Pygmy Classical

Small Hominid of East Africa.

Etymology: From the Greek pygmaios ("cubit"), the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.

Physical description: Height, 3 feet-4 feet 6 inches.

Behavior: Dances well. Builds houses of mud, feathers, and eggshells. Eats the eggs of cranes and battles the migratory adult birds when they attack. Rides small horses, rams, and she-goats. Uses bow-and-arrow weapons.

Habitat: Lives in caves (or in a rain forest with a cavelike canopy).

Distribution: North or East Africa, though transplanted frequently to Arabia, Turkey, India, or southeastern Europe by confused writers.

Significant sightings: An inscription at Aswan, Egypt, on the rock tomb of a man named Harukef reproduces a letter sent from Pharaoh Pepi II (ca. 2270 B.C.) thanking him for bringing a dancing dwarf (Dongo) back from an expedition to the south.

Three short men holding walking sticks are depicted on a frieze in the palace of Osorkon II (ca. 860 B.C.) at Bubastis, Egypt.

The Greek epic poem The Iliad refers to Pygmies that battle with cranes. Pomponius Mela in the first century A.D. placed the crane-battling Pygmies in East Africa inland from the Golfe de Tadjoura, Djibouti.

Herodotus told a story at fourth hand about a group of young Libyan adventurers who made an attempt to cross the Sahara but were attacked and captured by a group of dwarfs who lived by a great crocodile-infested river that flowed from west to east. Some scholars identify this as the Niger River in Mali; others have suggested the Bodele Depression, now dry, in Chad.

The only Egyptian depiction of anything resembling a modern rain forest Pygmy is an undated statuette found in the Cairo Museum.

One Egyptian deity that rose to prominence in the Ptolemaic era was Bes, portrayed as a grotesque dwarf with distinctly African features. Bes had thick ears, long arms, and bowed legs and was associated with childbirth.

In the sixth century, Nonnosos, a Byzantine ambassador to the king of Ethiopia, made a stop at the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea off Arabia, where he observed small, black men with hairy bodies. They spoke an incomprehensible language and only wore loincloths.

Some West African legends of the semimyth-ical GNÉNA may be based on memories of the Pygmies of the classical world.

Present status: The Pygmies known to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians seem to have been a group of short-statured people other than the forest-dwelling Pygmies of Central Africa. However, by the late eighteenth century, they were considered little more than imaginary creatures, despite the realistic descriptions given in ancient accounts. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, opinion shifted to explaining the classical Pygmies as products of ancient travelers' tales and rumors concerning the newly discovered Central African forest Pygmies.

PP'ossible explanation: Ancestors of the Mbenga or other Pygmies of the equatorial forest, who may have had a greater range in ancient times.

Sources: Homer, Iliad, III. 6; Herodotus, The Histories, ed. John Marincola (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 99 (ii. 36-37); Aristotle, Historia animalium, VIII., XIV. 3; Pliny the Elder, Natural History: A Selection, ed. John F. Healy (New York: Penguin Classics, 1991), pp. 71, 79 (VI. 188, VII. 26-27); Photius, Myriobiblon (Geneva, Switzerland: Pauli Stephanus, 1612), cod. 3; Paul Monceaux, "La légende des Pygmées et les Nains de l'Afrique équatoriale," Revue Historique 47 (September-October 1891): 1-64; Willy Ley, Exotic Zoology (New York: Viking, 1959), pp. 91-97; Bernard Heuvelmans, Les bêtes humaines d'Afrique (Paris: Plon, 1980), pp. 339-374.

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