The ecological basis of hunter-gatherer subsistence in African Rain Forests: The Mbuti of Eastern Zaire


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 This paper by the Harts is a fantastic one. The Mbuti are a tribe of rainforest hunter-gatherers. Like all modern hunter-gatherers, they do not represent some sort of paleolithic hunter-gatherer state. The Mbuti have a symbiotic trade relationship with nearby agriculturalists, which seems to have evolved due to desire for starch. This fits quite well with my belief that much of human history has been about the acquisition of starch and fat. 

In return for the starch, agriculturalists get desirable forest products like game meat. This is an important trade since the rainforest isn't always as productive as you might think. For five months of the year it is barren of fruits and seeds. Wild game is common, but too low in fat to be a good food source. Many anthropologists have argued that without the starch trade, the Mbuti would not be able to live in such an environment. The main starch staples they trade for are cassava, plantains, yams, and sweet potatoes. Even when game is abundant, when they are out of starch they claim they have "no food." Wild yams exist, but are highly poisonous and require much processing before they can be consumed.

Meat is easily found in the rainforest, so the Mbuti use the surplus to acquire these foods. Interestingly, reports say that they keep mainly the fat-rich animals for themselves. 

The Mbuti also have something called "secondary forest" which is a kind of primeval type of agriculture from abandoned gardens. Large amounts of oil palm are acquired from these areas. 

Recently I saw a very silly paper that attempted to calculate hunter-gatherer fiber consumption based on the average fiber of all exploited plants, which is foolish. Like all people, the Mbuti prefer some plants over others. Most plants are not heavily exploited save those that are naturally rich in starch or oil. Their favored mango, L. Gabonensis, is 90% fat (mostly in the edible seed)! Fruit that is mainly sugar is not considered a staple food, the Mbuti refer to these fruits as "children's food." 

The Mbuti hunt primarily with nets. A main game species is the Duiker, a type of antelope, but that is not the favored species from a culinary perspective as the Mbuti say it is too low in fat and must be cooked with palm oil. Fatty grubs are much preferred, but these are hard to find. Another source of food is honey, which is very much desired, but scarce.

The Mbuti are considered pygmies, but their height is genetic and unlike the San they do not exhibit evidence of stunting. 

A people corrupted by fat and starch from agriculturalists or an example of how humans need some of these things to survive? I think the evidence shows that humans can only thrive in environments rich in some combination of oily seeds, starch, fatty grubs, and fatty game.