Colin Turnbull

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Colin Macmillan Turnbull (November 23, 1924 – July 28, 1994) was a famous British anthropologist and ethnographer who gained prominence in 1962 with his idealized, lyrical book about the Mbuti Pygmies, The Forest People. Ten years later, he wrote an antithetical book, The Mountain People, about Uganda's starving Ik tribe. He advocated that the Ik, for their own good, should be relocated in small groups of less than ten, in distances so far from each other that their culture would collapse and be destroyed, although later he acknowledged his own inability to see their humanity. Turnbull was highly controversial, with a passion for involvement with his subjects rather than practicing conventional scientific objectivity. His work led to debate on the value of ethnography as a scientific discipline. Turnbull is also known for his musical recordings of the Mbuti Pygmies, bringing the beauty of their culture to the greater human society. Always passionate, Turnbull's efforts contributed greatly to the understanding of the diversity of human lifestyles.

Life and work

Colin Macmillan Turnbull was born to Scottish parents in Harrow, England. His mother was known to point out admirable qualities of various disadvantaged people, much to the consternation of various relatives and acquaintances. This aspect of her character deeply influenced the young Colin. He had a succession of German nannies, none of whom stayed long enough to form any bond with him. At six years old, he was sent to the prestigious Westminster boarding school, and remained there until he completed his high school education.

Turnbull had "a jeweled soul" and became a renowned organist, but these qualities were not particularly rewarded. His teachers at the time chastised Colin's inability in sports "to take his beatings like a man," and questioned whether it might be good for him to stop his music. A pivotal point came when, as a teenager, he witnessed a gang rape of a friend by the other boys, and he vowed to become a champion for those who were weak or unable to defend themselves.

Attending Magdalen College, Oxford, Turnbull studied music, literature, and anthropology under the ethnographer E.E. Evans-Pritchard. However, his studies were cut short when he volunteered to join the Royal Navy in 1942, where his duties included mine-sweeping, recovering bodies, and collecting name tags from fallen soldiers.

Turnbull returned to college after the war, and gained his bachelor’s degree. Thereafter he traveled to India, where he gained a master’s degree in Indian religion and philosophy from Banares Hindu University. He was one of the few westerners to study under Sri Anandamayi Ma and Sri Aurobindo, two great Indian religious teachers of the twentieth century.

In 1951, Turnbull made the first of several trips to Africa to see the Pygmies in what was previously the Belgian Congo. He traveled on a motorcycle with his musician friend, Norman Beal. Once there, he met the eccentric Patrick Putnam who made sure he obtained a job building the boat named African Queen for the famous movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. In 1953, he traveled to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, to work as a geologist for a gold mining company.

When he returned, he and a cousin traveled again to Africa and Turnbull made his first recordings of Mbuti Pygmy music. He loved the sound of the "molimo," a simple kind of wind instrument unique to their culture. The women would sit in their huts while it was played and pretend that they thought that it was the sound of an animal. Turnbull visited the Mbuti Pygmies a total of six times. When he met a young Mbutu named Kenge, he felt a fulfillment of what he had been taught in India, where he had been told that perhaps he would meet someone who would show him how we ourselves create beauty from the muck of life, as the lotus sucks up the dirt and becomes beautiful. He dedicated his first book, The Forest People, to Kenge.

From 1957 to 1959 he returned to his studies in Oxford, and became engaged to an Indian woman, Kumari Mayor. He terminated his engagement when he met the love of his life and partner for the next 30 years, Joe Towles, an African American man. They exchanged vows of commitment in 1960. Although they lived in an openly homosexual relationship, Turnbull did not think of himself as "gay." For him, his sexual orientation was no more part of his central identity any more than was being British. He said that he realized he simply preferred the company of men to women.

In 1959, he was named curator of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, even though he did not yet have his doctorate degree. Fame came with the publication of The Forest People in 1961.

He obtained a D.Phil. from Oxford in 1964, but there was trouble brewing at home. There were some accusations from the staff at the American Museum of African Ethnology that some data was fabricated, and references to his gay relationship were made. In 1965, Turnbull became a naturalized citizen of the United States and Towles decided to become an anthropologist. Towles studied at Makerere University, in Kampala, Uganda and Turnbull continued fieldwork with the Mbuti. He also began fieldwork with the Ik tribe of Uganda. In 1968, he did fieldwork in Asia and published Tibet with Thubten Norbu (the Dalai Lama's eldest brother). In 1969, Turnbull resigned from the museum, ascribing his resignation to their unfair treatment of African Americans. He continued his fieldwork and took a teaching position at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

With the publication of The Mountain People in 1971, he became as reviled as he had been previously celebrated, as his pronouncements against the Ik culture were very strong and unusual for an anthropologist. Criticisms involved the utilization of verbal report, per se, and the ethical issues of publicizing the photographs and names of subjects studied who were involved in crimes. A movement against the findings of the book sparked much debate within anthropology for decades.

In 1973, Turnbull moved with Towles to Lancaster County, Virginia, where he taught at Virginia Commonwealth University. They lived as an openly gay and interracial couple in one of the smallest and most conservative towns in rural Virginia. During this time, Turnbull also took up the cause of death row prison inmates.

From 1974 to 1976, Turnbull taught at George Washington University and assisted Peter Brook in writing a play about the Ik. He told Brook that after seeing the play, "it helped him to see the Ik's humanity, and what a nasty person he had become while among them."[1] In 1975, Turnbull's father died, and his mother moved to Virginia to be near him until her death in 1977. In 1978, Turnbull studied death row inmates in Florida full time, and Towles received his Ph.D. from Makerere University.

Although Turnbull was offered tenure from George Washington University in 1982, he rejected it in favor of being able to care for Towles, who had begun behaving erratically, to Turnbull's great concern. His partly autobiographical book The Human Cycle appeared in 1983. In 1985, Turnbull traveled to Samoa to follow up on Margaret Mead's 1927 study.

Towles died of AIDS on December 18, 1988. Turnbull buried an empty coffin next to him, and the gravestone reads that they both died on that date. He said that his soul died on that day.

In fact, Turnbull lived another six years. He gave all his possessions to the United Negro Fund and moved to Samoa. In 1990, he moved to Bloomington, Indiana and helped his old friend Thubten Norbuto to build the Tibetan Cultural Center. In 1991, he traveled to Dharamsala, India, and in 1992, the Dalai Lama ordained him as a Buddhist monk with the name Lobsong Rigdol. In 1994, he returned to Lancaster County, Virginia, where he died of AIDS. Although he said he wanted no other funeral after the one he had with Towles, the Mbuti Pygmies gave him a traditional Pygmy funeral ceremony.


Turnbull never expressed the desire to be considered an objective scientist, or accepted by mainstream academia. His purpose was to uncover the goodness and beauty in diverse peoples. As a proponent of the necessity of being involved in the subject and the futility of objectivity in anthropology, Turnbull became his own worst enemy: As much as the public loved The Forest People, they reviled The Mountain People.

As well as stirring up passionate responses to his work among the general public, Turnbull also excited intense academic criticism. Many criticized the way his passion for a subject seemed to blur his vision. The reliability of his field observations was also questioned and many of his original conclusions were later discredited. For example, he claimed that the Ik culture had become devoid of any values, as they practiced behaviors such as gorging on whatever occasional excesses of food they might find until they became sick, rather than saving or sharing the bounty. However, later anthropologists argued that a particularly serious famine during the period of Turnbull's visit may have distorted the Ik's normal behavior and customs. Several of the Ik themselves testified to the return of more normal behavior and values, denying Turnbull's conclusions.

Nevertheless, Turnbull's impact on the field has been deep and long lasting. Even those, like Grinker,[2] who originally rejected his research as mere storytelling, came to recognize its value and to respect Turnbull.

Beyond his direct contribution to anthropology, Turnbull's legacy is to be found in diverse areas. His recordings of Mbuti music were commercially released, and his works inspired other ethnomusicological studies, such as those of Simha Arom and Mauro Campagnoli.[3] Musicians such as John Coltrane acknowledged inspiration for their work from these recordings. He befriended numerous prison inmates in Florida, working hard to overturn their death sentences. He also was outspoken against interracial discrimination.

Finally, it may be that the pure joy of discovery and finding data to support the unity of humankind was his greatest legacy, contributing to the development of human cross-cultural relationships.


  • Turnbull, Colin. 1961 [1987]. The Forest People. Reissue ed. Touchstone. ISBN 0671640992
  • Turnbull, Colin. 1962 [1987]. The Lonely African. Reissue ed. Touchstone. ISBN 0671641018
  • Turnbull, Colin. 1965 [1976]. Wayward Servants: The Two Worlds Of The African Pygmies. Reprint ed. Greenwood Press Reprint. ISBN 0837179270
  • Turnbull, Colin. 1972 [1987]. The Mountain People. Touchstone. ISBN 0671640984
  • Turnbull, Colin. 1973. Africa and Change. Knopf.
  • Turnbull, Colin. 1976 [1977]. Man in Africa. Anchor Press/Doubleday. ISBN 0385056745
  • Turnbull, Colin. 1983 [1984]. The Human Cycle. Reprint ed. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0671505998
  • Turnbull, Colin. 1983. The Mbuti Pygmies: Change And Adaptation. Harcourt Brace College Publishers. ISBN 0030615372
  • Turnbull, Colin. Music of the Rainforest Pygmies. Historic recordings made by Colin M. Turnbull. Lyrichord: LYRCD 7157.
  • Turnbull, Colin, and Thubten Jigme Norbu. 1968. Tibet. Touchstone. ISBN 0671205595


  1. Bower, Bruce. The Forager King. Science News 2000, Sept. 9, 2000, vol. 158, no. 11, p. 170.
  2. Grinker, R. Richard. 2000. The Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0312229461
  3. Mauro Campagnoli official website

External links

All links retrieved January 7, 2024.


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