There are perhaps 200,000 people living in the Ituri forest who are commonly referred to as Pygmies. They are almost exclusively hunter-gatherers. The farmers live adjacent to the Pygmies, and each group maintains an economic partnership with the other. The farmers provide the Pygmies (who never farm) with vegetables and iron, and the Pygmies give meat and honey and other forest goods to the farmers (who seldom hunt or forage.)
The vast majority of Pygmy men and women do not exceed four feet ten inches in height. Their farmer neighbors are slightly taller, usually reaching a little over five feet. The mechanism through which the Pygmies remain short is the absence of an insulin-like growth factor.
Farmers sometimes marry Pygmy women, and the children of these marriages are considered by both groups to be members of the farmer group. Pygmy men, however, cannot marry farmer women or even engage in sexual intercourse with them. It is considered as taboo as incest. This one-way intermarriage means that, over time, the farmer groups have been getting shorter.
Throughout the Ituri forest, farmers disparage the Pygmies as having unrestrained and uncontrollable desires, mainly for alcohol, marijuana, sex, and violence. They are said to act without planning or meditation, and to have no ability to husband their resources. In contrast the farmers depict themselves as able to mediate between their drives and their need for a proper and ordered social life. The farmers represent rationality, whereas the Pygmies stand for untamed passions. The Pygmies themselves will generally agree with these characterizations with great laughter and poke fun at the farmers.
The Pygmies provide music and dancing at farmer rituals, serve as chief mourners at farmer funerals, and protect the farmers from their own evil spirits, which the Pygmies generally do not believe exist.
Colin Turnbull fought against the denigration of the Pygmies, arguing that the farmers were, in fact, inferior to the Pygmies, spiritually, intellectually, and culturally. If the Pygmies appeared subordinate, they were only play acting. He was certain that he had not only discovered the innate brilliance of the Pygmies, a society so often disparaged as primitive and uncivilized, but that he could convince the world that the Pygmies represented the best humanity had to offer. Turnbull's quest to discover beauty and purity in unexpected places would carry over into his own intriguing love life.