sinew and bark fibre. The arrows, nearly a yard long, have a heavy wooden tip into a bamboo shaft equipped with two rather useless feathers.
The arrow tip is poisoned with a vegetable poison obtained from the gum of a tree. Game is also snared in simple noose and spring traps and birds are lined with the sticky sap of wild fig trees, smeared on splinters of bamboo, which adhere to their feet.
The warm humid and damp climate of the lower altitudes of Congo basin allows Pygmies to live without clothes. Many of the Pygmies live in a state of complete nakedness. All the clothes they wear is a covering of bark strip or vegetable fibres which is more or less wide and run more or less around the hips.
The tools of Pygmies are few and simple. A fire hardened blade of bamboo will cut ordinary bamboo itself and keep its edge for a considerable time. Rattan canes and woods for digging sticks, bows and spears almost complete their tool materials. Wooden mortars are sometimes made by burning out a hollow in an available trunk of a fallen palm tree.
Animal bones are scraped down to make tools, but stone tools, although used, are much undeveloped. The splitting and scraping of wood is generally done with rough, shapeless stones picked up at need and thrown away again.
The basic social unit is the band of twenty or more persons, which move about the forest living in temporary camps, with huts built of sapling frames thatched with leaves. Marriage is between bands, often by sister exchange and is usually monogamous. Pygmies religious beliefs centre round the forest, considered their host and benefactor.
Pygmy groups live in what has been described as a symbiotic relationship with neighboring sedentary farmers, with whom they trade and participate in social and ceremonial activities.
The Pygmies of Congo basin practice ‘silent trade’. The Pygmy hunters go by night to groves of their neighbors, who are agriculturists, and place there a quantity of meat wrapped in leaves which next day the) find changed into grain or any other kind of agricultural or other products.
As each party knows the articles in which the other is traditionally interested, no time is wasted in this respect. The value of the goods deposited in each transaction is roughly similar. But, as the Pygmies are the weaker part dependent on the Bantu (agriculturists), there is a certain amount of injustice and even exploitation practiced.
Nonetheless, when a Pygmy is convinced that the amount found as corresponding to his wares is clearly insufficient, he may abstain from taking it, and so usually, on the morrow, he finds it proportionately increased.
Yet, there have been occasions when the indignation of the Pygmies on feeling that they have been cheated has been much that they have killed the offending person with a poisoned arrow or similar weapon. But such cases are exceptional, and the silent trade continued uninterruptedly.
The Pygmies are in the primitive stage of civilization. Though the birth rate is high but the ravages of epidemics do not permit a high growth rate of population.
In fact, the Pygmies are the slaves of nature and their women are tied down to hard work, suffer great exposure and so become quickly run down physically into a state of low vitality. This explains the low birth rate, which is sometimes noticeable that these primitive people attribute it to accident or magic.
In brief, the Pygmies live in close symbioses with nature. Their neighbours are cultivators. Several of the Pygmy groups live in much closer relation with the settled cultivators and this area is famous for barter of forest produce.
Many of them practise ‘silent trading’ with the Negroes. Many Pygmy groups are tacitly attached to a Negro village, and have an understanding for the barter of game for agricultural crops.
After a successful hunt, the Negritos enter the banana groves of the villagers, gather fruit, and hang suitable meat in its place; the villagers when needing game will also lay out agricultural produce in an accustomed place for the hunters, who in due course will bring to that place a portion of their bag.
The Pygmies are thus free people who are utilizing the environment without much damaging it. Their lifestyle and cultural ethos have been controlled significantly by the forces of physical environment.