The book club I’m a member of has just read the 1970s anthropology book The Mountain People, by Colin Turnbull. At the time it was a cause célèbre: my wife went to a theatre production at London’s Roundhouse based on it. Since then it’s become more controversial.

The Ik (pronounced Eek) are a group who live in Uganda, close to the Kenyan border. They had, at least by Turnbull’s (contested) account, been a nomadic people, but they had been excluded from most of their lands and had become farmers. They weren’t Turnbull’s first research choice, but he had some funds to spend and permission fell through for the first two locations.

Actually, the Ik weren’t even his first choice once he got to Uganda, and he knew precious little about them even when he arrived. At the start he’s accompanied by two young men from the area who have agreed to act as translators, but they take his money and mislead him, as far as one can tell from the text. The local leader offers to build him a house as a gift, or so he believes, and in no time at all, Turnbull finds he’s paying for a large team of builders to put it up.

Although much of the book is about how farming has reduced the Ik to a desperate plight, and he’s there during a terrible period of famine, he seems both incurious and unobservant. Some customs he observes is great detail (the divorce ritual, for example) while asking few questions beyond it.


Indeed, the whole tone of the book is dismay. Dismay at his own plight as an anthropologist, required to observe this tribe for whom he has no sympathy, and who are clearly not a patch as research subjects on the pygmies of the Congo who were his previous subjects. At times, it reads as if Alan Partridge has taken up anthropology and is broadcasting from Radio Ik:

The Land Rover, painted fire engine red, possessed the singular and by no means welcome ability to attract elephants, particularly male elephants, very obviously in search of female company. This, like the leaky roof, remained a constant quality. (p19)

Dismay about his subjects, whose social structures have broken down to the point where there is, as far as he can see, instead only selfish individualism, where parents are callous about the deaths of children and children are willing to see their parents die so they can get their hands on their food and their few possessions. It’s as if, given that anthropology is about social structures, he’s dismayed to find a subject that seems to have none.

‘I, too had been contaminated’

By the time he comes to leave, after two years, these feelings have reached fever pitch.

When the rains failed for the second year running, I knew that the Ik as a society [my emphasis] were almost certainly finished, and that the monster they had created in its place, that passionless, feelingless association of individuals, would continue, spreading like fungus, contaminating all it touched. When I left I too had been contaminated…(p265)

And it turns out, the Ik feel the same way about him. When he returns later for a shorter visit, and tries to find the caves in which the Ik are rumoured to store their grain, it’s hard–from Turnbull’s description–to avoid concluding that they had tried to kill him by taking him down an overgrown and poorly marked path where a misstep would have sent him plunging 1500 feet into the rift valley.

When another anthropologist, Bernd Heine, visited almost two decades later, the Ik he met asked if there was a way they could take legal action against Turnbull for the way he had portrayed them. in the book.

The reading group, at least, concluded that it was impossible to tell what had actually happened; what was real, and what was Turnbull’s perception.

But, as I did some more reading afterwards, one of the contemporary reviewers was pretty clear:

This book cannot be discussed in any proper sociological terms, for we are provided with only snatches of data. Rather than being a study of the Ik, this is an autobiographical portrait of the author utilizing the Ik as counters for expressing his personal feelings and experiences in the field.

It was, the book club agreed, a salutary tale about the limits of research, or certainly of researchers.

Getting it wrong

Bernd Heine, who visited the Ik to study their language about 18 years after Turnbull had stayed, wrote a short but brutal account of what he thought were Turnbull’s research failings. He found no evidence that the Ik had been nomads and had turned to agriculture; he found lots to suggest that they had been a farming people for hundreds of years, including the number of words in the language for food and plants. Turnbull, it seemed, had misunderstood the social and physical structures of the village and misidentified the local headman. His notion that adultery was widespread (part of his case that their social structures had broken down) was just plain wrong, according to the Ik who spoke to Heine.

And more: Pirre wasn’t an Ik village, but one that was mixed between a number of groups. The man who taught Turnbull the Ik language was not an Ik but a Diding’a, who spoke Ik poorly; Turnbull was there for two years but seems not to have noticed the three different festivals, marking the cycles of the agricultural year, that the Ik celebrated. (Instead he comments favourably on the rituals of hunter-gatherers and bemoans the lack of such rituals in a farming community.) And so on.

Heine decides that the book is all about Colin:

The longer I was able to talk to the Ik about his work the more I got the impression that he tended to project his own feelings on to his research subjects. There are in fact some indications that what he claims be typical Ik behaviour is rather an indication of his own mentality…. The Ik are portrayed as a people lacking social integration, but if there is anyone who shows no interest in social integration it is Turnbull himself. He isolates himself behind a stockade ‘even bigger and stronger than that of my neighbours’ (Turnbull, 1974: 63), and ‘I used to shut myself up in the Land-Rover to cook my meals and to eat them there’ (Turnbull, 1974: 79).

Even Turnbull’s use of the word ‘I’ is curious. In the Preface he mentions that “his friend and colleague” (and partner) Joseph Towles “shared much of the experience with me” but he is invisible in the text, apparently “because he has his own story to tell.” (p12)

A sign of the times


Nonetheless, there’s something about The Mountain People that goes beyond the text. It was at the time regarded as a marker. I have read relatively little anthropology, but I was aware of the book, both when it was published and when it was suggested for the book club. So perhaps it is better read as a sign of the times.

The Round House performance of The Ik was directed by Peter Brook, shortly after his triumph with Midsummer Night’s Dream. Albert Hunt’s review of the original production, in Paris, says:

Turnbull tells us how he was driven to say repeatedly, ‘How inhuman’ – then adds that to say ‘How inhuman’ is to presuppose ‘that there are certain standards common to all humanity.’ His book is about how he was driven to question that presupposition.

It’s not difficult to see why Brook, in search of the ultimate, should be attracted by such material.

But the play also explores Turnbull’s role as the Western observer as the life of the village collapsed under the weight of the famine. Hunt again, always a fine observer and critic of drama:

We see [Turnbull] only through his reaction to the creatures that are around him. Our attention is focussed, not on our society, but on Turnbull’s sensibility.

How painful it must have been to have his water delivered daily from the police bore hole! When all around him people were dying because a polluted pool had dried up! How terrible it must have been to realise that your efforts to save one here and one there were futile! No wonder he felt so much anger against the universe!

A product of the moment

For all of the likely research failings, it seems possible that The Mountain People‘s visibility was the product of the moment, in 1972, in which it was published. Paul Ehrlich’s Malthusian book Population Bomb hung like a shrapnel blast over much of the discourse of the times, with its stark opening:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.

This intersected with an ecological strain: The Limits to Growth was also published in 1972, along with The Ecologist‘s Blueprint for Survival. And perhaps one more connection: the idea of the planet as a single place had been popularised as a result of NASA’s famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph, published in 1969; the first Earth Day was marked in 1970.

Indeed, in his memoir The Shifting Point Peter Brook says, “The Ik is a story which shows a broken world” (p135).

Turnbull explicitly connects his narrative of the Ik to these forebodings. In the final chapter he compares the Ik’s apparent slide from “goodness” (his term) with the changes he sees in Western society and a prognosis of where we are headed:

Even supposing we can avert the disaster of nuclear holocaust or that of the almost universal famine that may be expected by the middle of the next century if population keeps expanding and pollution remains unchecked, what will be the cost, if not the same already paid by the Ik? (p293)

This is not to say that Turnbull’s prognosis was necessarily wrong; it is the same story told by the base case of The Limits to Growth as it tracks actual outputs unrelentingly. It is just to say that in falling into it he blinded himself to other versions that sit within his text.

For example, his notion that the Ik were finished “as a society” is belied even by his own text. At a trivial level he mentions an incident in which the Ik compromise the local police in such a way that the police need to buy them off with beer. At a more complex level, he writes about an Ik village that organises cross-border “smuggling” of cattle (this may also be a Turnbull misconstruction, it transpires), positioned so that they get ample notice if the police are on their way, and structured with members of different Ik villages as a way to ensure fair dealing between everyone.

Crossing the line

Turnbull judges towards the end of the book that “[t]he Ik had faced a conscious choice between being human and being parasites.” He feels so strongly about this that he proposes to the authorities that they should be rounded up and dispersed across the mountainous regions of Uganda in groups of “no more than ten” so that they are forced to assimilate into their host communities and, presumably, absorb their better values. Perhaps one should admire his candour, but you can’t but feel that a line has been crossed. And worse: given Heine’s later research, what would have happened had the authorities decided to act on Turnbull’s resettlement proposal?

The Ik have the last laugh, both in the book and since. When he goes back for a return visit, and makes it to their storage caves, he finds bowls and other handiwork with exquisite carvings (you can almost hear him thinking, “proper anthropology at last”) but it is far too late for him to do anything with this new knowledge other than to make some hasty sketches. The Ik now number around 10,000, seem to attract some cultural tourism, and have recently had their first MP elected to the Ugandan Parliament and first student admitted to university.

And the moral? Beware research that seems too tidy, stories that seem to fit too well, and researchers who seem too certain of what they have recorded, especially when they come to write it up.

Thanks to  the book club members for the discussion.