In anthropology, pygmy peoples are ethnic groups whose average height is unusually short. Anthropologists[who?] have used the term pygmyism to describe the phenotype of endemic short stature (as opposed to disproportionate dwarfism occurring in isolated cases in a population) for populations in which adult men are on average less than 150 cm (4 ft 11 in) tall.
The term is primarily associated with the African Pygmies, the hunter-gatherers of the Congo basin (comprising the Bambenga, Bambuti and Batwa). The term "pygmoid" is a traditional morphological racial category for the Central African Pygmies, considered a subgroup of the Negroid category. The term "Asiatic Pygmies" has been used of the Negrito populations of Maritime Southeast Asia and other Australoid peoples of short stature.
The term pygmy, as used to refer to diminutive people, derives from Greek πυγμαῖος pygmaios via Latin Pygmaei (sing. Pygmaeus), derived from πυγμή – meaning a fist, or 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 dwarfs, first described by Homer, the ancient Greek poet, and reputed to live in India and south of modern-day Ethiopia.
The term pygmy is sometimes considered pejorative. However, there is no single term to replace it. Many prefer to be identified by their ethnicity, 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 Republic to refer to all local pygmies. Likewise, the Kongo word Bambenga is used in Congo.
Various theories have been proposed to explain the short stature of pygmies. Some studies suggest that it could be related to adaptation to 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.
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 as an association with rapid reproductive maturation under conditions of early mortality. (See also Aeta people § Demographics.) Other evidence points towards unusually low levels of expression of the genes encoding the growth hormone receptor and growth hormone compared to the related tribal groups, associated with low serum levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 and short stature.
African pygmies live in several ethnic groups in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo (ROC), the Central African Republic, Cameroon, the Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Madagascar, and Zambia. 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; no group lives deep in the forest without access to agricultural products. It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 600,000 Pygmies living in the Congo rainforest. However, although Pygmies are thought of as forest people, the groups called Twa may live in open swamp or desert.
A commonly held belief is that African Pygmies are the direct descendants of 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, Ubangian, and Bantu languages. This view has no archaeological support, and ambiguous support from genetics and linguistics.[dubious ]
Some 30% of Aka language is not Bantu, and a similar percentage of Baka language is not Ubangian. Much of pygmy vocabulary is botanical, dealing 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. However, this type of vocabulary is subject to widespread borrowing among the Pygmies and neighboring peoples, and the "Baaka" language was only reconstructed to the 15th century.
African pygmy populations are genetically diverse and extremely divergent from all other human populations, suggesting they have an ancient indigenous lineage. Their uniparental markers represent the second-most ancient divergence right after those typically found in Khoisan peoples. Recent advances in genetics shed some light on the origins of the various pygmy groups. Researchers found "an early divergence of the ancestors of Pygmy hunter–gatherers and farming populations 60,000 years ago, followed by a split of the Pygmies' ancestors into the Western and Eastern Pygmy groups 20,000 years ago."
New evidence suggests East and West African Pygmy children have different growth patterns. The difference between the two groups may indicate the Pygmies’ short stature did not start with their common ancestor, but instead evolved independently in adapting to similar environments, which adds support that some sets of genes related to height were advantageous in Eastern Pygmy populations, but not in Western Pygmy populations.
However, Roger Blench (1999) argues that the Pygmies are not descended from residual hunter-gatherer groups, but rather are offshoots of larger neighboring ethnolinguistic groups that had adopted forest subsistence strategies. Blench notes the lack of clear linguistic and archaeological evidence for the antiquity of "Pygmy" cultures and peoples, and also notes that the genetic evidence can be problematic. Blench (1999) also notes that there is no evidence of the Pygmies have hunting technology distinctive from that of their neighbors, and argues that the short stature of Pygmy populations can arise relatively quickly (in less than a few millenia) due to strong selection pressures.
There are at least a dozen Pygmy groups, sometimes unrelated to each other. The best known are the Mbenga (Aka and Baka) of the western Congo basin, who speak Bantu and Ubangian languages; the Mbuti (Efe etc.) of the Ituri Rainforest, who speak Bantu and Central Sudanic languages, and the Twa of the African Great Lakes, who speak Bantu Rundi and Kiga.
Maritime Southeast Asia
Negritos in Southeast Asia (including the Batak and Aeta of the Philippines, the Andamanese of the Andaman Islands, and the Semang of the Malay Peninsula) 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 black person", 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, peppercorn hair, and steatopygia, the Andamanese had little in common with any African population, including the African pygmies. Their superficial resemblance to some Africans and Melanesians is thought to be due to living in a similar environment, or simply retentions of the initial human form.
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 the early out-of-Africa migration of the Great Coastal Migration of the Proto-Australoids, or that they are descendants of one of the founder populations of modern humans.
Short-statured aboriginal tribes inhabited the rainforests of North Queensland, Australia, of which the best known group is probably the Tjapukai or Djabugay people 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. These Rainforest People tended to live in the first variety of Jykabita, a wood and mud structure renowned for incubation of plants.
Micronesia and Melanesia
An anthropologist, Norman Gabel, mentions that rumours exist of pygmy people in the interior mountains of Viti Levu in Fiji, but explains he had no evidence of their existence. Another anthropologist, E.W. Gifford, reiterates Gabel's statement and claims that tribes of pygmies in the closest proximity to Fiji would most likely be found in Vanuatu.
During the 1900s when Vanuatu was known as New Hebrides, sizable pygmy tribes were first reported throughout northeastern Santo. It is likely that they are not limited to this region of New Hebrides. Nonetheless, there is no anthropological evidence linking pygmies to other islands of Vanuatu.
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 China (Yunnan and Tibet), Burma, and India. 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 known "pygmies" of clearly East Asian descent. 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.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to African Pygmies.|
- African Pygmies: Hunter-Gatherer Peoples of Central Africa
- The Pygmies' Plight Smithsonian Magazine, December 2008 by Paul Raffaele
- Survival International: Pygmies
- Pygmy Survival Alliance
- Undated footage of Pygmy tribe constructing a vine bridge
- Mbuti Net Hunters of the Ituri Forest, story with photos and link to Audio Slideshow. By Todd Pitman, The Associated Press, 2010.