Tag Archives: Watusi

The Tutsi, Giants of Central Africa? Giants of Palestine?

The 20 June 1938 edition of LIFE magazine features an article on the “Watusi” of eastern central Africa, better known today as the Tutsi, inhabitants of eastern Congo, Rwanda, and Berundi. LIFE includes a handy map of the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, later the Democratic Republic of the Congo), indicating the location of these “Giants”:

Map of the Belgian Congo, identifying the region inhabited by Giants (LIFE, 20 June 1938, p. 41)

Map of the Belgian Congo, identifying the region inhabited by Giants (LIFE, 20 June 1938, p. 41)

In a piece entitled “The Congo Giants: They are Africa’s Aristocrats”, LIFE describes the Watusi as “aristocrats of Africa, who tower up to 8 ft. in height”.

"The Congo Giants: They are Africa's Aristocrats" (LIFE, 20 June 1938, p. 45)

“The Congo Giants: They are Africa’s Aristocrats” (LIFE, 20 June 1938, p. 45)

The article perpetuates the racist theory first suggested by French Aryanist, Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau (1816-1882), which posits a Hamitic (or possibly Semitic) origin for the Watusi. Later writers compare the Tutsi to the Egyptian Pharoahs. The distinction between Tutsi and Hutu was mandated by the European colonists, who defined Tutsi on economic grounds as the richer natives and on the basis of dubious physiognomic distinctions (especially, having more “European” features). As with all ruling elites, better diet led to a slight difference in height – the Tutsi average 5’8″; the Hutu 5’6″. A few Tutsi are over 6’6″ tall, including members of the royal family, who intermarry and thus share the same gene pool. The ruling family were photographed with much shorter Belgians in the late nineteenth century, and with various explorers in the early twentieth century, reinforcing the stereotype of a tribe of African giants.

Leila Roosevelt with King Rudahigwa IV Mutare (LIFE, 20 June 1938, p. 44)

Leila Roosevelt with King Rudahigwa IV Mutare (LIFE, 20 June 1938, p. 44)

Genetically, the Hutu and Tutsi share common ancestry (Luis, J; Rowold, D; Regueiro, M; Caeiro, B; Cinnioglu, C; Roseman, C; Underhill, P; Cavallisforza, L et al. [2004]. “The Levant versus the Horn of Africa: Evidence for Bidirectional Corridors of Human Migrations”. The American Journal of Human Genetics 74 no. 3: 532–44). The Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis in the early 1990s - in part a result of resentment by some Hutu at Tutsi rule under their colonial masters - could only be carried out by requiring that all citizens carried identification cards noting whether they were Tutsi or Hutu. Yet people meeting the Tutsi stereotype of tall stature, thin noses, etc (stereotypes derived from colonial literature and administration) were frequently killed, even if their identification cards identified them as Hutu.

Letters to the Editor (LIFE, 11 July 1938, pp. 3-4)

Letters to the Editor (LIFE, 11 July 1938, pp. 3-4)

The colonial stereotype that the Tutsi are of great height continues to be perpetuated in recent biblical scholarship. In a 1996 biblical commentary on the book of Deuteronomy/Debarim, Jeffrey Tigay attempts to defend the essential historicity of the biblical accounts of Giants in Palestine (the Anakim) in this manner:

It is conceivable that there were some exceptionally tall people in the area, comparable to the Watusi of central Africa, who often exceed seven feet in height.
- Jeffrey Tigay, Deuteronomy, Debarim, Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Commentary; Philadelphia and Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 1996: 17.

The first rejoinder is that an alleged tribe in Central Africa has nothing to do with Palestine. The attempt to compare the two bears a close relation, albeit most probably inadvertently, to connections made in racist theories of a Hamitic or Semitic origin for the Tutsi. However, the accounts of an entire nation of 7-foot-tall “Watusi” is a colonial fantasy, and it is hardly surprising that Tigay has employed the term used in colonial literature rather than the name which is much more commonly employed today, “Tutsi”. The fantasy of an entire group of Giants in (“darkest”) central Africa has proved a very dangerous fantasy, and one that – in light of the genocide carried out in the years before the publication of the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Commentary - should have been forcefully rejected, rather than perpetuated, in biblical scholarship.

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