Turnbull, Colin (1924-1994)*

Joseph Towles with Colin Turnbull

As an anthropologist, Colin Turnbull’s reputation rests primarily on two much-cited books on the Mbuti hunter-gatherer ‘pygmies’ who live in the Ituri forest, in what was still the Eastern Province of the Belgian Congo when Turnbull began his studies in the 1950s. Later, after independence from Belgium in 1960, it became part of Zaire, and more recently, in 1997, three years after Turnbull had died, the Democratic Republic of Congo (Turnbull 1962, 1965).

Turnbull reputation became more controversial following a later book, on the Ik people, of northeastern Uganda, with whom he carried out fieldwork in the period 1965-67. Turnbull claimed that the Ik were hunter-gatherers who had been obliged to become sedentary, and that as a result, all human norms of civility and social organisation had collapsed among this people (Turnbull 1972). This book was severely contested at the time that it was published, and subsequently it has been claimed that it was based on an inadequate understanding of both the language and the most basic social facts of Ik society (Heine 1985, Grinker 2000).

Turnbull was unusual among British anthropologists of his generation in having an interest in film-making, and made films during the course of his fieldwork both with the Mbuti and with the Ik. While conducting fieldwork in 1954, Turnbull collaborated with his cousin, Francis S. Chapman, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation cameraman, to shoot footage with the Mbuti.

Almost two decades later, in 1971-72, he collaborated with fellow anthropologist, Joseph A. Towles (1937-1988) to shoot further material among the Mbuti. In between these shoots, he also worked with Towles on a film about the Ik during their joint 1965-67 fieldwork. It is not clear who, if anyone, provided technical assistance in these two later shoots.

Turnbull and Towles were not only colleagues in the field, but also partners in life,  exchanging marriage vows in 1960, long before homosexual relationships became legal in either the US or the UK. When Towles died in 1988 of complications arising from AIDS, Turnbull donated not only their joint work, but also all his own work to the Avery Research Center for African History and Culture, College of Charleston, South Carolina, where both bodies of work now make up the Joseph A. Towles Papers.

© 2018 Paul Henley