Delia Akeley – From Hunting Elephants to Living with Pygmies

Carl and Delia Akeley Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Delia Akeley began her adventures in Africa as an elephant hunter, but she turned into a cracker-jack explorer and ethnographer, spending three weeks with a Pygmy tribe (maybe cannibals?).

Delia Akeley was a rebellious child. Born in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, in 1869, she was deliberately silent about her past. She was described as a “little rebel,” and when she was a teenager she left home and never returned. (Strangely, though, she dedicated her book Jungle Portraits to her mother.)

When she was twenty, Delia (nicknamed Mickie) married an older man. They were divorced and she met Carl Akeley in 1902 when he was 38 and she was 27. He was a taxidermist who collected large animal specimens and preserved them for display in museums. (I know what you are thinking, but at the time “lifelike” displays of animals in their supposed habitats were exhibited at museums so the public could see what they looked like. Like other women who hunted big game, she later disavowed this practice.)

Delia and Her Monkey – Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
The Akeleys traveled to East Africa several times on collecting expeditions. On their last trip, Carl was attacked by an elephant and almost died until Delia, taking charge, made an overnight trip with her guides to come to his rescue. The couple divorced in 1923, in part, due to Delia’s fixation with a monkey she had found in Africa and named J.T., Jr. She even wrote a book about him that is still in print.

Delia’s Solo Journey into Pygmy Country

By 1924, Delia, now 55, was ready to go back to Africa alone. She had a commission to send back some large animal specimens for the Brooklyn Museum of Natural History; when that task was completed she headed for the Congo. In Jungle Portraits, she writes of her experiences in finding and living with a Pygmy tribe. I found this the most fascinating part of her story and I want to focus on it here.

Delia approached her search for a pygmy tribe in the same way she had studied animal specimens on previous trips, to spend time with them “up close and personal.” She wanted to find a tribe that was untouched by contact with the outside world.

She found one tribe, but when they lined up for “photo opportunities” with the expedition members, she decided they had become too Westernized. Finally, she found a tribe that suited her desire for unspoiled subjects.

Delia wanted to observe the tribe, but she realized that she would have to get them accustomed to her presence, in the same way she had lived with apes and monkeys. She was convinced that she could come alone, with no guns, … and make friends with the women and “secure authentic and valuable information concerning their tribal customs and habits.”

She found the chief (called a sultan) sitting on a stool, with the rest of the village in the background with weapons in their hands. She said it took a real effort of willpower to go forward.

Settling in with the pygmies, she charmed the children by teaching them jump rope, and she chatted with the women about food and clothing and the children (she had to make up a family because they couldn’t believe she didn’t have children). She comments,

“Some day no doubt we shall hear that some traveler has visited the .. Pygmies of the Itari forest and discovered that the little people were the originators of the childish pastime, jump the rope.” 

Pygmies with African Explorer – Keystone View Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

More about the Pygmies:

  • Pygmies, she said, are born normal sized but they don’t develop normally. They broaden out and develop tremendously heavy shoulders and torsos. The average height is around 41 inches but that varies tremendously.
  • These pygmies were very primitive. They didn’t have household goods, just shelter. They didn’t have crops or livestock, but lived off the land, eating whatever they could find for protein (nasty bugs, rodents, snakes, caterpillars, monkeys, lizards, etc.), cooking everything in big stews. You would think they were malnourished, but she found them well-nourished, healthy, and disease-free (no malaria).
  • They didn’t wash their clothes or themselves, were fascinated with Delia’s bathtub.
  • Delia said she never saw a child punished. Parents were loving, demonstrative, and protective of their children.
  •  Delia noted that the women were dull and stupid (her words) by comparison with the men, who had a keen sense of humor.
  • They spent hours basking in the sunlight – lots of vitamin D and low stress!

Some of the pygmy traits bothered Delia, especially the way the men treated the women. She describes an incident when the sultan hit his wife. Delia interfered, and he jumped into the air toward her and beat his chest, just like a caged chimpanzee, in a towering rage. Delia was terrified, but for some reason, she started to laugh. The sultan’s mood changed, his rage subsided, and his face and body relaxed. They shared a cigarette.

The men of the tribe forced her on a five-day march to track an elephant; she hated the march but was fascinated at the same time. They smeared their bodies and faces with elephant droppings to mask their smell (she declined) and tracked the elephant stopping only briefly. When they finally found and killed the elephant (with poison spears), the rest of the tribe joined them in a five-day orgy.

Elephants – The Worst Danger in the Jungle

Many times in her journeys Delia talked about the danger from elephants. They are large, have lethal tusks, and can charge quickly with little notice moving faster than a horse. Stumbling on one is not something an explorer wants to do. During the trek with the pygmies, she spent most of her time on guard against elephants. The elephant is at home in the jungle, and its great strength and large bulk allow it to plow through the tangled overgrowth with ease. Delia wrote that the animal could “charge with such swiftness it can stamp the victim to death, or pick him up in its trunk and pound his body to shreds on the tip of its tusk.”

At one point on that trip with the pygmies, Delia was trapped on a vine over a ravine and an elephant came out of the bush. It’s mammoth head and body were no more than 35 feet from her. he spread his “great ragged ears” and raised his trunk, tipping it straight in her direction, like an accusing finger. After a few minutes, he left. She said,

“I lived a year in those few moments and I don’t think I took a single breath during the trying ordeal.”

But she also said that surviving the experience was exhilarating and that she remembered the thrill again and again later in her life. I’ve read the stories of many women adventurers, and they all say the same thing: the moments of terror are those when they feel most fully alive.

Delia After Her Travels

After her return from what would be her final African expedition, she remarried and worked on her memoirs. Like Mary Kingsley, Delia chastized the missionaries and colonists, who want to “improve” the natives and “raise their status by education, hygiene, cotton suits, and by training them to be subservient to the white man’s wishes and desires.” She argued that attempts to Christianize them would rob them of their freedom, and that these people were different, and that others would never understand them.

She died in 1970, at age 100.

Two of the Akeley’s elephants are still part of the Field Museum collection. According to the museum’s website, “Today, they can be found in the middle of Stanley Field Hall (Delia’s elephant is the one with two tusks).”

More About Delia Akeley

You can get more details about Delia and her adventures in Women Explorers in Africa, which also includes information about Christina Dodwell, Mary Kingsley, Florence Baker, and Alexandrine Tinne.

I would also recommend Delia’s book, Jungle Portraits, which has more details about her journeys, including her time with the pygmies. (You may be able to find it in your local library since the price is higher due to its being rare.)


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