Colin Turnbull

Colin Turnbull bigraphy, stories - British anthropologist

Colin Turnbull : biography

November 23, 1924 – July 28, 1994

Colin Macmillan Turnbull (November 23, 1924 – July 28, 1994) was a British-American anthropologist who came to public attention with the popular books The Forest People (on the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire) and The Mountain People (on the Ik people of Uganda), and one of the first anthropologists to work in the field of ethnomusicology.

Early life

Turnbull was born in London and educated at Westminster School and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied politics and philosophy. During World War II he was in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve after which he was awarded a two year grant in the Department of Indian Religion and Philosophy, Banaras Hindu University, India, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in Indian Religion and Philosophy.


  • 1961 The Forest People. ISBN 0-586-05940-7
  • 1962 The Lonely African. ISBN 0-671-20069-0
  • 1962 The Peoples of Africa.
  • 1965 Wayward Servants; The Two Worlds of the African Pygmies. ISBN 0-8371-7927-0
  • 1966 Tradition and Change in African Tribal Life.
  • 1968 Tibet: Its History, Religion and People. (with Thubten Jigme Norbu). ISBN 0-7011-1354-5
  • 1972 The Mountain People. ISBN 0-671-64098-4
  • 1973 Africa and Change editor. ISBN 0-394-31520-0
  • 1976 Man in Africa. ISBN 0-14-022035-6
  • 1978 Rethinking the Ik: A functional Non-Social System. In: Charles D. Laughlin, Jr.; Ivan A. Brady (ed.): Extinction and Survival in Human Populations. New York: Columbia University Press
  • 1983 The Human Cycle. ISBN 0-586-08493-2
  • 1983 The Mbuti Pygmies: Change and Adaptation. ISBN 0-03-061537-2
  • 1992 Music of the Rain Forest Pygmies: The Historic Recordings Made By Colin M. Turnbull Label: Lyrichord Discs Inc.
  • The Mbuti Pygmies: An Ethnographic Survey in Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 50, 139-282


Many people found Turnbull’s description of the Ik disturbing. Turnbull was explicitly describing what happens to a society that is forced into hardship, and the fierce individualism that results. His graphic descriptions were placed into context by the careful interviews he did with older to contrast the older society that existed prior to displacement to create a park. Bernd Heine exemplifies the strong reaction evoked by Turnbull’s evaluation of the Ik in a 1985 article in , .

Joseph Towles

Joseph Allen Towles was born in Senora, Virginia, on August 17, 1937. In 1957 he moved to New York City to pursue a career as an actor and writer. He met Turnbull in 1959 and they exchanged marriage vows the following year.

Towles’ initiation into anthropology occurred as a volunteer in the Anthropology Department at the American Museum of Natural History with Turnbull. From 1965 to 1967, he assisted with the creation of the "Man in Africa Hall", a permanent exhibit later called the "Hall of African Peoples." He also researched and constructed the "Slavery in the New World" subsection of the museum. In 1963, he entered Pace College to study history and anthropology, graduating in 1968. He received his Ph.D. from Makerere University in 1979.

From 1965 to 1967, Turnbull and Towles conducted fieldwork among the Ik of Northern Uganda in Africa. In the Congo in 1970, they conducted fieldwork on the Nkumbi circumcision initiation ritual for boys and the Asa myth of origin among the Mbo of the Ituri forest.

In 1979, they traveled the world studying the concept of tourism as pilgrimage. Towles next turned to biblical research and writing plays and novels. He reacted angrily to Turnbull’s semi-autobiographical work The Human Cycle (1983), which omitted all references to their relationship. Towles’ health declined slowly from that time. He died from complications of AIDS in 1988.

Turnbull arranged for Towles’ research to be published posthumously. It appeared in 1993 as Nkumbi initiation ritual and structure among the Mbo of Zaïre and as Asa: Myth of Origin of the Blood Brotherhood Among the Mbo of the Ituri Forest, both in Annales of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium), vol. 137.Open Library: University of Virginia Library: