AskDefine | Define pygmy

Dictionary Definition



1 an unusually small individual [syn: pigmy]
2 any member of various peoples having an average height of less than five feet [syn: Pigmy]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Pygmy



Alternative spellings


  1. A member of various African peoples, notable for their short stature
  2. A member of a race of dwarfs


See also

Extensive Definition

Pygmies (singular: Pygmy) refers to various peoples of central Africa whose adults have an average height of 150 centimetres (4 feet 11 inches) or shorter. The term is also sometimes applied to the so-called Negrito peoples living in isolated parts of Southeast Asia, and occasionally indiscriminately to individuals of unusually short stature. Many so called pygmies prefer instead to be referred to by the name of their various ethnic groups, or names for various interrelated groups such as the Mbenga, Mbuti, and Twa. The term Bayaka, the plural form of the Aka/Yaka, is sometimes used in the Central African Republic to refer to all local Pygmies. Likewise, the Kongo word Bambenga is used in Congo.


The term pygmy, as used to refer to diminutive people, derives from Greek Pygmaioi via Latin Pygmaei (sing. Pygmaeus), a measure of length corresponding to the distance between the elbow and knuckles. (See also Greek pechua (πεχυα)). In Greek mythology the word describes a tribe of dwarfs, first described by Homer, and reputed to live in Ethiopia.


A commonly held view is that the Pygmies are the direct descendents of the Late Stone Age hunter-gatherer peoples of the central African rainforest, who were partially absorbed or displaced by later immigration of agricultural peoples, and adopted their Central Sudanic, Adamawa-Ubangian, and Bantu languages. This view has no archaeological support, and ambiguous support from genetics and linguistics. Some 30% of the Aka language is not Bantu, and a similar percentage of the Baka language is not Ubangian. Much of this vocabulary is botanical, deals with honey collecting, or is otherwise specialized for the forest and is shared between the two western Pygmy groups. It has been proposed that this is the remnant of an independent western Pygmy (Mbenga or "Baaka") language.
Genetically, the eastern Mbuti pygmies are extremely divergent from other human populations, as well as being the shortest of the Pygmy populations, suggesting they have an ancient indigenous lineage. Their closest relatives appear to be the Hadzabe, who live in the savannas east of the forest and were quite short in stature before heavy recent intermarriage with their taller neighbors. Other Pygmy groups which have been genetically tested are not very distinct from their non-Pygmy neighbors, suggesting either that their indigenous ancestry has been diluted through interbreeding with neighboring agricultural populations, or that they have a different ancestry from the Mbuti. Indeed, the genetic mutations responsible for the short stature of the eastern and western Pygmies are different and unrelated, suggesting that they represent independent adaptations to the forest.
There are a number of "Twa" populations along the southern border of Angola and neighboring countries, living in swamps and deserts far from the forest. They are little studied, and it is not known if they are indigenous to the area or more recent migrants from the forest.
Various theories have been proposed to explain the short stature of pygmies: lack of food in the rainforest environment, low calcium levels in the soil, the need to move through dense jungle, as an adaptation to heat and humidity, and most recently, as an association with rapid reproductive maturation under conditions of early mortality.
Ultraviolet light levels are very low in rainforests. This might mean that relatively little vitamin D can be made in human skin, thereby limiting calcium uptake from the diet for bone growth and maintenance. This could lead to the evolution of small skeletal size, that is to a "pygmy".

Other "pygmies"


Negritos in Southeast Asia (including the Batak and Aeta of the Philippines, the Andamanese of the Andaman Islands, and the Semang of the Malay Peninsula), and occasionally Papuans and Melanesians in adjacent Oceania, are sometimes called pygmies (especially in older literature). Negritos share some common physical features with African pygmy populations, including short stature and dark skin; however, their origin and the route of their migration to Asia is still a matter of great speculation. They are genetically distant from Africans, and shown to have separated early from Asians, suggesting that they are either surviving descendants of settlers from an early out-of-Africa migration, or that they are descendants of one of the founder populations of modern humans. Their resemblance to some Africans, it is generally believed, is due to adaptation to a similar environment, rather than shared origins.


Short statured aboriginal tribes inhabited the rainforests of North Queensland, Australia, of which the best known group is probably the Tjapukai of the Cairns area. These rainforest people, collectively referred to as Barrineans, were once considered to be a relict of the earliest wave of migration to the Australian continent, but this theory no longer finds much favour. The Rainforest People tended to live in the first variety of Jykabita, a wood and mud structure renowned for incubation of plants.
Frank Kingdon-Ward in the early 20th century, Alan Rabinowitz in the 1990s, P. Christiaan Klieger in 2003, and others have reported a tribe of pygmy Tibeto-Burman speakers known as the T'rung inhabiting the remote region of Mt. Hkakabo Razi in Southeast Asia on the border of China (Yunnan and Tibet), Burma, and India. A Burmese survey done in the 1960s reported a mean height of an adult male T'rung at 1.43 m (4'6") and that of females at 1.40 m (4'5"). These are the only "pygmies" noted of clearly East Asian origin. The cause of their diminutive size is unknown, but diet and endogamous marriage practices have been cited. The population of T'rung pygmies has been steadily shrinking, and is now down to only a few individuals.


See also

pygmy in Bulgarian: Пигмеи
pygmy in Catalan: Pigmeu
pygmy in Danish: Pygmæ
pygmy in German: Pygmäen
pygmy in Spanish: Pigmeo
pygmy in French: Pygmée
pygmy in Hindi: पिग्मी
pygmy in Croatian: Pigmeji
pygmy in Italian: Pigmei
pygmy in Hebrew: פיגמים
pygmy in Kongo: Bambenga
pygmy in Lingala: Mbenga (ekólo)
pygmy in Dutch: Pygmeeën
pygmy in Japanese: ピグミー
pygmy in Norwegian: Pygméer
pygmy in Polish: Pigmeje
pygmy in Portuguese: Pigmeus
pygmy in Romanian: Pigmei
pygmy in Russian: Пигмеи
pygmy in Simple English: Pygmy people
pygmy in Serbian: Pigmeji
pygmy in Finnish: Pygmit
pygmy in Swedish: Pygméer
pygmy in Kabyle: Ifɣulen
pygmy in Turkish: Pigmeler
pygmy in Venetian: Pigmei
pygmy in Chinese: 俾格米人

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

American Indian, Amerind, Australian aborigine, Bushman, Caucasian, Indian, Lilliputian, Malayan, Mister Charley, Mongolian, Negrillo, Negrito, Negro, Oriental, Red Indian, Tom Thumb, WASP, bitsy, black, black man, blackfellow, boy, brown man, brownie, burrhead, colored person, coon, darky, diminutive, dumpy, dwarf, dwarfed, dwarfish, elf, elfin, gnome, gook, homunculus, honky, incipient, jigaboo, jungle bunny, lilliputian, manikin, meager, midge, midget, minikin, nanoid, nigger, niggra, ofay, paleface, peewee, pip-squeak, pocket-size, red man, redskin, rudimental, rudimentary, runt, runty, scraggy, scrubby, shrimp, shriveled, shrunk, shrunken, slant-eye, spade, squat, stunted, the Man, undersize, undersized, wart, white, white man, whitey, wizened, yellow man
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