Ik people

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Ik people in Eastern Uganda, 2020

The Ik people (sometimes called Teuso, though this term is explicitly derogatory[further explanation needed]) are an ethnic group numbering about 10,000 people living in the mountains of northeastern Uganda near the border with Kenya, next to the more populous Karamojong and Turkana peoples. The Ik were displaced from their land to create the Kidepo Valley National Park and consequently suffered extreme famine. Also, their weakness relative to other tribes meant they were regularly raided. The Ik are subsistence farmers who grind their own grain.

The Ik language is a member of the highly divergent Kuliak subgroup of Nilo-Saharan languages.

Community structure[edit]

The Ik people live in several small villages arranged in clusters, which comprise the total "community". Each village is surrounded by an outer wall, then sectioned off into familial (or friend-based) "neighborhoods" called odoks, each surrounded by a wall. Each Odok is sectioned into walled-off households called asaks, with front yards (for lack of a better term) and in some cases, granaries.


Ik village in northern Uganda, 2005

Ik society is no more or less generous than the norm when tested with dictator games.[1]

The Mountain People[edit]

In 1972, British-American anthropologist Colin Turnbull published an ethnography about the Ik titled The Mountain People. The book provides an examination of Ik culture and practices based on information he gathered during a stay in the years 1965–1966. He depicts the Ik as a people forced into extreme individualistic practices in order to survive. Using the few remaining elderly Ik as sources, he attempts to describe the former Ik society (including hunter-gatherer practices; marriage, childbirth, and death rituals and taboos; religious and spiritual beliefs, and other aspects). Much of the work, however, focuses on the then-current condition of the Ik people during a severe famine brought on by two consecutive drought years.[2]

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! – The Mountain People, Ch. 2, p. 35.

Turnbull became very involved with the Ik people, and openly writes about his horror at many of the events he witnessed, most notably total disregard for familial bonds leading to the death of children and the elderly by starvation. He does speak warmly about certain Ik, and describes his "misguided" efforts to give food and water to those too weak to provide for themselves, standing guard over them to prevent others from stealing the food. Turnbull shares these experiences to raise questions concerning basic human nature, and makes constant reference to "goodness" and "virtue" being cast aside when there is nothing left but a need to survive (even going so far as to draw parallels to the individualism of 'civilized' society). Overall, living with the Ik seems to have afflicted Turnbull more with melancholy and depression than anger, and he dedicated his work "to the Ik, whom I learned not to hate".

Criticism of Turnbull's work[edit]

While popular, the book was controversial, and the accuracy and methodology of Turnbull's work has been questioned. Turnbull himself mentions his sources' uncooperative nature and tendency to lie. Bernd Heine gives the following examples to support his claims that Turnbull's conclusions and methodology were flawed.[3]

  • There is evidence that Turnbull had limited knowledge of Ik language and tradition—and virtually no knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region. He seems to have misrepresented the Ik by describing them as traditionally being hunters and gatherers forced by circumstance to become farmers, when there is ample linguistic and cultural evidence that the Ik were farmers long before they were displaced from their hunting grounds after the formation of Kidepo National Park—the event that Turnbull says forced the Ik to become farmers.
  • Some of Turnbull's main informants were not Ik, but Diding'a people. Lomeja, a local who helped teach Turnbull the Ik dialect, was undoubtedly Diding'a, and according to informants of linguist Bernd Heine (who studied the Ik in early 1983) spoke only broken Ik. Moreover, three out of the six villages Turnbull studied were headed by non-Ik people.
  • Turnbull's claim that Ik raided cattle and frequently did "a double deal" by selling information concerning the raid to the victims is not corroborated by the Dodoth County Chief's monthly reports, as well as records of the Administrator in Moroto between 1963 and 1969. Rather, these files and reports actually suggest that the largest number of cattle raids occurred in parts of Dodoth County where no mention of Ik raiding livestock can be found in any of these documents.
  • Turnbull's claims that adultery was common among the Ik is contrary to statements of informants interviewed by Bernd Heine in 1983. They reported that during the two years Turnbull stayed in Pirre there was only one case of adultery. Heine writes: "All Ik elders interviewed stated that there are no indications whatsoever in the oral traditions to suggest that adulterers were burnt in the past." (Turnbull's work itself expressed doubt as to the veracity of his source's claims to that effect.)
  • Heine adds, "...Turnbull's account of Ik culture turned out to be at variance with most observations we made—to the extent that at times I was under the impression that I was dealing with an entirely different people."

Heine endorsed the conclusion of T.O. Beidelman.[4]

This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.

Turnbull also argued that Ik society was already destroyed and all that could be done was to save individual tribal members. Consequently Turnbull advocated to the Ugandan government forcible relocation of random tribal members (with no more than ten people in any relocated group).[5]

Cultural references[edit]

In 1975, Turnbull's book provided the source material for a play called The Ik, written by Colin Higgins and Dennis Cannan.[6][7] The play, directed by Peter Brook, premiered in Paris in 1975,[8] and was produced in London in 1976 by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It also toured the United States in 1976 as a bicentennial gift from the French government.

Physician and poet Lewis Thomas wrote an essay entitled "The Ik"; Cevin Soling read this as a child, sparking an interest that ultimately led to his making a documentary, Ikland (2011). It was produced in the mid-2000s by Spectacle Films and directed by Soling and David Hilbert. The film depicts the Ik people in a positive light by showing how easily befriended they are, how they survive and live as families, their music and dancing and even their ability to step into acting roles. The documentary concludes with members of the tribe staging a performance of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, as a metaphor of redemption.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ “Generosity among the Ik of Uganda.” Cathryn Townsend, Athena Aktipis, Daniel Balliet & Lee Cronk. Evolutionary Human Sciences, vol. 2, 2020, p. e23. ISSN 2513-843X. Retrieved 2020-10-06.
  2. ^ Turnbull, Colin M. The Mountain People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. ISBN 0671217240.
  3. ^ Heine, Bernd, The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 55, No. 1, 1985, pp. 3–16.
  4. ^ Beidelman, T.O., Africa 43(2) (1973) 170–71, Review of Colin M. Turnbull, The Mountain People
  5. ^ Knight, John, "'The Mountain People' as tribal mirror." Anthropology Today, Vol. 10, No. 6, December 1994.
  6. ^ Turnbull, Colin (1 January 1976). "Turnbull Replies". RAIN (16): 4–6. doi:10.2307/3031968. JSTOR 3031968.
  7. ^ Higgins, Colin and Cannan, Dennis. The Ik. 1985. ISBN 0871293064
  8. ^ "Colin Higgins Biography". Bookrags.com. 2010-11-02. Retrieved 2016-08-06.

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