, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 29-55

The ecological basis of hunter-gatherer subsistence in African Rain Forests: The Mbuti of Eastern Zaire

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Abstract

The Mbuti pygmies, hunter-gatherers of the Ituri Forest of Zaire, trade forest products and labor for agricultural foods. It has been assumed that the Mbuti lived independently in the equatorial forest prior to its penetration by shifting cultivators. We assessed forest food resources (plant and animal) to determine their adequacy to support a hunting and gathering economy. For five months of the year, essentially none of the calorically important forest fruits and seeds are available. Honey is not abundant during this season of scarcity. Wild game meat is available year round, but the main animals caught have low fat content. This makes them a poor substitute for starch-dense agricultural foods, now staples in Mbuti diet. In general, in the closed evergreen forest zone, edible wild plant species are more abundant in agriculturally derived secondary forest than in primary forest. Similarly, they are more common at the savanna ecotone and in gallery forests. We suggest that it is unlikely that hunter-gatherers would have lived independently in the forest interior with its precarious resource base, when many of the food species they exploit are more abundant toward the savanna border.