BaTwa Peoples Thrive in Central Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The BaTwa were ancient hunter-gatherer peoples of central Africa who have been believed to represent the life and culture of “primordial” humans.

Summary of Event

Scholarly knowledge of BaTwa history before 3000 b.c.e. is sparse. What is known about the BaTwa ancestral communities in ancient times and even before the nineteenth century comes from the available archaeological data. The fact that hunter-gatherers utilized large territories over relatively short periods of time and may have commonly reused many tools and products, combined with the reality of decay and disintegration of material culture in humid forest climates, makes it difficult to recover historical evidence to reconstruct a consistent cultural profile for BaTwa in earlier millennia. Based on available data that have been recovered for the period 16,000-3000 b.c.e., it is evident that the BaTwa ancestral communities were hunter-gatherers who made use of Stone Age technologies. Less definitive is whether the various scattered communities categorized as BaTwa descend from a shared common language and how far back that language might be traced. The oldest proposed date for a BaTwa ancestral community is fifty thousand years ago.

Although the BaTwa are thought to have descended from ancestral BaTwa who inhabited the central regions of the African continent by about eighteen thousand years ago, in the present, not all BaTwa speak a common BaTwa language; rather, they have adopted Bantu, Central Sudanic, and even French dialects. Modern-day BaTwa are typically referred to by the derogatory term “Pygmies” and are defined not so much by their language and cultural or ethnic practices as by their lifestyle of forest-based hunting and their physiology, a noticeably short average stature that is a direct function of environment and diet.

Archaeologists have uncovered a set of microlithic stone tool technologies in the Rwanda-Burundi forest regions that indicate that the ancestral BaTwa predominantly inhabited areas around modern-day Rwanda and Burundi until about five thousand years ago. The archaeological evidence for a claim of BaTwa occupation of the areas in the northeastern Congo Basin has been analyzed and connected to the Tshitolian tradition to the west in the central Congo Basin, a connection that indicates a widespread hunting-gathering network of communities possessing a common tool tradition.

Tshitolian Stone Age technology emerged on the fringes of the equatorial forest and is distinct from the central African Savanna microlithic tradition. Tshitolian appears to be an innovation on Lupemban traditions beginning in about the thirteenth millennium b.c.e., at which point tools began to decrease in size and became, more typically, double-sided blades also known as backed blades or parallel-sided blades. In the denser forested river valleys of Zaire, Gabon, Congo, and Cameroon to the west of Rwanda and Burundi, there are high proportions of the backed blades in the archaeological record. The microlithic tools appear to have been displaced by larger tools, particularly in the savannas, where presumably a different set of economic practices was pursued and different foods consumed. Those who lived on the forest fringes could be distinguished economically and culturally from those BaTwa inhabiting the dense forests based on tool assemblages and the more abundant material culture indicative of settled agricultural communities on the forest fringes.

The BaTwa historically practiced hunting and gathering economies whereby they acquired both food for their own consumption and items to trade with neighboring agriculturalists from about the fourth millennium b.c.e. By 4000 b.c.e., the Bantu had moved into and begun to cultivate lands surrounding dense forests that happened to be inhabited by BaTwa hunter-gatherers in southern Cameroon. The proximity of these distinct communities facilitated the trading of Bantu cultivated food resources, iron, and pottery for the favored forest products—honey, forest meat, and medicinal products from forest roots and plants—acquired by BaTwa.

All that is presently known of BaTwa artistic culture through historical evidence is that the musical tradition included flutes and whistles and that dancing emphasized choreographed foot movements as opposed to focusing on bodily movements. BaTwa produced barkcloth as well as stools with woven seats. Whether such utilitarian art was produced before Bantu contact c. 3000 b.c.e. is not yet known.

BaTwa social, economic, political, and cultural practices are not well understood beyond the fact that they were hunter-gatherers who inhabited rain forests, and who lived in small, semisedentary or nonsedentary bands. Limited types of material culture have been reconstructed in connection with the BaTwa; there is significant evidence of hunting apparatus, but almost nothing to indicate specific cultural practices, clothing, or housing styles has been uncovered. To a great extent, these hunter-gatherers used the crossbow in hunting and employed microlithic stone tools. After 3000 b.c.e., there was also use of Bantu iron tools that the BaTwa most likely obtained through trade.

Significance

The BaTwa ancestors may have been one of the first “modern” African communities that formed in the dense forest regions of the continent fifty to eighteen thousand years ago. The ancestors of modern day BaTwa would have been primarily food collectors and may have been culturally and linguistically linked to other hunter-gatherers of the western equatorial rain forests of central Africa. The easternmost BaTwa would have inhabited forested lands of modern-day Rwanda and Burundi. The westernmost BaTwa had extensive trade relations with Bantu agriculturalists, at least since the fourth millennium b.c.e.

BaTwa ancestry is one of the great unanswered questions of African history. The various BaTwa communities are distinguished from each other in scholarly literature according to language and culture. Although they are distinguished from the Bantu, Sudanic, Cushitic, and even Khoisan language communities, BaTwa cannot necessarily be traced to a single ancestral community and may have been historically connected to one or all of the aforementioned language families. There is no strong linguistic evidence to indicate a single BaTwa ancestral language, but there is ancient technology that is common in various regions in which historical hunting and gathering territory has been identified.

Present-day hunting-gathering communities of the wider Congo Basin that are considered BaTwa are the Twa in the regions around Lake Kivu; the Gesera and Zigaba in Rwanda and Burundi; the Binga, Beku, Bongo, Jelli, Koa, Kola, Kuya, Rimba, and Yaga in the far west along the Atlantic coast; and the Aka, Efe, and Mbuti of the Ituri forest in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire). BaTwa are typically linked to other BaTwa because of their physical size and reliance on hunting and gathering as a central part of food acquisition. Paradoxically, Rwanda’s approximately thirty thousand Twa today speak a dialect of a Bantu language, and although they are not always so petite in height that they are conspicuously different from Hutus and Tutsis, they do typically practice hunting and gathering (though not always to the exclusion of cultivation or livestock keeping). Thus, those referred to as “Pygmies,” or Twa, for the past 150 years most commonly spoke a Bantu or Central Sudanic language, may have been taller than 5 feet (150 centimeters) in height, and may have combined agricultural food production practices with those of hunting and gathering.

Although the majority of BaTwa have been forced to abandon the hunting and gathering lifestyle, there is a subgroup within the Twa, referred to as the Impunyu, who have managed to sustain forest life and, in the twenty-first century, continue to live in the Nyungwe forest of Rwanda. Whether the BaTwa populations, which predate the bordering agricultural peoples, were of a common linguistic or cultural origin remains to be uncovered, but what is certain is that hunting and gathering populations have long inhabited the forests of central Africa and have practiced similar types of economies and shared a common tool technology.

The notion that “Pygmies” are relics or vestiges of the ancestral human type remains unproven and is an untenable theory. Because historical processes change all communities over time, modern-day BaTwa cannot be viewed as examples of how ancient peoples lived because they too have incorporated elements of various Bantu cultures, commercial trade, and even European languages into their lives for at least the past five millennia.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Booth, Graham, et al. “Voices of the Forest.” Africa National Geographic Television, Tigress Productions 2001. A documentary that presents modern-day Baka (a BaTwa group) and their lifestyle and social struggles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klieman, Kairn A. The Pygmies Were Our Compass: Bantu and BaTwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 c.e. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003. The history of Central African BaTwa of Congo and Gabon and their social and economic relationships with Bantu-speaking peoples in the forest regions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Jerome. The BaTwa Pygmies of the Great Lakes Region. London: Minority Rights Group International, 2000. This report focuses on the human rights of modern-day BaTwa descendants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ntibazonkiza, Raphaîl. Au royaume des seigneurs de la lance: Une Approche historique de la question ethnique au Burundi. Brussels: Bruxelles Droits de l’Homme, 1992-1993. Focuses on the ethnic and cultural relations among BaTwa, Hutu, and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi. There is some attention to the origins of the BaTwa, but this work focuses primarily on contemporary issues related to democracy. In French.

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