Human Ecology

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 29–55 | Cite as

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

  • Terese B. Hart
  • John A. Hart


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.

Key words

hunter-gatherers tropical rain forest wild plant foods subsistence economy Zaire 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abruzzi, W. S. (1979). Population pressure and subsistence strategies among the Mbuti Pygmies.Human Ecology 7: 183–189.Google Scholar
  2. Bahuchet, S. (1972). Etude écologique d'un campement de pygmées Babinga.Journal d'Agriculture Tropicale et de Botanique Appliquée 19: 509–559.Google Scholar
  3. Bahuchet, S. (1975). Rapport sur une mission effectuée en saison sdeche en Lobayé.Journal d'Agriculture Tropicale et de Botanique Appliquée 22: 177–197.Google Scholar
  4. Bahuchet, S., and Guillaume, H. (1982). Aka-farmer relations in the northwest Congo Basin. In Leacock, E., and Lee, R. (eds.),Politics and History in Band Societies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 189–211.Google Scholar
  5. Bailey, R. (1979). The early Bantu expansion: Alternate routes. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  6. Bailey, R., and Peacock, N. (in press). Efe pygmies of northeast Zaire: Subsistence strategies in the Ituri Forest. In de Garine, I., and Harrison, G. (eds.),Uncertainty in the Food Supply. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.Google Scholar
  7. Bamps, P. (1948).Flore d'Afrique Central. Jardin Botanique National de Belgique, Domaine de Bouchout, Meise, Belgium.Google Scholar
  8. Bose, S. (1964). Economy of the Onge of Little Andaman.Man in India 44: 298–301.Google Scholar
  9. Bourliére, F., and Verschuren, J. (1960).Introduction á l'Ecologie des Ongulés du Parc National Albert. Institut des Parcs Nationaux du Congo Belge, Brussels.Google Scholar
  10. Bultot, F. (1971).Atlas Climatique du Bassin Congolais, Premiŕe Partie. Publications de l'Institut National pour l'Etude Agronomique du Congo Belge, hors série. Brussels, Belgium.Google Scholar
  11. Burkill, I. (1939). Notes on the genusDioscorea in the Belgian Congo.Bulletin du Jardin Botanique de l'Etat, Bruxelles 15: 345–392.Google Scholar
  12. Cavalli-Sforza, L. (1972). Pygmies, an example of hunter-gatherers, and genetic consequences for man of domestication of plants and animals. In deGrouchy, J., Ebling, F., and Henderson, I. (eds.),Human Genetics: Proceedings of the Fourth International Congress of Human Genetics. Excerpta Medica, Amsterdam, pp. 79–95.Google Scholar
  13. Cavalli-Sforza, L. (1977). Biological research on African Pygmies. In Harrison, G. (ed.),Population Structure and Human Variation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 273–284.Google Scholar
  14. Colchester, M. (1984). Rethinking stone age economics: Some speculations concerning the pre-Columbian Yanoama economy.Human Ecology 12: 291–314.Google Scholar
  15. Coursey, D. (1967).Yams. Longmans, London.Google Scholar
  16. Coursey, D. (1976). The origins and domestication of yams in Africa. In Harlan, J., Duvet, J., and Stemler, A. (eds.),Origins of African Plant Domestication. Mouton, Paris, pp. 383–408.Google Scholar
  17. Dalziel, J. (1937).The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa. Crown Agents for the Colonies, London.Google Scholar
  18. Devred, R. (1958). La végétation forestière du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi.Bulletin de la Société Royale Forestière de Belgique 6: 408–468.Google Scholar
  19. Dieterlen, F. (1978). Zur phanologie des aquatorialen regenwaldes im Ost-Zaire (Kivu). Dissertations Botanicae 47, J. Cramer, Vaduz.Google Scholar
  20. Eder, J. (1978). The calorie returns to food collecting: Disruption and change among the Batak of the Phillipine tropical forest.Human Ecology 6: 55–69.Google Scholar
  21. Ehret, C. (1982). Linguistic inferences about early Bantu history. In Ehret, C., and Posnansky, M. (eds.),The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. University of California Press, Berkley, pp. 57–65.Google Scholar
  22. Emmons, L., Gautier-Hion, A., and Dubost, G. (1983). Community structure of the frugivorous-folivorous forest mammals of Gabon.Journal of Zoology, London 199: 209–222.Google Scholar
  23. Endicott, K. (in press). The economy of the Batek of Malaysia: Annual and historical perspective.Research in Economic Anthropology.Google Scholar
  24. Frankie, G., Baker, H., and Opler, P. (1974). Comparative phenological studies of trees in tropical wet and dry forests in the lowlands of Costa Rica.Journal of Ecology 62: 881–919.Google Scholar
  25. Gardner, P. (1972). The Paliyans. In Bicchieri, M. (ed.),Hunters and Gatherers Today. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, pp. 404–447.Google Scholar
  26. Gerard, P. (1960). Etude écologique de la forêt dense àGilbertiodendron dewevrei dans la region de l'Uele. L'Institut National pour l'Etude Agronomique du Congo Belge, Série Scientifique No. 87, Brussels.Google Scholar
  27. Hamilton, A. (1981).A Field Guide to Uganda Forest Trees. University Printery, Makere University, Kampala.Google Scholar
  28. Hamilton, A. (1982).Environmental History of East Africa: A Study of the Quaternary. Academic Press, New York.Google Scholar
  29. Harako, R. (1976). The Mbuti as hunters: A study of ecological anthropology of the Mbuti pygmies (I).Kyoto University African Studies 10: 37–99.Google Scholar
  30. Harako, R. (1976). The Mbuti as hunters: A study of ecological anthropology of the Mbuti pygmies (I).Kyoto University African Studies 10: 37–99.Google Scholar
  31. Harako, R. (1981). The cultural ecology of hunting behavior among Mbuti Pygmies in the Ituri Forest, Zaire. In Harding, R., and Teleki, G. (eds.),Omnivorous Primates. Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 499–555.Google Scholar
  32. Hart, J. (1978). From subsistence to market: A case study of the Mbuti net hunters.Human Ecology 6: 325–353.Google Scholar
  33. Hart, J. (1979). Nomadic hunters and village cultivators: A study of subsistence interdependence in the Ituri Forest of Zaire. Unpublished masters thesis in geography, Michigan State University, East Lansing.Google Scholar
  34. Hart, J. (1985). A study of feeding ecology in a guild of African forest duikers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation in fisheries and wildlife, Michigan State University, East Lansing.Google Scholar
  35. Hart, T. (1985). The ecology of a single-species dominant forest and a mixed forest in Zaire, equatorial Africa. Unpublished doctoral dissertation in botany and plant pathology, Michigan State University, East Lansing.Google Scholar
  36. Hartley, C. (1977).The Oil Palm (2nd Ed.). Longman, New York.Google Scholar
  37. Hayden, B. (1981). Subsistence and ecological adaptations of modern hunter/gatherers. In Harding, R., and Teleki, G. (eds.),Omnivorous Primates. Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 344–421.Google Scholar
  38. Hiernaux, J. (1977). Long-term biological effects of human migration from the African savanna to the equatorial forest: A case study of human adaptation to a hot and wet climate. In Harrison, G. (ed.),Population Structure and Human Variation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 187–217.Google Scholar
  39. Hill, K. (1982). Hunting and human evolution.Journal of Human Evolution 11: 521–544.Google Scholar
  40. Hill, K., Hawkes, K., Hurtado, M., and Kaplan, H. (in press). Seasonal variance in the diet of Ache hunter-gatherers in eastern Paraguay.Human Ecology.Google Scholar
  41. Hladik, A., Bahuchet, S., Ducatillion, C., and Hladik, C. M. (1984). Les plantes à tubercules de la forêt dense d'Afrique centrale.La Terre et La Vie 39: 249–290.Google Scholar
  42. Ichikawa, M. (1981). Ecological and sociological importance of honey to the Mbuti net hunters, Eastern Zaire.African Studies Monographs (Kyoto) 1: 55–68.Google Scholar
  43. Ichikawa, M. (1983). An examination of the hunting-dependent life of the Mbuti Pygmies, Eastern Zaire.African Study Monographs (Kyoto) 4: 55–76.Google Scholar
  44. Janzen, D. (1967). Synchronization of sexual reproduction of trees with the dry season in Central America.Evolution 21: 620–637.Google Scholar
  45. Lebrun, J., and Gilbert, G. (1954). Une classification écologique des forêts du Congo. L'Institut National pour L'Etude Agronomique du Congo Belge, Série Scientifique No. 63, Brussels.Google Scholar
  46. Lee, R. (1973). Mongongo: The ethnography of a major wild food resource.Ecology of Food and Nutrition 2: 307–321.Google Scholar
  47. Livingstone, D. (1975). Late quaternary climatic change in Africa.Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 6: 249–280.Google Scholar
  48. Livingstone, D. (1980). History of the tropical rain forest.Paleobiology 6: 243–244.Google Scholar
  49. Milton, K. (1984). Protein and carbohydrate resources of the Maku indians of northwestern Amazonia.American Anthropologist 86: 7–27.Google Scholar
  50. Moore, H. (1973). Palms in the tropical forest ecosystems of Africa and ¯South America. In Meggers, B., Ayensu, E., and Duckworth, W. (eds.),Tropical Forest Ecosystems in Africa and South America: A Comparative Review. Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington, D.C., pp. 63–88.Google Scholar
  51. Nelson, R. (1975). Implications of excessive protein. In White, P., and Selvey, N. (eds.),Proceedings of the Western Hemisphere Nutrition Congress IV. Publishing Sciences “Group”, Acton, Massachusetts, pp. 71–76.Google Scholar
  52. Peterson, J. (1978). Hunter-gatherer/farmer exchange.American Anthropologist 80: 335–351.Google Scholar
  53. Putnam, P. (1948). The pygmies of the Ituri Forest. In Coon, C. (ed.),A. Reader in General Anthropology. Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 322–342.Google Scholar
  54. St. Moulin, L. (1976).Atlas des Collectivités du Zaire. Presse Universitaires du Zaire, Kinshasa.Google Scholar
  55. Saxon, D. (1982). Linguistic evidence for the eastward spread of the Ubangian peoples. In Ehret, C., and Posnansky, M. (eds.),The Archaeological and Linguistic Reconstruction of African History. University of California Press, Berkley, pp. 66–77.Google Scholar
  56. Schebesta, P. (1933).Among Congo Pygmies. Hutchinson and Co., London.Google Scholar
  57. Schebesta, P. (1936).Revisiting My Pygmy Hosts. Hutchinson and Co., London.Google Scholar
  58. Schnell, R. (1957).Plantes Alimentaires et Vie Agricole de l'Afrique Noire. Essai de Phytogéographie Alimentaire. Larose, Paris.Google Scholar
  59. Schnell, R. (1976).Introduction à la Phytogéographie des Pays Tropicaux (Vol. 3). La Flore et la Vegetation de l'Afrique Tropical. Gauthier-Villars, Paris.Google Scholar
  60. Schweinfurth, G. (1874).The Heart of Africa (2nd Ed.). Marston, Low and Searle, London.Google Scholar
  61. Sinha, D. (1972). The Birhors. In Bicchieri, M. (ed.),Hunters and Gatherers Today. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, pp. 371–403.Google Scholar
  62. Speth, J., and Spielman, K. (1983). Energy source, protein metabolism, and hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies.Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 2: 1–31.Google Scholar
  63. Stanley, H. (1890).In Darkest Africa. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.Google Scholar
  64. Stefansson, V. (1956).The Fat of the Land. The Macmillan Co., New York.Google Scholar
  65. Tanaka, J. (1978). A study of the comparative ecology of African gatherer-hunters with special reference to San (Bushmen-speaking people) and Pygmies.Senri Ethnological Studies 1: 189–212.Google Scholar
  66. Tanno, T. (1976). The Mbuti net-hunters in the Ituri Forest, Eastern Zaire. Their hunting activities and band composition.Kyoto University African Studies 10: 101–135.Google Scholar
  67. Tanno, T. (1981). Plant utilization of the Mbuti pygmies.Kyoto University African Study Monographs 1: 1–53.Google Scholar
  68. Terashima, H. (1983). Mota and other hunting activities of the Mbuti archers: A socio-ecological study of subsistance technology.African Study Monographs (Kyoto) 3: 71–85.Google Scholar
  69. Thomas, J., and Bahuchet, S. (eds.) (1983).Encyclopédie des Pygmées Aka: L'Introduction à l'Encyclopédie Fasicule 1. Langues et Civilization à Tradition Orale (50), Etudes Pygmées IV, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris.Google Scholar
  70. Turnbull, C. M. (1965a).Wayward Servants. The Natural History Press, New York.Google Scholar
  71. Turnbull, C. M. (1965b). The Mbuti Pygmies: An ethnographie survey.Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 50: 139–282.Google Scholar
  72. Turnbull, C. M. (1965c). The Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo. In Gibbs, J. (ed.),Peoples of Africa. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, pp. 279–317.Google Scholar
  73. Van Noten, F. (1977). Excavation at Matupi cave.Antiquity 51: 35–40.Google Scholar
  74. Vincent, A. (in press). Plant foods in savanna environments: A preliminary report of tubers eaten by the Hadza of northern Tanzania.World Archaeology.Google Scholar
  75. Wu Lueng, W-T. (1968).Food Composition Table for Use in Africa. U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Terese B. Hart
    • 1
  • John A. Hart
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Botany and Plant PathologyMichigan State UniversityEast Lansing
  2. 2.Department of Fisheries and WildlifeMichigan State UniversityEast Lansing

Personalised recommendations