“First, we’re going to collect our data,” Jack, the archaeologist, was telling me as we slogged down the narrow overgrown path. He seemed annoyed. “Then, we’ll leave. Until we leave, they won’t leave. They think it would be rude. After they leave, we’ll go back and map in the abandoned camp.”
I had just arrived at the research camp in the Ituri Forest, then Zaire and now the Congo, after a rather long and harrowing journey that took me from Boston to New York to London to Lagos to Kinshasa to Kisingani to Isiro, all by plane, then over 250 kilometers of increasingly less road-like road, to the world’s most “remote” research site to be found among human settlements anywhere on the planet. Jack’s research involved looking at what happened to Efe Pygmy “camps” after they were abandoned. The Efe hunter-gatherers were known to move camp an average of once every two weeks or so. An archaeologist would want to know what happens to a camp once it is abandoned because many of the ancient sites we excavate are exactly that, abandoned settlements. Jack had been tracking Efe movement and camp abandonment patterns for one year, and the expectation was that I would continue his data collection for another year, as he and his wife returned to Montana to write up their results.
The Efe, being very hospitable, were reluctant to leave a camp with visitors present, even if the visitors promised to leave with them, and certainly would never leave a camp if the visitors stayed behind. It just wasn’t done. Jack never told me how long it took for him and Helen to figure out that every time they visited a camp they were told would be abandoned that day, the Efe never actually moved, but eventually they came upon the method of arriving about the time of expected abandonment, collecting some preliminary data, and then leaving only to return hours, or perhaps a day, later.
“Oh, excuse, me have you moved yet? No? OK, see you tomorrow.”
When we arrived at the camp, which was located very near the Lese villages … the Lese are the farming people who with an overlapping culture and economy with the Efe … there were a lot of people there. This was a camp with several adult couples and a number of kids of all ages from baby up to nearly teenage. Since this was Jack and Helen’s last visit, they brought gifts to give to the people who had helped them out for the previous year. Project regulations and ethics required that any gifts be irrelevant to diet or economics, not usable as tools of poaching, not likely to change people’s status, and be likely to be used up or worn out quickly. So, everybody got plastic green sunglasses, the really cheap kind you buy by the dozen at a party store to use as favors.
The data collection involved listing all the people who were present, using coded references so no one could ever trace a real individual to any of our reports or publications. Years ago there was a revolution here in the Ituri during which lists of plantation workers or other employees, people who might be sympathetic to the Belgian colonials, were used to find and sometimes kill sympathizers. In case something like that ever happened again, we did not want our records to be used to identify people who were friendly to outsiders who might be seen as oppressors. That we tried very hard to not be oppressors was hardly the point; violent revolutions often get such things wrong. We would also offer everyone in the camp the opportunity to display their tools and other durable items so that we could inventory and photograph them. This was done voluntarily, but in this particular culture there was no proscription against it as long as we were looking only at regular household items or hunting weapons. Any sacred ritual items would be kept hidden, most likely, and we would not ask about them.
It was a party, a good time, lots of conversation, some weeping over the fact that the much beloved Jack and Helen would be moving back to the States, lots of fun with the green sunglasses, lots of data collected. Then, we left, and the next day we returned to map in the locations of the small dome shaped leaf-covered huts and other structures, fire hearths, stick chairs, drying racks, midden piles, trampled central-use areas, and so on and so forth. This is what the abandoned camp of a people known in the literature, and generally to outsiders, as “nomads” looked like. There was lots of stuff there, but all of it was made from materials available on the spot, transformed from wild growing plants to architecture and kitchen furniture, but eventually thrown out or left behind. Everything else was carried by the Efe, in one trip, to the next camp they would build from natural materials. Or almost everything.
To understand the movement of the Efe across the landscape, one had to first understand the seasonal cycles of the villages and the forest. While the Efe were hunter gatherers, living off the land in the African rain forest, they also associated with the Lese Villagers, farmers who grew crops in swidden (slash and burn) gardens. Sometimes the Efe men helped the Lese to develop the gardens, especially new gardens, by cutting and burning trees, in exchange for some goods, often tobacco and marijuana (which were always consumed together). But much more regularly, the women worked in the gardens planting, tending, harvesting, and processing rice, peanuts, cassava, plantains, and other crops. These gardens had a seasonal cycle. Being almost on the equator, there were two growing seasons, a wet season for “dry” country rice and a less wet season for growing peanuts. The other crops were grown year round. So, there was a harvesting and planting season around June, and another harvesting and planting season around November.
In return for their work in the fields, Efe could take food from the gardens. In the end, about half of the food the Efe ate consisted of agricultural produce procured in exchange for this work and the other half of their food came from the forest, mostly hunted meat but also gathered fruits and roots and other things.
And the forest had it’s seasonal cycle as well. During the dry season, which lasted several weeks around November and December, certain animals were easier to hunt because the streams they hid in, or that would impair hunter’s movement through the forest, were very low. Staring in late June and running into August, the famous African Killer Honey Bees (the wild version of our own domesticated honey bee) produced copious honey in nests about 100 feet up in the forest canopy. The Efe men were very dedicated to harvesting this honey.
If you think about that information for a bit you’ll notice possible conflict. For example, the Efe are drawn to the deep forest for Honey Season, but this overlaps with the mid-year harvest and planting. The November harvest and planting overlapped and conflicted with the dry season hunting. You might guess that men and women would have different opinions about where to reside during these periods of conflicts. The women would never stay overnight in a farm village during harvest; they moved each day by foot from the Efe camp to the gardens and back. But as it became more desirable to camp farther and farther into the forest, that commute became longer and longer. We say (usually tongue in cheek) that Western couples fight over certain things, like money or how to raise the kids or what channel to watch on TV. Efe couples argue over where to put the camp in relation to the horticultural villages vs. the deep forest.
I ended up never continuing Jack and Helen’s data collection project. That I would spend a year doing Part II of another graduate student’s thesis was an idea cooked up by our shared advisor, but neither Jack nor I saw the benefit in doing that. He had enough data, I had other things to do. So, instead, I studied the larger scale structure of Efe nomadism, of their movements across the landscape and their use of forest resources.
I discovered that each Efe group possessed (and that is a carefully chosen word) rights to a trail, usually one single trail but sometimes something a bit more complicated, that ran from the villages out into the forest. Along this trail, at intervals of almost exactly 1.5 kilometers, was a potential camp site. Of these camp sites, a handful were used again and again as the Efe moved through their seasonal cycle. Some of the other camps were used only occasionally. This was interesting, because it meant that even though the efe might move over 20 times a year, the part of their movement in the deep forest had them return to the same exact four or five camps again and again for years. They would also repeatedly use the same camps near the villages, but since village farmers often moved their swidden gardens, wiping out grown-over sections of the forest in one area and abandoning a garden elsewhere, the Efe “village camps” … the camps used during planting and harvest seasons … were often destroyed or otherwise became inconvenient.
I also discovered that the Efe named each of their camps. This should not be surprising. Humans everywhere use place names to navigate and situate themselves in space. As with place names generally, the names of camps often had a meaningful history. One camp was named “Near the rotten orange tree.” That was a camp located near a garden where there once stood a citrus tree, long gone. That was revealing because there were no villages anywhere near the old orang tree today, the original village having been left decades ago. The best camp name I encountered was “Place the women refuse to pass.” This meant that this was the location along that particular group’s trail that the women refused to move camp beyond during the seasons they commuted to work in the gardens. As it was, this camp was about two hours walk from the villages. No wonder they refused to live beyond that point while working in the farms!
And now we come to the interesting anthropological lesson that emerges when we look at other cultures, in this case, the Efe and Lese. In books and articles about the Pygmies of the Central African rain forest, the Pygmies (including the Efe as well as other groups with different names) are often called “nomads.” Nomads, we all know, are people who move a lot. The term also invokes, for many, a certain amount of randomness, or at least, uncertainty in where one might be moving next. There is indeed uncertainty, of a sort, among the Efe as to when they are going to move and where to. But this is simply because one does not need to decide when or where until it is time to do so. There is a constant negotiation happening between members of a particular group as to when to move, and which camp to move to. If there is a big enough difference between different families in a camp, they can easily move to two different locations for a while, or one group can stay and others leave. But these differences never lead to the men going one place while the women go elsewhere, even though the biggest conflict is usually between men and women. The point is, their movement is not random, but well considered and systematic, yet in at the scale of days or weeks in advance, not very predictable at any level of detail.
Yet, at the same time, the Efe are the opposite of nomadic. Consider their Lese village farmer neighbors. They live in permanent villages. But, over time, the Lese use up garden space and firewood in the vicinity of their village. Also, a mini-epidemic of disease in a given village will cause people to not want to live there any more. So, over the course of a person’s life, say a person who lives to 70 years old, one might move seven or eight times from one village to another just in service to the agricultural cycle.
But wait, there’s more. Among the villagers, men and women, when they are married, move to one parent’s village or another for a while, then try to start their own village, and that sometimes does not work out, so they move again. So, around the age of marriage, a person may move three or four times in two or three years. A young man might spend two or three years working at a plantation far from their village, or spend some time in the army. A woman and her children might move to near a chief’s village if her husband is caught doing something wrong and forced into indentured service for a few months. Every now and then the government comes along and moves any village that is too far out in the forest closer to the road so it is easier to tax them. Then later, the government disappears (remember, this is a remote area) and everyone moves back. If grandma gets really sick part of the family might move far away to a mission hospital, because the family is required to supply food and labor to support grandma’s stay in what amounts to a hospice. And so on and so forth.
Betweeen all of these factors, Lese farmers might move 20 times in their life.
Let’s view “nomadism” among the Efe hunter gatherers and the Lese villagers from a slightly different perspective. Let’s ask the question: How many different places have you slept a total of 100 nights or more? That eliminates short forays, fishing trips, very short marriages, etc. Or, putting it a slightly different way, let’s look at the list of places one lives ranked by how many nights one has slept there in a lifetime. Nomads, given our usual conception of them, should have a very long list with a small number of nights at each place, while settled people should have a list with a short number of localities each associated with hundreds or thousands of nights, even if there is a tail of several places with a small number of nights each down hear the bottom of the list.
If we look at the “nomadic” hunter gatherers of the Ituri Forest, the Efe, their list will have five or six places that account for 80% or more of their nights, if we adjust for the frequently destroyed camps in or near the gardens. The Lese farmers, on the other hand, will have over a dozen localities with a several hundred nights in each. By that reckoning, the Lese are more nomadic over a lifetime, even if the Efe are constantly moving.
Minnesotans who go away for college and whose families have a cabin (maybe a series of cabins over time) up north and who spend part of their lives moving opportunistically from apartment to apartment in South Minneapolis are pretty nomadic too. I myself moved once before the age of 16, then about every six months for the next 15 years, chasing relationships, jobs, schools, and doing field work.
Finally, let’s look at nomadism in one more way. If you move every several years, occasionally more often such as around the time of marriage, then at any given time the landscape you know is the landscape you live in, and the memories of details of the landscape of your childhood or other times gone by both fades and becomes obsolete. But if you move constantly, but over the same exact landscape all the time like the Efe do, then your knowledge of every bit of the landscape is detailed an intense and constantly updated and renewed. The Efe know every root that ever tripped them and every rocky pile that ever harbored a small forest animal procurable for dinner and every mature fruit tree and every patch of tasty forest yams in the place they live. The other part of my research, looking at Efe diet, came to this conclusion: There is a fair amount of food in the rain forest, but the only way to find any of it is to know in advance where it is located. Otherwise, the costs in time and energy to discover it excede its caloric value.
The Efe are not nomadic. They are, rather, constant inspectors of their rather large home, centered on their traditionally used trail, consisting of a half dozen venues to sleep and live.
More stuff about the Congo
A while back I wrote a Novella, as a fundraising effort for the Secular Student Alliance, set in the eastern Congo. A cleaned up version of it is available here: Sungudogo
You can read the harrowing real life story of a season of field research in the same region, in a series of blog posts, by clicking HERE (then click through to the next blog post, and the next, and the next, until you've read them all!).
And, THIS LINK will get you to a selection of other stories set in the region.
Jack's research was written up here:
Ethnoarchaeology Among the Efe Pygmies, Zaire: Spatial Organization of Campsites, by J. W. Fisher, Jr. and H. C. Strickland. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 78:473–484.
A really insightful take on nomadism. I am conducting ethnoarchaeological research with two iron-smelting communities in India. They are used to lead a "nomadic" life moving along the sources of ore and charcoal. But their movements were not erratic. These took place in a circle, guided primarily by their forest management strategies. They revisited their camps after a more or less fixed interval, and hence there was a certainty in their movements. You can read more on this here: http://ethnoarchaeologyresearch.com/
I am more nomadic in that sense, because although I occasionally visit my parents, much I do not really know where my next professional appointment will be.