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The Unfairly Judged Ik People

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

An Unfair Characterization

When anthropologist Colin Turnbull published his book, The Mountain People, in 1972, it caused a sensation. Turnbull described the Ik people of Uganda as “unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable, and generally mean as any people can be.” It was an unfair characterization, but it stuck with the tribe for several decades.

A group of Ik people in 2005

A group of Ik people in 2005

Turnbull’s Description of the Ik

There are about 10,000 members of the Ik tribe. They live in the mountainous region of Eastern Uganda, near the border with Kenya. They survive in poverty through subsistence farming as well as hunting and gathering.

Life for the Ik was already difficult when the British colonial government decided to uproot them from their traditional land. A large game reserve was planned to attract tourists with convertible currencies, so the Ik were shuffled off into mountain areas and told to take up farming on poor-quality land.

Hard times followed, made worse by a severe drought in the mid-1960s. That’s when Colin Turnbull arrived to take stock of their society.

According to Turnbull’s study of them, harsh living conditions had turned the people into a society without love, compassion, or honesty. He claimed they were selfish to an extreme and motivated entirely by satisfying their own individual needs, often at the expense of other community members.

He gave examples of their apparently repellent behaviour:

  • Children were kicked out of their homes at the age of three.
  • They only laugh when they see someone else in trouble.
  • Younger tribesmen stole food from the elderly and sick.
  • If they had a successful hunt, they would gorge themselves to the point of vomiting.

Turnbull wrote of a people to whom the children were as useless as the aged, or nearly so; as long as you keep the breeding group alive, you can always get more children. Anything else is racial suicide.”

“The life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

— Thomas Hobbes, 1651

Evolutionary Biology

Turnbull’s analysis flies in the face of evidence from The Human Generosity Project. Since 2014, researchers have studied social groupings around the world, including the Ik people, and have concluded that caring for others is a core human characteristic. Indeed, compassion and sharing seem to be essential to the survival of groups in hard times. These are “widely accepted principles in evolutionary biology” (Evolutionary Human Sciences).

We see this in action all the time. When tsunamis, storms, floods, earthquakes, and other disasters strike, people rush in to help. Donations to charities zoom upwards, and people with needed expertise go to the scene. This is part of an understood bargain that “I’ll help you in your time of need because I know you’ll do the same for me if misfortune strikes.” Academics call this a “need-based transfer.”

The characteristics of generosity and kindness in societies help them cope better during times of stress. This is a lesson that can give humanity direction as it faces the triple challenge of global heating, inequality, and a pandemic.

The Ik Revisited

Following the publication of Colin Turnbull’s analysis, some harsh words were written. Science writer Lewis Thomas said, “They breed without love [and] they defecate on one another’s doorsteps.” The New York Times called the Ik “a haunting flower of evil [in] its corner of civilization’s garden.”

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The people at the Generosity Project were wrestling with how the world was coping in hard times, so they decided to check in with the notoriously selfish Ik people. Were they still the reviled society of the early 1970s? Baylor University anthropologist Cathryn Townsend travelled to Uganda to find out.

An Ik village

An Ik village

She lived with the Ik for a year and wrote, “I can emphatically say that the selfishness described by Turnbull is not characteristic of Ik people today, even though they live in hardship.”

Townsend allows that some of the behaviour Turnbull reported might have been partially true at the time because of the enormous stress the community had suffered over relocation and famine.

She writes that “Ik conventional wisdom tells them that one couldn’t survive without sharing. Tomora maráŋ is an Ik adage meaning ‘It’s good to share.’ The dry, ‘hunger season’ in Ikland is a time when people must come together to help each other by sharing foraged foods with those most in need.”

Did the famine of the 1960s strip away the illusion that kindness and generosity are inherent human characteristics? When the going gets really rough, is it a case of every man for himself or the sharing of meagre resources?

Bonus Factoids

  • Among the Maasai people of East Africa, there is a concept they call “osotua.” (The word translates to umbilical cord). If a member of the osotua community runs into trouble, they have the right to ask for help, and the network is obliged to provide it, usually by giving livestock to the person in difficulty. No record of the transaction is kept, and no one expects repayment.
  • Cattle ranchers in the American southwest donate free labour to others who are injured or ill; it’s called “neighbouring.”
  • Kerekere in Fiji involves sharing resources among extended families upon request.
  • In May 2020, Irish people raised $2.6 million to help Navajo and Hopi families in the Southwestern United States that had been hard hit by the coronavirus. It was in remembrance of the Choctaw Nation’s donation of $170 in 1847 (worth more than $1 million in today’s money) to help people suffering during the Irish Potato Famine.
  • Amish farmers gather together to raise barns for coreligionists who need help.


  • “Country Matters: Let Us Never Go the Way of the Ik.” Duff Hart-Davis, The Independent, August 20, 1994.
  • “Generosity Among the Ik of Uganda.” Cathryn Townsend, et. al, Evolutionary Human Sciences, May 14, 2020
  • The Human Generosity Project.
  • “The Ik Do not Sing.” John H. Lienhard, University of Houston, undated.
  • “Neither Nasty nor Brutish.” Cathryn Townsend, Aeon, October 5, 2020.
  • “Is a More Generous Society Possible?” Leah Shaffer, Sapiens, February 21, 2019.
  • “The Kindness Paradox: Why Be Generous?” Bob Holmes, New Scientist, August 10, 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor


Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on November 09, 2020:

I love the history that I get from your hubs. Thanks for writing this one. Some of my friends are from Uganda and some of my ancestry profile is related to Uganda. I am so glad that someone went to the tribe to clear up some things about the history of the Ik tribe. The Human Generosity Project is a wonderful asset to help bridge understanding, even if the first assessment by Colin Turnbull was 100% accurate. Good on you!

GwennyOh on November 09, 2020:

This hub is most intriguing. There are different situations and perspectives that people and groups can take, which color their respective views on everyone and everything. It is good to be reminded, that no matter what we read about anyone or any group, community, or culture, that we should take opinions with a grain of salt.

Also, faults that communities or groups may have, do not need to be viewed as being likely to be permanent, and others who have been forgiven serve as example of this. Remember the inquisitions, for example. The USA's slavery is another.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 09, 2020:

As a product of the British public school system (1950s), I well remember the maps showing all the British "possessions" in red and being fed the fiction that we were "civilizing" to the inhabitants of these lands by bringing Christianity to them.

As I approached the age of reason (still not quite there yet), I realized this was all a cover up so that the resources of Indigenous people could be stolen.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it "When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land."

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on November 09, 2020:

"Life for the Ik was already difficult when the British colonial government decided to uproot them from their traditional land" - How many tribes world-wide do You reckon the British have @#$%ed over during their "the Sun never sets on the British Empire" adventure? The list keeps getting longer on my end.

You do come-up with the strangest articles sometimes, Mr. Taylor and I do appreciate them. I have never heard of this tribe of people before but thanks to You I did now.

It is not good to take things for granted but having had some experience with tribal people and knowing my own tribal history, I would say that tribal people sure do know the importance of sharing and caring for one another. Otherwise the tribes would not be able to survive. It is necessary during hunting time, or war-time, or whatever time. Haha!!

Anyway, thank You for bringing this up to Awareness. All the very best to You!

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