A book review on “The Mountain People” by Colin Turnbull Essay

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A book review on “The Mountain People” by Colin Turnbull

Turnbull has been quoted as a renowned ethnographic on writing about small-scale societies which lead a peaceful life in a trouble-free atmosphere by maintaining the size of their population and enjoyed a pollution-free environment till they are polluted by progress. In this book, Turnbull is describing about Ik tribal people who lived in the northern parts of Uganda and near to the border of Kenya who had to leave their ancestral villages as the area had been declared as a national park later.

Due to this, Ik people had to live in non-fertile area which was affected by drought and famine almost several years in a series. [p. 117] and today, it is evident that Ik are facing a total negation of society. The specialty of Turnbull is that the style which the book is presented as he just narrated what he had seen and observed in the Ik province without adding colors or adding his own judgment on the scenery.

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Turnbull tries to give an anthropologist’s bird’s view on Ik’s style of living and conditions of their life by establishing close contact with Ik community and with communities lived in the neighborhood. Turnbull while living with Ik’s witnessed continuous cattle raids and how their children had been deserted by the parents even at the age of three and how the youths robbed the food-stuffs from the elders thereby making them to die prematurely. The Mountain People deals with the ethnographic details of the Ik or Teuso people living in northern Uganda.

Turnbull in this book tries to expose how society and small-scale societies in general have been pretentious. In this book , Turnbull ties to portray the Rousseauesque picture of gatherers , hunters in general and Pygmies in specific , narrating generosity , kindness , honesty ,affection , charity ,compassion and other virtues available in them [p31]. [Spencer 651]. Due to progress, Ik have been compelled to leave their nomadic life and forced to peruse agriculture and illegal poaching.

From 1965 onwards, innocent and gullible Ik have developed qualities like envy, acrimony, suspicion by leaving behind trust and royalty and parental love as the children were sent out of their homes as early as three years to stand on their own legs and elderly peopled died due to absence of caretaking and love. Ik had the qualities of co-operation and control but later they never practiced theses qualities due to famine and hunger. Turnbull commented that he witnessed those vestiges of generosity, kindness and light-heartedness which disappeared by overnight by the occupation of survival instincts that cherish in all of us.

[Turnbull 33]. Author had an occasion to live with this Ik population at the time of famine and political unrest in Uganda and witnessed the dying of older people and how Ik population was reduced to bare minimum due to these factors. He felt that Ik population was isolated due to famine from the society and finally the Ik population was completely vanished as it would be the fate of every marginal society. [p 285]. [Spencer 652] Turnbull narrated that Ik had no opportunity to have sumptuousness like sentiment, family and love.

Since there was no societal affiliation, both the aged and children were regarded as futile. As long as if society keeps rearing group alive, one can always have more children. Since, in the absence of care, old perished first followed by Ik’s children population. Yet, there existed a ethnic suicide. [p 108 -109]. Further, due to continuous famine and drought, Ik perused basic survival tactics to live. [27]. The deterioration of social bindings does not connote that there is absence of collaboration between individuals. They assisted each other in times of help. [121].

Beating and harassing their wife is a pastime for Ik’s men. [138] . They also followed some rites in their marriage traditions. The bridegroom had to capture the bride in the cover of darkness though it was a prearranged one in advance. [106]. Though, the Ik’s had religious faith like worshipping ‘Didigwari’ name of a sky god in earlier days but later it was absent in the Ik’s society after the collapse of their society. [158]. Turnbull was of the opinion that Ik were enjoyed the best conservationists style of living as long as they were hunter / gatherer. [21].

Turnbull depiction of Ik style of living is almost analogues to Malthusian process where in the absence of epidemic and warfare, the population tends to increase to their ecological limit. However, in Ik model, the population completely vanished due to famine, hunger, neglect of older, younger and weaker dependants. Further, malice represents an unavoidable and sharp quality when some ecological shift revealed overpopulation for what it was. Turnbull is of the view that the effort to resettling down the Ik may have generated a distinct unprecedented turn in their ecology.

Ik society won an interstitial position between adjoining karamojong-speaking pastoral tribes like trading, doing black-smith work, escorting them during their cattle raids resulted in intermigration and intermarriage with them. These individual ties namely [nyot] between Ik and pastoralists demonstrated that Ik were prepared to demonstrate longer term self-interest and a degree of trust which is absent elsewhere. [p. 162]. [Spencer 652] The Ik justify a place in the literature of reaction to stress and extreme deprivation.

Children were actually taken care of in concentration sites. Besides a passing remark of Treblinka, Turnbull does not place them in this context and makes little comparison of any kind. [236]. Turnbull offered an interesting assumption that Ik’s hunter’s social group engaged in traits like amenability in social grouping and self-reliance and independence which acted as a kind of pre-adaptation for the dissolution of family tie in the light of continued catastrophe. [p. 287]. Turnbull is also of the view that there is still flourishment of artistic tradition among the Ik.

[277]. Turnbull also elaborated that most of the Ik girls were disease-prone prostitutes and the young men desired to economize on their energy and wealth by engaging in masturbation and deserting the girls alone. [ 209]. Turnbull warns us as “ this decline in human relationships among the Ik to the individual levels places the Ik one leap ahead of civilization…Our society has turning increasingly individualistic. Now, the family values tend to loose its significance and religious practice and belief bind us into communities of shared beliefs.

The order in the society is being maintained existence of coercive power which is upholding a rigid law and by an equally harsh penal system. ” [182]. In retaliation to a criticism to his book, Turnbull commented that the book has not written for anthropologists but it was fashioned to accomplish the anthropologist’s duty to reveal his findings to the general public. This book detailed “a varied numbers of anthropological issues and solutionss in such an thoughtless style that it merits both to hold up as a warning and to be sanctioned. ” [Barth 100].

According to Henry A. Murray, a psychologist, the human behavior is ruled by a sequence of needs and when a fundamental need like food is unsatisfied, other higher order needs like trust, love must go by the board. This is true in case of Ik’s but Turnbull never aware of it. Turnbull findings was said to be deeply flawed both on ethnographical and ideological grounds. Turnbull love affair with the pygmies largely reflected his colored perception about the Ik. Turnbull acclaimed that the data covered in the book were insufficient for arriving an approaching proof.

He frequently goes outside the limits of well accepted ethnographic reporting, interpreting his account with personal judgments and ascribing aims for observed behavior Turnbull is rather right in uttering that man is competent to unleash severe inhumanity to himself and Ik is certainly an extreme example of this. However, it is hilarious to note that Turnbull seems to visualize that he is the first to have discovered this fact and it is his duty to preach the world what he observed. According to Barkow, Collin Turnbull has given a superficial and exaggerated book. [Barkow 155].

The absence of bonding in the society was evident from the fact that when food was distributed by the Ugandan government to famine affected areas like Ik’s province, the younger generation went to the nearest town for collecting the food never cared to carry and supply them to the aged, weak people as they considered it as waste of food and time to feed their starving aged, weaker relatives and neighbors. [232]. Due to poverty, Ik deceived each other’s and Turnbull was not exception to this. Turnbull christened them as people without love and they were uncharitable, unfriendly, mean and inhospitable as any people can be.

Turnbull compared the Ik society with that of inhuman conditions prevailed in Nazi death camps where Jews were butchered during the Second World War. Turnbull found the similarity of the extinction of Ik tribe without that of mass butchering of Jews in Nazi death camps and branded it on a global scale and forewarned that an ultimate destruction of mankind in near future. Turnbull in concluding chapter was of the opinion that Ik society had a bleak future. If unattended, their society would vanish in the course of time and it is very arduous to restructure their society.

Government should help them to resettle by segregating them into smaller groups else they would miss their identity. However, Turnbull is fully aware that this action would be condemned by human rights organization but it is the need of the hour to preserve the Ik community in this vast universe.


Barkow, Jerome H. “The Mountain People” A Book Review. “Canadian of African Studies, Vol 9 [1] [1975]:155-156. Spencer, Paul. “The Mountain People” A Book Review. “Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 8. No 4 [Dec 1973]: 651 -652. Turnbull, Colin M . The Mountain People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972

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