11-23-1924

(l to r) Dr. Joseph Towles and Colin Turnbull

The famed British-American anthropologist COLIN TURNBULL was born on this date (d. 1994). Best known for this groundbreaking books The Forest People & The Mountain People, Turnbull was also one of the first anthropologists to work in the field of ethnomusicology an interest shared by Gay Rights pioneer, Harry Hay.

Turnbull was an unconventional scholar who rejected neutrality. He idealized the BaMbuti and reviled the Ik, and described the latter as lacking any sense of altruism, in that they force their children out of their homes at the age of three, and gorge on whatever occasional excesses of food they might find until they became sick, rather than save or share.

However, several anthropologists have since argued that a particularly serious famine suffered by the Ik during the period of Turnbull’s visit may have distorted their normal behavior and customs, and some passages in his book make it clear that the behavior and customs of the Ik during the period he describes were drastically different from what was normal for them before they were uprooted from their original way of life.

In the US, he lived with his professional collaborator and partner of thirty years, the African American Dr. Joseph Towles, as an openly gay, interracial couple in one of the most conservative areas of the 1960s rural Virginia.

During this time he also took up the political cause of death row inmates. After his partner’s death in 1988, Turnbull, strongly affected, gave all his belongings to the United Negro College Fund. In 1989, he moved to Bloomington, Indiana to participate to the building of Tibetan Cultural Center with his friend Thupten Jigme Norbu, elder brother of the 14th Dalai-lama. In 1991 – 1992, he moved to Dharamsala, India where he took the monks’ vow of Tibetan Buddhism, given to him by the Dalai Lama. He was then given a buddhist name.

He died in Virginia in 1994, aged 69. Both Towles and Turnbull died from complications of AIDS.