The Ecological Basis of Hunter-Gatherer Subsistence in African Rain Forests: The Mbuti of Eastern Zaire

  • Terese B. Hart
  • John A. Hart


While it is well established that the Mbuti pygmies, hunter-gatherers of the Ituri Forest of Zaire, trade forest products and labor for agricultural foods, it has been assumed that this is a recent development, following contact with shifting cultivators. From field investigations over a five-year period, Hart and Hart found that, while the Mbuti can identify a large number of edible plant species, they actually gather very few of them. Instead, they trade meat, which is seasonally abundant, as well as their own labor for agricultural products rich in starch and carbohydrates. While game is available throughout the year, they cannot profitably utilize protein as a main caloric intake; lean meat requires more calories to digest than it supplies, a point illustrated by what the explorer Henry Stanley called in 1890 the “starvation camps” in the middle of the Ituri: People were dying while surrounded by game. Hart and Hart found that almost all of the oil-rich plant foods collected came from secondary forests rather than from that part of the Ituri hitherto unpenetrated by cultivators. Using historical data from early travellers, archaeological evidence, and linguistic connections linking various Mbuti groups to different cultivators, Hart and Hart make the case that the great evergreen primary forests of the Ituri were probably not capable of sustaining hunter-gatherers in significant numbers prior to the coming of cultivators, about 4000 years ago. This a good illustration of complex and interdependent ties that link what might appear to be distinct adaptations. Here agriculture has made the forest a more hospitable environment for specialized hunter-gatherers by providing a reliable source of energy-rich foods as well as by producing patches of secondary forest in which to forage.


Secondary Forest Evergreen Forest Wild Food Food Species Wild Plant Food 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Terese B. Hart
    • 1
  • John A. Hart
    • 1
  1. 1.Division of International ConservationWildlife Conservation SocietyBronxUSA

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