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Pygmy peoples

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Baka pygmy dancers in the East Region of Cameroon

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.[1]

The term is primarily associated with the African Pygmies, the hunter-gatherers of the Congo basin (comprising the Bambenga, Bambuti and Batwa).[2] The term "pygmoid" is a traditional morphological racial category for the Central African Pygmies, considered a subgroup of the Negroid category.[3] The term "Asiatic Pygmies" has been used of the Negrito populations of Maritime Southeast Asia and other Australoid peoples of short stature.[4]

The T'rung (Taron) of Myanmar are an exceptional case of a "pygmy" population of East Asian phenotype.


A family from a Ba Aka pygmy village

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.[5]

The term pygmy is sometimes considered pejorative. However, there is no single term to replace it.[6] Many prefer to be identified by their ethnicity, such as the Aka (Mbenga), Baka, Mbuti, and Twa.[7] 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.

Short stature

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.[8][9] 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.[10]

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.[11] (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.[12]

African Pygmies

African pygmies and a European explorer.

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.[7] 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.[7] It is estimated that there are between 250,000 and 600,000 Pygmies living in the Congo rainforest.[13][14] 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 ][15][16][17]

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.[18]

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.[19] 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."[20]

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.[20][21][22]

However, Roger Blench (1999)[23] 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.


Distribution of Pygmies and their languages according to Bahuchet (2006). The southern Twa are not shown.

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

Ati woman of the Philippines

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.[24] 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.[25]

Their origin and the route of their migration to Asia is still a matter of great speculation. They are genetically distant from Africans,[25] 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.[26]

The "Rampasasa pygmies" of Flores, Indonesia gained some attention in the early 2000s in connection with the nearby discovery of Homo floresiensis.[27]


There is mention of tribes of Pygmy aborigines near Cairns, Queensland, in Peter McAllister's book Pygmonia: In search of the secret land of the Pygmies.

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.[28] 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.[29] These Rainforest People tended to live in the first variety of Jykabita, a wood and mud structure renowned for incubation of plants.[30]

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.[31] 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.[32]

In 2008, the remains of at least 25 miniature humans, who lived between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago, were found on the islands of Palau in Micronesia.[33][34]

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.[32][35]

T'rung (Myanmar)

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.[36][37][38][39]

In 2013, a link between the T'rung and the Derung people in Yunnan, China was uncovered by Richard D. Fisher, which may indicate the presence of pygmy populations among the Derung tribe.[40]

See also


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  2. ^ Archived 2016-02-07 at the Wayback Machine. African Pygmies
  3. ^ Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt (1934), cited by John Murphy, The Origins and History of Religions, Manchester University Press (1949), p. 52.
  4. ^ The Armand de Quatrefages, Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau, Pygmies (1895).
  5. ^ pygmy Archived 2013-10-29 at the Wayback Machine.. Online Etymology Dictionary.
  6. ^ Hewlett, Barry S. "Cultural diversity among African pygmies." In: Cultural Diversity Among Twentieth-Century Foragers Archived 2010-06-09 at the Wayback Machine.. Susan Kent, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
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  8. ^ Becker, Noémie S.A.; Verdu, Paul; Froment, Alain; Le Bomin, Sylvie; Pagezy, Hélène; Bahuchet, Serge; Heyer, Evelyne (2011). "Indirect evidence for the genetic determination of short stature in African Pygmies". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 145 (3): 390–401. doi:10.1002/ajpa.21512. PMID 21541921. 
  9. ^ Julian O'Dea (December 21, 2009). "Ultraviolet light levels in the rainforest". 
  10. ^ O'Dea, JD. Possible contribution of low ultraviolet light under the rainforest canopy to the small stature of Pygmies and Negritos. Homo: Journal of Comparative Human Biology, Vol. 44, No.3, pp. 284–7, 1994.
  11. ^ Short lives, short size – why are pygmies small? « Not Exactly Rocket Science Archived 2012-03-24 at the Wayback Machine..
  12. ^ Bozzola, M; Travaglino P; Marziliano N; Meazza C; Pagani S; Grasso M; Tauber M; Diegoli M; Pilotto A; Disabella E; Tarantino P; Brega A; Arbustini E (November 2009). "The shortness of Pygmies is associated with severe under-expression of the growth hormone receptor". Mol Genet Metab. 98 (3): 310–3. doi:10.1016/j.ymgme.2009.05.009. PMID 19541519. . Dávila N, Shea BT, Omoto K, Mercado M, Misawa S, Baumann G, "Growth hormone binding protein, insulin-like growth factor-I and short stature in two pygmy populations from the Philippines", J Pediatr Endocrinol Metab. 2002 Mar;15(3), 269-276.
  13. ^ World Bank accused of razing Congo forests Archived 2016-05-13 at the Wayback Machine., The Guardian.
  14. ^ Sheshadri, Raja. "Pygmies in the Congo Basin and Conflict." no.163 (2005): ICE Case Studies, American University (Mar 24, 2010).
  15. ^ R. Blench and M. Dendo. Genetics and linguistics in sub-Saharan Africa Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine., Cambridge-Bergen, June 24, 2004.
  16. ^ Klieman, Kairn A. The Pygmies Were Our Compass: Bantu and BaTwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900, Heinemann, 2003.
  17. ^ Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1986). African pygmies. Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-164480-2. Retrieved 11 October 2011. 
  18. ^ Serge Bahuchet, 1993, History of the inhabitants of the central African rain forest: perspectives from comparative linguistics. In C.M. Hladik, ed., Tropical forests, people, and food: Biocultural interactions and applications to development. Paris: Unesco/Parthenon. ISBN 1-85070-380-9
  19. ^ Tishkoff, SA; et al. (2009). "The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans". Science. 324 (5930): 1035–44. doi:10.1126/science.1172257. PMC 2947357Freely accessible. PMID 19407144. Archived from the original on 2011-11-15.  Also see Supplementary Data Archived 2013-12-29 at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^ a b Patin, E.; Laval, G.; Barreiro, L. B.; Salas, A.; Semino, O.; Santachiara-Benerecetti, S.; Kidd, K. K.; Kidd, J. R.; et al. (2009). Di Rienzo, Anna, ed. "Inferring the Demographic History of African Farmers and Pygmy Hunter–Gatherers Using a Multilocus Resequencing Data Set". PLoS Genetics. 5 (4): e1000448. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000448. PMC 2661362Freely accessible. PMID 19360089. 
  21. ^ Becker, Rachel A.; 28, National Geographic PUBLISHED July. "We May Have Been Wrong About How African Pygmies Grow". National Geographic News. Archived from the original on 2015-07-29. Retrieved 2015-07-28. 
  22. ^ Rozzi, Fernando V. Ramirez; Koudou, Yves; Froment, Alain; Le Bouc, Yves; Botton, Jérémie (2015-07-28). "Growth pattern from birth to adulthood in African pygmies of known age". Nature Communications. 6: 7672. doi:10.1038/ncomms8672. PMC 4525207Freely accessible. PMID 26218408. Archived from the original on 2015-07-31. 
  23. ^ Blench, Roger. 1999. Are the African Pygmies an ethnographic fiction Archived 2015-04-20 at the Wayback Machine.? In: Central African hunter-gatherers in a multi-disciplinary perspective: challenging elusiveness. K. Biesbrouck, S. Elders & G. Rossel eds. 41-60. Leiden: CNWS.
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  25. ^ a b Thangaraj, Kumarasamy; et al. (21 January 2003). "Genetic Affinities of the Andaman Islanders, a Vanishing Human Population" (PDF). Current Biology. 13 (2): 86–93(8). doi:10.1016/S0960-9822(02)01336-2. PMID 12546781. Archived from the original (PDF) on 29 October 2008. 
  26. ^ Kashyap, VK; Sitalaximi, T; Sarkar, BN; Trivedi, R (2003). "Molecular relatedness of the aboriginal groups of Andaman and Nicobar Islands with similar ethnic populations" (PDF). The International Journal of Human Genetics. 3: 5–11. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2009-03-27. 
  27. ^ Elegant, Simon (2005-05-30). "Bones of Contention". Time. Archived from the original on 2010-10-14. Retrieved 2010-05-22.  ""Hobbits" Were Pygmy Ancestors, Not New Species, Study Says". Archived from the original on 2007-03-18. 
  28. ^ Tindale's Catalogue of Australian Aboriginal Tribes: Tjapukai (QLD) Archived 2008-07-26 at the Wayback Machine..
  29. ^ Australia for the Australians Archived 2009-01-15 at the Wayback Machine..
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  32. ^ a b E.W. Gifford. "Anthropological problems in Fiji". Retrieved 3 May 2014. 
  33. ^ Ian Sample (March 12, 2008). "Pygmy human remains found on rock islands". The Guardian. Archived from the original on December 28, 2016. 
  34. ^ Lee R. Berger; Steven E. Churchill; Bonita De Klerk1; Rhonda L. Quinn (March 2008). "Small-Bodied Humans from Palau, Micronesia". PLoS ONE. 3 (3): e1780. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001780. PMC 2268239Freely accessible. PMID 18347737. 
  35. ^ Felix Speiser. "Ethnology of Vanuatu: An Early Twentieth Century Study". p. 400. 
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