Colin Turnbull

23 Nov 1924
28 Jul 1994
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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.

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.

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).

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, 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, having been commissioned to come up with an explanation and solution, the highly controversial The Mountain People was published. It concerned the Ik, a hunter/gatherer tribe who had been forced to stop moving around ancestral lands, through the seasons, because it now involved the three national borders of Uganda, Kenya and Sudan.

Forced to become stationary in Uganda, and without a knowledge base and culture for doing so, they failed to thrive, even to the point of starvation and death. The book remains in print and on the reading list of University courses teaching anthropology.

Turnbull was in unique position to study and document what happens to a society and culture. His book documented the society he witnessed and described the culture of the Ik using the recollections of older Ik from 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.

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.

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 (re-titled in 1990 as “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.

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.

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.

Many people[who?]found Turnbull’s description of the Ik disturbing. Turnbull was explicitly describing what happens to a society that is forced to abandon its culture, and the fierce individualism and hardship that results.

His graphic descriptions were placed into context by the careful interviews he did with older Ik to contrast the older society that existed prior to displacement.

Bernd Heine exemplifies the strong reaction evoked by Turnbull’s evaluation of the Ik in a scathing 1985 article in Africa, The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda, using information gained 20 years afer Turnbull’s researches.

He provided new information that appeared to discredit the portrayal of the Ik provided by Turnbull. It calls the issue of informants into question.

Was Turnbull misled or just careless? Had 20 years changed the Ik to an extent that would make Heine’s account less accurately comparable?

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