The Mbuti of Central Africa: The Only Known Egalitarian Society (with Rare Video)

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This article explores the relationship between egalitarianism, language, and cultural adaptation, as illustrated by the only known equal rights society, the Mbuti of central Africa.

By the time the Mbuti culture of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in centeral Africa, was first encountered sometime in the mid 15th century, the concept of a true egalitarian society had virtually reached mythological proportions. 

Social scientists, theologians, historians, and philosophers had long hypothesized that such a society could exist in "theory," but scholars by and large maintained the perspective that circumstances supporting a society that had no formalized social stratification would be extremely rare, and temporary at best.

At that time, prevailing Eurocentric ideals supported the premise that individual survival depends on societal organization, societal survival depends on institutional progress, and progress depends on the intentional delineation of social responsibilities according to one's abilities. 

This perspective concluded that a society could not survive if it did not exploit its resources--through forced labor, slavery, and threat of violence--and that included the strengths and weaknesses of its people.

Occupying a remote section of the African rainforest where extremes in climate and resource availability are common, the Mbuti are actually a collection of several hunter-gatherer groups who live in bands of 10–50 members who are highly mobile, both for purposes of following food supplies and, in recent centuries, to avoid interference from outsiders. 

True to definition, the Mbuti have no rulers, no political structure, and except for a religion that essentially ties them functionally and ritually to the forest, they have no cohesive social structure.  Most significantly, every man, woman, and child has equal access to resources–which is the very definition of egalitarian.

Men and women have equal power, decisions are made by group consensus, and minor disputes are usually dealt with by ridicule, gossip, or shunning.  Serious infractions, however, can result in beating or even total banishment. 

But while this jungle society seems to exist in an ideal social system, that does not mean that work is not delineated (woman and men do have specific, traditional jobs–although the roles are sometimes reversed), that charismatic men do not occasionally surface and vie for social control–and sometimes attain it, that social tensions do not lead to members frequently opting to leave one band for another, and that the more skilled hunters (almost always men) do not delegate responsibilities during hunting forays. 

And the fact that their social structure promotes gendered equality does not prevent individuals from attempting to promote hierarchy; they are simply ignored and considered insane. 

And one point of particular distinction in Mbuti society is that children have what could be considered an irrational amount of power in ritual situations–believed to be most closely connected to the primal spirits of the forest.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Mbuti language system is that while it does not directly apply gendered terminology (as is common to most known languages), neither is it gender-neutral. 

Instead, it is what can be thought of as gender inclusive. Since most of their primary vocabulary (before European intrusion) derived from forest designations, and the forest is regarded as both father and mother, gender designation is a combination of both.  It is through context and application which "aspect" of the forest–male or female–is intended.

For example, most Mbuti villages (which are usually comprised of only a few essential huts), are laid out to represent a human female womb in shape and design.  This is so that when entering and exiting the village (and each hut), you are symbolically reborn–of your mother and of the forest. 

In many contexts, the village and physical use of space is thought of as male (in concept), while the exact layout, shape of the huts, and actual utilization of the space is thought of as female.  Thus, it is a constant representation of sexual interaction, reflecting both human physical intercourse as well as symbolic birth by way of the forest.

Today, the Mbuti, like many indigenous groups around the world, have been infected by encroaching modernity and a growing number are abandoning age-old egalitarian principles. Thus, the only known equal-rights society may one day soon lose that unique status.


Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion, P. Moro

African Civilization, G. Connah

Film: Mbuti of Africa

Images via, except old black & white, via

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