Colin Turnbull

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Colin Turnbull
BornNovember 23 1924
DiedJuly 28 1994
NationalityUnited Kingdom
Known forThe Forest People
Scientific career

Colin Macmillan Turnbull (November 23 1924 - July 28 1994) was a famous British-American anthropologist who came to public attention with the popular books The Forest People (on the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire) and The Mountain People (on the Ik people of Uganda), and one of the first anthropologists to work in the field of ethnomusicology.


He was born in London and educated at Westminster School and Magdalen College, Oxford where he studied politics and philosophy. World War II brought a stint in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve after which he was awarded a two year grant in the Department of Indian Religion and Philosophy, Benares Hindu University, India, from which he graduated with a master's degree in Indian Religion and Philosophy. In 1951, after his graduation from Benares, he traveled to the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (then, the Belgian Congo) with Newton Beal, an Ohio schoolteacher he'd meet in India. Turnbull and Beal first studied the BaMbuti pygmies during this time, though that was not the complete goal of the trip.

An "odd job" Turnbull picked up while in Africa at this time was working for the Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel. Spiegel hired Turnbull to assist in the construction and transportation of a boat needed for his film. This boat was The African Queen, which was used for the film of the same title (starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn; 1951). After his first trip to Africa, Turnbull traveled to Yellowknife in the northwest territories of Canada, where he worked as a geologist and gold miner for approximately a year, before he went back to school to obtain another degree.

Upon returning to Oxford in 1954, he began specializing in the anthropology of Africa. Turnbull remained in Oxford for three years before another field trip to Africa, finally focusing on the then-Belgian Congo (1957-58) and Uganda. After years of fieldwork, he finally achieved his anthropology doctorate from Oxford in 1964.

Turnbull became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1965, after he had been named curator in charge of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in 1959 and moved to New York City. He later took up residence in Lancaster County, Virginia and was on staff in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. Other professional associations included Corresponding Membership of Le Musée Royal d’Afrique Central and fellowship in the British Royal Anthropological Institute. He first gained prominence with his book The Forest People (1961), an admiring study of the BaMbuti. In 1972, he wrote a sequel of sorts, the highly controversial The Mountain People, which was concerned with Uganda's hunger-plagued Ik tribe.

Turnbull was an unconventional scholar who rejected neutrality. He idealized the BaMbuti and reviled the Ik, and described the latter as lacking any sense of altruism, in that they force their children out of their homes at the age of three, and gorge on whatever occasional excesses of food they might find until they became sick, rather than save or share. However, several anthropologists have since argued that a particularly serious famine suffered by the Ik during the period of Turnbull's visit may have distorted their normal behavior and customs, and some passages in his book make it clear that the behavior and customs of the Ik during the period he describes were drastically different from what was normal for them before they were uprooted from their original way of life. In the US, he lived with his professional collaborator and partner of 30 years, the African American Dr. Joseph Towles, as an openly gay, interracial couple in one of the most conservative areas of the 1960s - rural Virginia.

During this time he also took up the political cause of death row inmates. After his partner's death in 1988, Turnbull retreated to a Buddhist monastery where he lived out his remaining years under a Buddhist name. Both he and Towles died from complications of AIDS, aged 69.


  • Some of Turnbull's recordings of BaMbuti music were commercially released, and his works have inspired other ethnomusicological studies, such those of Simha Arom and Mauro Campagnoli.
  • His most famous recording is Music of the Rainforest Pygmies recorded in 1961, now released on CD by Lyrichord Discs, Inc.

  • He was a friend of the playwright Peter Brook , with whom he worked on an adaptation of The Mountain People.

Turnbull's books

See also

Research fields

Other researchers who studied pygmy cultures


External links