, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 325-353

From subsistence to market: A case study of the mbuti net hunters

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Abstract

This article describes the recent transition from subsistence to market hunting of some net-hunting Mbuti, a nomadic society of the Ituri Forest of Zaire. The history of this development dates to the late 1950s, as the Mbuti began to have increasing contact with commercial meat traders, called bachuuzi, from outside markets. Before this, the Mbuti had a long history of contact with local swidden agriculturalists, called bakbala, a relationship that continues today. It is sanctioned by religious beliefs, but material exchanges are also important. The Mbuti provide bakbala with meat and other forest resources and receive in return iron implements, tobacco, and cultivated food. The Mbuti view such items now as necessities; however, this does not allow the bakbala to subjugate or control them. Most exchanges take place in the bakbala's village at the Mbuti's discretion, and exchange rates are not fixed. Finally it appears that such trade does not undermine the resource base of either group. The Mbuti's commercial exchanges contrast with this subsistence-oriented system. Unlike the bakbala, the bachuuzi traders establish themselves in the Mbuti's forest camps, where they can promote intensified net hunting and monopolize trade of meat. The Mbuti tolerate the alien traders in camp because they are often a convenient source of food and other desired material goods; however, they do not share the traders' commercial motives. The Mbuti freely manipulate credit to their own advantage and they are often able to evade the traders' efforts at economic control. The future of market hunting is uncertain. Mbuti material needs are changing and the antelope fauna (Cephalophinae) upon which commercial trade depends is being reduced in some areas.

A fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation provided financial support for this research. I am also thankful to Citoyen Bokanga Ekanga Botombele, Commissaire d'Etat du Zaire for his interest in my work and support in obtaining necessary visas, and to Père Thyert of the Catholic Mission of Biambwe for his generous hospitality. Terese Butler Hart, Colin Turnbull, Paul Riesman, Randall Packard, Paul Wholt, and Stuart Marks criticized drafts of this paper. Finally, I am most grateful to the Mbuti with whom I lived for so generously sharing their daily life with me.