Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"The Pgymies Were Our Compass": Bantu and Batwa in the History of West-Central Africa, Early Times to C. 1900 C.E

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"The Pgymies Were Our Compass": Bantu and Batwa in the History of West-Central Africa, Early Times to C. 1900 C.E

Article excerpt

"The Pgymies Were Our Compass": Bantu and Batwa in the History of West-Central Africa, Early Times to C. 1900 C.E. By Kairn Kleiman. Social History of Africa Series. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003. Pp. xxxiv, 253. $64.00 cloth, $26.00 paper.

Pygmies, as Kairn Kleiman has pointed out, are a staple of Western popular imaginings of African life. In this richly developed study, the author seeks to abandon the evolutionary models that have cast Batwa, Aka, and other groups labeled as pygmies on the bottom rang of human development or, as in mid-century anthropologist Colin Turnbull's work, the apex of noble savagery. Klieman draws on ethnographic, linguistic, and archaeological evidence to provide a more nuanced view of interactions between Batwa and other communities in equatorial Africa. Along the way, she offers some insights on early Central African history and revises the path-breaking work of Jan Vansina.

The first chapter, examining the pygmy in Western intellectual history, is a fascinating overview ranging from Aristotle to medieval French stained-glass windows to evolutionary anthropology. Klieman convincingly notes how the pygmy repeatedly is presented as primitive and archaic. For teachers offering undergraduate courses that take on Western views of Africa, this chapter will make for good reading for students.

The author then turns her attention to revising understandings of Bantu migration. Through extensive historical linguistic analysis, she uncovers a range of interactions between indigenous and newcomer communities in equatorial Africa. Her use of archaeological work conducted since 1990 allows her an opportunity to revise some conclusions made by Christopher Ehret and Jan Vansina. Historians as unversed on the arcane ways of linguistics as this reviewer will be hard-pressed to judge whether Klieman's revisions of migration movements will stand scrutiny, but her nuanced use of Igor Kopytoff's views of social dynamics on African frontiers is extremely interesting. A range of cultural practices shared between Bantu communities and Batwa "forest specialists" (a much more appropriate title than the generic "hunter-gatherer," with its connotations of stasis and backwardness) is fascinating. Central African communities such as the Ngbaka-Ma'bo celebrate rituals that suggest early reciprocal relationships with Batwa that included the exchange of knowledge about hunting and supernatural power. …

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