The 1950s Mbuti:
A Critique of Colin Turnbull’s
The Forest People

Alex Liazos


Manuscript: THE 1950S MBUTI


Introduction to the web site


Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People has been a beloved and influential book since its publication in 1961.  It presents a hunting and gathering people, the Mbuti of the Ituri forest in the Belgian Congo of the 1950s, living in peace and harmony with their environment.  Turnbull writes that their life, “with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, [is] a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care” (p. 26).  At camp Lelo in the forest, “one day followed the last in this happy-go-lucky way as though this was all there was to life” (p. 144). 

Many of us have been inspired by Turnbull’s message that a simple and peaceful life is possible, one where social equality, sharing, cooperation, and carefree living are possible.

Omni magazine, in a 1984 interview with Turnbull, wrote in the introduction to the interview that The Forest People “vividly describes the idyllic existence of the primitive Mbuti, who live together in a harmonious spirit of mutual cooperation and for whom the forest is an all-benevolent deity that unfailingly supplies their needs.”

In 2007-2008, I read the field notes for The Forest People, and I found a different Mbuti than the people found in the book.  The field notes, which Turnbull took in 1957-58 while living with the Mbuti, show a people troubled by conflicts, persecution of an old woman, and other serious problems.  The idyllic and egalitarian society presented in The Forest People exists only in part in Turnbull’s own field notes.

  • There is the persecution of Sau, an old woman who is accused of being a witch.  For five and a half months she is harassed constantly, often beaten, and shunned, until she is finally forced to leave the group.
  • There is Turnbull’s implied and stated claim that the Mbuti are a gathering and hunting people.  They are not.  They rely as much or more on grown food from village plantations as they do on food they gather and hunt.
  • The Forest People takes place mostly in forest hunting camps, giving the impression that the Mbuti live primarily in the forest.  They do not.  Dates in the field notes show that they live as long or longer in the village next to the forest.  And during his stay with the Mbuti from September 1957 to October 1958, Turnbull himself lives in forest camps with the Mbuti a total of at most three months. 
  • In The Forest People, Turnbull describes a molimo celebration that lasts for three uninterrupted months. It does not.  Turnbull’s dates and descriptions of people coming and going show that on many nights there is no molimo celebration, and it’s likely it lasted barely over a month.
  • In The Forest People Turnbull says that there is gender equality among the Mbuti.  The field notes, however, include some serious violence against women.


There are other problems that the 1950s Mbuti face that Turnbull mentions only in passing in The Forest People, understating their seriousness.

On the other hand, the notes, like the book, do report dancing, singing, fun, and living in the forest.  It is not that Turnbull lies in The Forest People, but rather that he omits, ignores, and misrepresents problems and conflicts the Mbuti face that are described in detail in the field notes.  The idyllic Mbuti of the book are not the people we find in Turnbull’s own field notes.

The Forest People may best be seen as a work of art.  Turnbull may be imagining how the Mbuti may have lived when they were gatherers and hunters.  If so, we may need to judge the book on those terms, not as a realistic description of the 1950s Mbuti.

The Forest People is a book many of us have loved.  Writing The 1950s Mbuti has been a hard experience for me, but also unavoidable and necessary.  I hope that some people who read it are inspired to visit the Avery Research Center and read Turnbull’s field notes and other material themselves, and challenge, debate, and disagree or agree with my conclusions.  Those of us who loved The Forest People owe it to ourselves, and to Turnbull, to have a long, spirited, and honest debate on the relationship between the book and the field notes.


Manuscript: THE 1950S MBUTI



The primary location for Turnbull’s papers is at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, of the College of Charleston, at 125 Bull St. in Charleston, SC.  The field notes for The Forest People, and letters and other material relevant to the book, are here.  Materials for most of his other work and writings are also here.  All this material is part of the Towels Collection. 

Their website is

PHONE: 843-953-7609

The Houghton Library at Harvard University has the papers of Anne Eisner Putnam and Patrick Putnam (two separate collections), which contain some letters and other material from Turnbull.  It was these two people who introduced Turnbull to the Mbuti in 1951.

Their website is

PHONE: 617-495-2441

The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University has the papers of Turnbull’s last few years, including two unpublished manuscripts.

Their website is

PHONE: 617-353-3696



You can reach Alex Liazos at