Pygmy or Pigmy (both: pĬg´mē), term used for dark-skinned people who live in equatorial rain forests and average less than 59 in. (150 cm) in height. Some studies make a distinction between Negrillos, who live in Africa, and Negritos, who live in Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and the Philippines; this classification system is rarely used today, however. Anthropologists have noted that, like many inhabitants of rain forests, Pygmies traditionally are hunter-gatherers who live in small, seminomadic bands with patrilineal or bilateral descent. They are distinguished according to language and culture.
In Africa, Pygmies are divided into four groups: the Binga along the Atlantic coast, including the Beku, Bongo, Jelli, Koa, Kola, Kuya, Rimba, and Yaga; the Twa in the high regions surrounding Lake Kivu; the Gesera and Zigaba in Rwanda and Burundi; and the Mbuti, Aka, and Efe of the Ituri forest in northeastern Congo (Kinshasa). Some believe that they predate neighboring agricultural peoples. Others believe that they have always had reciprocal, if somewhat subordinate, relations with other societies such as the Lese, Bira, Ltsi, and Ndaka; they have commonly traded products of the forest for garden crops and iron tools. Indeed, they no longer speak their own languages, but rather that of the group with whom they have most contact, such as Bantu, Eastern Nigritic, and Central Sudanic. Recent government efforts have tried to resettle them and force them into agricultural production, and many have been displaced by deforestation. African pygmy populations also have suffered from prejudice and discrimination.
Among the SE Asian Pygmies are the Batak and the Agta of the Philippines, the Andaman Islanders, and the Semang of the Malay Peninsula. They speak various Asian languages, which belong to the Mon-Khmer branch of the Austronesian language family. Gene studies have shown the Andaman Islanders to have a strain of mitochondrial DNA that is common in Asians. The theory that all Pygmies are survivors of the ancestral human type, or are migrants of common stock from S Asia in prehistoric times, remains unproven.
See J. Eder, On the Road to Tribal Extinction (1987).