"The Pygmies were our Compass": Bantu and Batwa in the History of West Central Africa, Early Times to c. 1900 C.E.
The Pygmies Were Our Compass is a detailed reconstruction of human interactions during the last six thousand years in an area of central Africa encompassing southern Cameroon, the continental area of Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Republic of Congo. This reconstruction was accomplished on the basis of a large amount of historical linguistic research undertaken by the author during the mid-1990s, and it stands as an extremely important contribution to our knowledge of the region. It focuses particularly upon relationships through time between Batwa hunter-forager populations, traditionally designated as "Pygmies," and farmers (in this study, Bantu-speaking farmers) with whom Batwa groups have historically interacted in diverse ways and in a variety of cultural spheres.
Kairn Klieman wisely avoids an extended discussion of the ultimate biological origins of Pygmy populations, but concentrates rather on linguistic [End Page 172] and archaeological evidence for changes in Batwa–Bantu social and ideological relations through time. She proposes that during the early stages of Bantu-speaking population movements into the tropical forest in this area, between roughly 4000 B.C. and 1000 B.C., Bantu and Batwa economies were rather similar, with hunting and foraging providing the majority of community subsistence needs, and that indigenous Batwa were valued by and incorporated into immigrant communities because of their ritual and environmental knowledge. The introduction of iron-working and banana cultivation during the first millennium B.C. led to a divergence in lifestyles for the two populations, with the new technologies allowing Bantu to rely more upon agricultural production away from their original riverine settlements. At the same time, Batwa groups withdrew from some of their formerly close contacts with Bantu communities, becoming the "forest-specialists" (in Klieman's terms) better known to modern ethnography.
After A.D. 1000, the development of state-level societies, the appearance of large-scale slave raiding, and the eventual incorporation of the region into European colonies had strong impacts on the status of different Batwa (and obviously Bantu) groups. Some Batwa groups remained relatively insulated from these processes, but in general ethnic identities became more rigid and many Batwa groups came to be increasingly dominated by their Bantu neighbors. This description of modern forager– farmer relations in a developing historical context, together with the author's attendant critique of racialized preoccupations with "pure Pygmy" groups, is one of the strongest elements in the book.
Klieman's text also throws into relief some of the opportunities and problems involved in combining linguistic and archaeological data in historical reconstructions. On the one hand, the sparseness of archaeological activities in this region makes historical linguistic research particularly valuable and interesting. On the other hand, these different data sources are often rather difficult to synthesize, in part because (contra Klieman, xxix) radiocarbon chronologies used by archaeologists are significantly more finely calibrated than are the (still quite controversial) glottochronologies established by historical linguists. This can lead to uncertainties in interpretation. For example, is the appearance of ceramics on Gabonaise archaeological sites from the sixth millennium B.C. (53–54)—that is, two thousand years before the linguistically derived date for the migration of Bantu populations that were supposed to have brought ceramics into the area—due to interregional exchanges, the precocious migration of an "avant-garde" of Bantu settlers, or simply uncertainties in the linguistic dating of wider Bantu expansion? For this archaeologist, uncertainties associated with chronological frameworks remain the most problematic element in this otherwise fine text.
That being said, Kairn Klieman's book provides a great deal to think about, particularly in its fine-grained and compelling account of the rich variety of relations between Bantu and Batwa communities all over the [End Page 173] western part of central Africa and its sensitive analysis of the ways in which these populations reconstituted each others' positions in their (to a large degree shared) ideological universes. It is a major contribution to our knowledge of the history of this region, and will be an essential reference work for historians, linguists, ethnographers, and archaeologists working in central Africa.