Pygmies do not now live independently in the Ituri Forest, but did they sometime in the past? For the last few centuries they have lived in a complex reciprocity with agriculturalists. The Mbuti pygmies provide meat, various forest products and other services in exchange for manioc flour, bananas, tubers and rice. No forests in Congo have Pygmies living as hunter-gatherers without a regular source of outside agricultural food. But maybe once they did?
In the 1970s John lived in the southern Ituri forest and discovered just how important farm food was in the diet of the Mbuti. Eight years later we returned to the central Ituri Forest, as a family, to do the research for our PhDs. Over those 2 ½ years we examined the forest’s own ability to provide the calories needed to maintain a group of hunter gathers. Could the forest do it? Or was agriculture a pre-requisite for forest people?
Here are some of the wild survival options we looked at:
Meat is currently the Mbuti’s most regularly acquired forest food. This bushmeat is mainly traded for agricultural starch. Could the meat, in and of itself, be the main caloric as well as the main protein component of Mbuti diet?
Cultures that rely on animals for calories hunt animals with fat-rich bodies. In the 1920s a study found that 75% of Inuit energy intake was from fat (walrus, polar bear, whale…). If only meat low in fats is available, protein must be metabolized for energy. This is inefficient and puts a physiological strain on the body.
In the early 1980s we followed net-hunters in the central Ituri Forest. We stayed 5-10 days each at 8 different camps located 6-30 miles from the village of Epulu. We followed all hunts and recorded all animals caught.
One of the measurements we took was an index of antelope body fat as % of kidney covered with fat. If a carcass had more than 20g of mesentery fat, the hunter would strip it and roast it over a fire. That was rare. It occurred only during the years of high seed fall when the forest floor is briefly covered with seeds shed by the forest’s dominant trees. Results: Only one dry season did kidney fat ratio average over 40% and then only briefly, by the beginning of the wet season and for the rest of the year the average was under 15%.
Mbuti have a name for protein hunger, ekbelu, separate from calorie hunger, njala. They won’t stay in the forest camps with njala no matter how many animals are being caught on the hunt.
GATHERED PLANT FOODS:
There are a number of wild food plants with high calorie content that the Mbuti always collect when they find them.
The wild plant foods above compare very favorably to agricultural foods with respect to energy available as fats or carbohydrates and some are high in protein as well. None of them however are dependable in terms of availability. They are either:
1. rare and/or
There are at least five months, even during the years of most abundant fruiting , when there are essentially no seeds available. Some years there is little fruiting at all. Yams are less seasonal but tend to be small in the Ituri and are only clumped in relatively rare environments.
Mbau is the only food tree that is not rare in mature forest. They are the dominant tree in forests that cover sometimes many tens of square kilometers. When one flowers they usually all flower, and during the fruiting season the forest floor is littered with the starchy seeds. However the season of plenty does not happen every year and even when it does it only lasts two months, at most three. And, alas that season of plenty coincides with the ripening of other fruits and seeds and is not a bridge over a period of dearth.
Secondary forests, where a garden existed from 10 to 50 years earlier, are the habitats favored by most wild food plants. Without agricultural disturbance, these trees would be much rarer in the interior of the forest being restricted to the deciduous edges of the forests and more open hill forests.
OTHER WILD FOREST FOODS:
Mbuti rarely move camp to be near wild food plants. There are, however, two wild foods that will cause Mbuti to move from their hunting camps or village camps for periods of days, even weeks at a time. These are honey and termites. Again these are unreliable from year to year. In the Ituri we only ate termites in one out of three years. Although honey is more reliable, years of truly abundant honey are not common.
Even in the best years, the Ituri Forest has at least five months of carbohydrate scarcity. Could the Mbuti live permanently within the closed forest before partnering with agriculturalists? Why would they? The easiest scenario to imagine is that the Mbuti lived on the edges of the rainforest, along the savanna margin or in deciduous forest. Many of the food plants are more abundant here and they would have had the option of moving in and out of deeper forest in response to availability of termites, honey or mbau seeds.