Who are the African Pygmies?

Aka mother and child, Central African Republic (2014)
Max Chiswick – Own work

The African Pygmies are a group of ethnicities native to Central Africa, mostly the Congo Basin, traditionally subsisting on a forager and hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They are divided into three roughly geographic groups:

  • the western Bambenga, or Mbenga (Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic),
  • the eastern Bambuti, or Mbuti, of the Congo basin (DRC)
  • the central and southern Batwa, or Twa (Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Angola and Namibia). The more widely scattered (and more variable in physiology and lifestyle) Southern Twa are also grouped under the term Pygmoid.

Despite their cultural variety, according to various studies, the pygmies of Western Central Africa descended from an ancestral population that survived intact until 2800 years ago when farmers most likely the Bantu migrating from the West invaded the pygmies’ territory and split them apart.

It is still unresolved whether African pygmies inherited their height from a common ancestor or whether shortness evolved independently in each tribe because it was advantageous for life in the forest. It might have been an adaptation to foraging in the forests undergrowth. Pygmies grow normally like most humans until they adolescent where they stop growing.

It is hard getting proper information from fossils of whether the ancestors of the Pygmy peoples were short to begin with or whether they evolved more recently in the different groups living within Africa’s largest tropical forest. Even though humans have inhibited the Central Africa forest for at least 30,000. DNA hasn’t helped either.

According to recent anthropological studies conducted by anthropological geneticist Paul Verdu of the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris and colleagues, 9 groups of pygmies DNA and 12 neighbouring groups of neighbouring communities were analysed and the results showed that even though the pygmies had a lot genetic diversity, they could possibly trace their ancestry to the same population living as recently as 2800 years ago.

According to more studies, the DNA flow shows unusual patterns connected to the surrounding non-pygmy populations. It shows that more DNA comes from the neighbouring communities. The breeding of pygmies was fairly cohesive until around 2800 where Bantus migrating from the west started interbreeding with the pygmy populations. pygmy women would tend to marry non pygmy men and move home. But due to discrimination the pygmy women would return to their pygmy community with kids whose DNA was from taller fathers.

Systematic discrimination

Historically, the Pygmy have always been viewed as inferior by both the village dwelling Bantu tribes and colonial authorities.This has translated into systematic discrimination. One early example was the capture of Pygmy children under the auspices of the Belgian colonial authorities, who exported Pygmy children to zoos throughout Europe, including the world’s fair in the United States in 1907.

Pygmies are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying jobs. At a state level, Pygmies are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling. Government policies and multinational corporations involved in massive deforestation have exacerbated this problem by forcing more Pygmies out of their traditional homelands and into villages and cities where they often are marginalised, impoverished, and abused by the dominant culture.The Aka Pygmies living in the Dzanga-Sangha Special Reserve in Central African Republic

There are roughly 500,000 Pygmies left in the rain-forest of Central Africa. This population is rapidly decreasing as poverty, intermarriage with Bantu peoples, Westernization, and deforestation gradually destroy their way of life and culture.

The greatest environmental problem the Pygmies face is the loss of their traditional homeland, the tropical forests of Central Africa. In countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo this is due to deforestation and the desire of several governments in Central Africa to evict the Pygmies from their forest habitat in order to profit from the sale of hardwood and the resettlement of farmers onto the cleared land. In some cases, as in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this conflict is violent. Certain groups, such as the Hutus of the Interahamwe, wish to eliminate the Pygmy and take the resources of the forest as a military conquest, using the resources of the forest for military as well as economic advancement. Since the Pygmies rely on the forest for their physical as well as cultural survival, as these forests disappear, so do the Pygmy.

Along with Raja Sheshardi, the fPcN-Global.org website had conducted research on the pygmies. The human rights organization states that as the forest has receded under logging activities, its original inhabitants have been pushed into populated areas to join the formal economy, working as casual laborers or on commercial farms and being exposed to new diseases. This shift has brought them into closer contact with neighboring ethnic communities whose HIV levels are generally higher. This has led to the spread of HIV/AIDS into the pygmy group.

Since poverty has become very prevalent in the Pygmy communities, sexual exploitation of indigenous women has become a common practice. Commercial sex has been bolstered by logging, which often places large groups of male laborers in camps which are set up in close contact with the Pygmy communities.

Human rights groups have also reported widespread sexual abuse of indigenous women in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite these risks, Pygmy populations generally have poor access to health services and information about HIV. The British medical journal, The Lancet, published a review showing that Pygmy populations often had worse access to health care than neighbouring communities. According to the report, even where health care facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, they do not have the documents and identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, and they are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment.

Studies in Cameroon and ROC in the 1980s and 1990s showed a lower prevalence of HIV in pygmy populations than among neighboring ones, but recent increases have been recorded. One study found that the HIV prevalence among the Baka pygmies in eastern Cameroon went from 0.7 percent in 1993 to 4 percent in 2003.


Raja James Sheshardi of the American University conducted a case study on the Pygmies of Africa and concluded that deforestation has greatly affected their everyday lives. Pygmy culture is threatened today by the forces of political and economic change. In recent times, this has manifested itself into an open conflict over the resources of the tropical rain-forest; it is a conflict that the Pygmy are losing.


  1. This belief that Pygmies are less than human is common across equatorial Africa. They “are marginalized by the Bantu,” says David Greer, an American primatologist who lived with Pygmies in the Central Africa Republic for nearly a decade. “All the serious village or city leaders are Bantu, and they usually side with other Bantu” in any dispute involving Pygmies.

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