Colin Turnbull


Colin Turnbull : biography

November 23, 1924 – July 28, 1994


In 1951, after his graduation from Banaras, he traveled to the Belgian Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) with Newton Beal, a schoolteacher from Ohio he met in India. Turnbull and Beal first studied the Mbuti pygmies during this time, though that was not the complete goal of the trip.

An "odd job" Turnbull picked up while in Africa at this time was working for the Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel. Spiegel hired Turnbull to assist in the construction and transportation of a boat needed for his film. This boat was the African Queen, which was used for the feature film The African Queen (starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn; 1951).Grinker, 70-1 After his first trip to Africa, Turnbull traveled to Yellowknife in the northwest territories of Canada, where he worked as a geologist and gold miner for approximately a year,Grinker, 87-9 before he went back to school to obtain another degree.

Upon returning to Oxford in 1954, he began specializing in the anthropology of Africa. Turnbull remained in Oxford for two years before another field trip to Africa, finally focusing on the Belgian Congo (1957–58) and Uganda. After years of fieldwork, he finally achieved his anthropology doctorate from Oxford in 1964.

Turnbull became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1965, after he moved to New York City to become curator in charge of African Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History in 1959. He later resided in Lancaster County, Virginia, and was on staff in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. Other professional associations included Corresponding Membership of Royal Museum for Central Africa and fellowship in the British Royal Anthropological Institute. He first gained prominence with his book The Forest People (1961), an admiring study of the Mbuti. In 1972, he wrote a sequel of sorts, the highly controversial The Mountain People, which was concerned with Uganda’s hunger-plagued Ik tribe.

Turbull was in unique position to study and document what happens to a society and culture that is forced into destruction. The Ik were displaced from their ancestral lands and forced into famine. He took pains to compare the society he witnessed to the recollections of older Ik of the pre-stressed society. He extrapolated his observations to warn that civilization is shallow.

He later worked on a theatrical adaptation of The Mountain People with his friend, playwright Peter Brook.

Contributions to music

Some of Turnbull’s recordings of Mbuti music were commercially released, and his works have inspired other ethnomusicological studies, such as those of Simha Arom and Mauro Campagnoli. His most famous recording is Music of the Rainforest Pygmies, recorded in 1961, now released on CD by Lyrichord Discs, Inc. His recording of a Zaire pygmy girls’ initiation song was used on the Voyager Golden Record.


  • Grinker, Roy R. In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN 0-226-30904-5
  • Smithsonian Institution: , AnthroNotes, Vol 22 No. 1, Fall 2000.

Later years

Late in life Turnbull took up the political cause of death row inmates. After his partner’s death, Turnbull donated all his belongings to the United Negro College Fund. He donated all their research materials, most of which were the product of his career, to the College of Charleston, insisting that the collection be known under Towles’ name alone.Avery Research Center:

In 1989, Turnbull moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to participate to the building of Tibetan Cultural Center with his friend Thupten Jigme Norbu, elder brother of the 14th Dalai Lama. Later Turnbull moved to Dharamsala, India where he took the monks’ vow of Tibetan Buddhism, given to him by the Dalai Lama.