The ‘Mangbetu’ are an amalgam of linguistically- and culturally-related peoples of northeastern Democratic Republic of CongoThe name Mangbetu refers to a large people group of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The major subgroups are the Mangbetu, Meegye, Makere, Malele, Popoi and Abelu. The Mangbetu area is one of both forest and savannah. The economy is a mixture of agriculture, small animal husbandry, hunting, fishing and gathering. Cash crops have included palm oil, coffee, peanuts, rice, bananas, and maize.

                            Mangbetu Tribe`s Man

Until very recently, the Mangbetu were one of a small number of Congolese peoples who paid death compensations. A person who died was considered to have done so "in the hands of" his father's family group. This meant that the father's group had to compensate the mother's group, regardless of the circumstances of death. Their traditional belief system includes a complex of ideas about witchcraft and sorcery. One such idea is that the power of witchcraft resides in an appendage of the small intestine, which is inherited by girls from their mother and by boys from their father.

  Mangbetu Women
        Mangbetu Women.A few women of the Mangbetu tribe who have elongated heads; their skulls were lengthened by tight cord when they were infants. | Location: Near Stanleyville, Belgian Congo


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Mangbetu were only one of many small groups of people that were settling on the northern edge of the Zaire rain forest. At that time, the Mangbetu leader, Nabiembali, gathered a following of warriors and moved north across the upper Bomokandi River to subdue groups of Mangbele and Mabisanga.

Not long afterward, he continued Mangbetu expansion by conquering other peoples in the area, among them groups of Madi, Bangba, Mayogo, Mayvu, Makango, and Barambo. The major significance of Nabiembali's conquests was that he incorporated non-Kere-speaking peoples into his kingdom. His conquests represented the first time that power had been wielded on a territorial basis.
Commemorative medal

Commemorative Medal

(This coin from the 1920s shows a characteristic image of a woman from the Mangbetu tribe of the Congo in Central Africa. This group shape the heads of their babies by pressing and wrapping the skull between pieces of giraffe hide or wood. As the head grows the bands are replaced until an elongated head is produced. It is thought that the process increases the brain cavity and therefore the intelligence of the child. The Mangbetu hairstyle is further developed to accentuate the shape of the head. After much of the hair is braided, a number of the strands are skillfully interwoven with straw to form a cylindrical design which is secured to the scalp with pins.)

The Mangbetu are basically patrilineal. At the same time, the maternal uncles of a man are very important. It was formerly a common practice for a strong nephew to be accepted as a ruler over his maternal kin. The nephew's son then became heir to his father's power. Tied in with these practices was the tradition of giving women to unrelated groups or exchanging women with them. This practice was accepted throughout the region as a form of peacemaking or alliance, but Nabiembali—and the Mangbetu who followed him—turned the custom into an institution of control over the many ethnic groups that were represented among their subjects. One of the primary advantages of this practice was that it could give a weak clan a strong leader, through the clan's maternal ties; however, Nabiembali used the practice in reverse. He developed a strategy of marrying many wives, not only to increase productivity, display his wealth, and have many sons, but also to legitimize his conquests and extend his control. His policy worked to the extent that some of his sons were accepted as rulers among their mothers' peoples. However, because his sons sought to extend their own power and the influence of their maternal clans (over which they ruled), and because they challenged the authority of their father, both centralized power and the extent of Mangbetu rule were eventually weakened.

                         Grand Chief Mangbetu Okodongwe

The justification of Mangbetu leadership was related to two concepts, nataate and nakira. "Nataate," loosely translated, refers to one's capacity to do, or one's social skills. "Nakira" refers to one's intelligence or one's technical and mental skills. Nataate is the dynamic power that exists within a person and makes him respected by others. Nakira is the ability one has in almost any endeavor, but particularly in dancing, singing, and public speaking. The Mangbetu criterion for succession was a combination of hereditary links and ability. Superior nataate and nakira were considered seriously in the choice of a successor to the ruler; therefore, an incompetent firstborn son might be rejected in favor of a more competent younger brother. In practice, many succession problems resulted from this imprecise formula for the transfer of power.
                            Mangbetu warrior (photograph taken in 1936). They wear some 
                      kind of leather apron as protection.

The Mangbetu achieved a very high level of technological and material development, as indicated by early reports from European explorers. For example, Georg Schweinfurth, the first European to reach the area, visited Mbunza, the Mangbetu ruler, in 1870, and described thousands of subjects at Mbunza's court as well as hundreds of nobles and courtiers. Within the capital, there were many large buildings; smaller huts filled with animal skins, feathered hats, and necklaces; and an armory of iron spears, piles of knives, and hundreds of polished copper lances. Mbunza's household included musicians, eunuchs, jesters, ballad singers, dancers, and bodyguards. Surrounding the capital were large, cultivated fields and orchards of oil palms and other trees (Schweinfurth 1874).

             Mangbetu woman

Much of the Mangbetu material culture was probably borrowed from conquered peoples, but the Mangbetu encouraged the development of all the arts of the peoples under their control.

Examples of their crafts include intricately forged chains and knives with carved ivory handles; geometric decoration of bodies, pots, mats, and houses; a distinctive coiffure that emphasized their artificially elongated heads; carefully carved stools, dishes, gongs, trumpets, and canoes; and finely formed human heads made out of clay and wood.

   Mangbetu woman and her baby with elongated head

Head Elongation/Head Shapping
‘Lipombo’, the custom of skull elongation, which was a status symbol among the Mangbetu ruling classes at the beginning of the century and was later emulated by neighboring groups, evolved into a common ideal of beauty among the peoples of the northeastern Congo. According to schildkrout and Keim, the tradition survived until the middle of this century, when it was outlawed by the Belgian government.

                           Mangbetu woman with elongated skull

The Mangbetu had a distinctive look and this was partly due to their elongated heads. At birth the heads of  babies’  were tightly wrapped with cloth in order to give their heads the streamlined look. The practice began dying out in the 1950s with the arrival of more Europeans and westernization. Because of this distinctive look, it is easy to recognize Mangbetu figures in African art.
Mangbetu Women

Mangbetu Women.Some women of the Mangbetu tribe who have elongated heads; their skulls were lengthened by tight cord when they were infants. | Location: Near Stanleyville, Belgian Congo.

 Cranial deformation may have played a key role in Egyptian Mayan and Vanuatu societies. Queen Nefertiti is often depicted with what may be an elongated skull, as is King Tutankhamen.
                       Egyptian daughters of Akhenaten are shown here with long heads

   Mangbetu woman and her child

Mangbetu Woman With Infant

Mangbetu Woman With Infant

A Mangbetu woman holds her baby. Rope tightened around the baby's head is being used to elongate its skull. The Mangbetu are an ethnic group living in Zaire between the Ituri and Vele Rivers near the towns of Poko, Isiro, and Rungu. | Location: Near Stanleyville, Belgian Congo.

Nina Simone Rocked the Mangbetu Hairstyle 
Mangbetu Hairstyle 
In 1870, German botanist Georg Schweinfurth was the first European to reach the Mangbetu, who live in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. His exploration account describes them as aristocratic and elegant. Their royal courts, their practice of accentuating the elongation of their heads with elaborate hair styles, their court dances, royal architecture and their arts attracted Western photographers and later film makers in the first half of the 20th century. Profile views of Mangbetu women with the classic coiffure emerged as iconic images and circulated in many media in the West, ranging from postcards, trade cards and postage stamps to sculptures, jewelry, book ends and hood ornaments for cars. 
The January and March 1967 issues of the French fashion magazine L’Officiel 
featured the Africaines dresses under the headlines “Inspired by African Art” 
(l’Art Nègre) and “Black Magic,” along with text that vividly reinforces 
preconceptions about Africa: “Africa, this old continent where ancestral myths take refuge in the shadow of baobab trees, on the banks of large, swampy rivers,has inspired almost all of our majo

r designers…”
A two-page spread accompanied the March 1967 L’Officiel article,featuring two models wearing distinctive hairstyles, their hair stretched over curvilinear frames, one with pendants hanging from the frame.   The coiffures were clearly inspired by the body adornment of the Mangbetu people 
of Central 
Africa, an iconic image in the history of Western fascination with Africa.

   From as early as the late 19th century, Western observers have been enthralled by the hairstyles of high status Mangbetu women.  Again, the text reinforces the dresses’ African brand, using images as well as text: “These strangely shaped coiffures are beautiful because of their inspiration in African folklore…  A very serious search of documents on African art, along with bewitching spells, must have been at the core of these creations…”
  Circa 1970.Mbombio, Chief Mogendo's principal wife, Medje village, Congo. She 
is shown her with
 her Mangbetu coiffure with ivory decorative pin
Mangbetu man
     Mangbetu Man with stylish braided beard

Mangbetu  Harps
Mangbetu aristocrats surrounded themselves with a wide variety of finely crafted utilitarian objects such as boxes, jars, stools, musical instruments, and weapons, many of which feature figurative elements. The designs of musical instruments are especially beautiful examples of the ingenious amalgamation of a functional artifact and the human form. In this example, the summit of the five-stringed harp is carved to represent a human head. The delicately rendered features of the face include stylized, barely open eyes that evoke a sense of reticence. The simply carved mouth echoes the shape and form of the eyes. The elongated representation of the head is a reference to the past Mangbetu practice of shaping the head during infancy by means of gentle pressure. The heads featured on harps such as these are also often decorated; this example is crowned with fine linear incising, indicative of traditional Mangbetu coiffures, and also includes an open brass ring in the left ear.

Harp, 19th–20th century
Mangbetu peoples; Democratic Republic of Congo
Wood, hide, twine, brass ring
H. 26 1/2 in. (67.3 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1960 (1978.412.412)

In more elaborately carved harps, the entire neck may be figurative. There is also considerable variation in the curvature of the bow and the angle of the neck's attachment to the resonator. The resonators come in two forms, the hourglass shape seen here or an oval shape, and usually feature two small sounding holes on the top surface. A variety of animal skins were used to cover the resonator, including pangolin scales, okapi and leopard pelts, and snake and lizard skins. In ethnic groups related to the Mangbetu, the anthropomorphic convention is carried further and legs are carved below the resonator so that the body of the harp is also the body of the figure.
Harp with handle decoration, depicting a Mangbetu head. The hairstyles of prestigious Mangbetu groups were much imitated among neighbouring peoples, in particular the Zande. Country of Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Africa. Culture: Mangbetu / Zande. Date / Period: 19th-20th C. Place of Origin: Northeastern Congo. Material Size: Wood, leather. Credit Line: Werner Forman Archive / Musee Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren. Location: 11.
Harp with handle decoration, depicting a Mangbetu head. The hairstyles of prestigious Mangbetu groups were much imitated among neighbouring peoples, in particular the Zande. Country of Origin: Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Africa. Culture: Mangbetu / Zande. Date / Period: 19th-20th C. Place of Origin: Northeastern Congo. Material Size: Wood, leather. Credit Line: Werner Forman Archive / Musee Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Tervuren. Location: 11.
Mangbetu harps have been studied in depth as art objects; their musical use, however, remains largely unexplored. Although they appear in historical photographs from the region, these rarely show the harp being played. As the Mangbetu enthusiasm for carving continued and harps became increasingly figurative, the ability to appropriately string and tune the instruments became increasingly difficult. Before long, the importance of the harp as a musical instrument was replaced by its importance as an art object. This evolution led to instruments that were completely unplayable—with strings too close together, unusable tuning pegs, flattened sound boxes, etc.—but u
ndoubtedly visually striking.
A Mangbetu man playing a mangbetu harp

The harp first appeared in Mangbetu culture some time in the late nineteenth century, and reached its peak during the colonial period of the early twentieth century. Many believe that the initial practice of carving representations of human heads was adopted from the neighboring Azande peoples to the north. As cultural and musical traditions have changed over the years in Mangbetu culture, musical instruments have appeared and disappeared. Some Mangbetu elders claim that the heads of the harp represented Queen Nenzima and King Yangala, and that after their deaths the practice of that particular style gradually declined. Today, harps are no longer found in M
angbetu society.

Arched harp (donnu) by Mangbetu people, Uele river region, Belgian Congo (now northeastern Zaire), ca. 1910-1920. The twisted copper wire depicts the geometric, dotted, linear body painting favored by Mangbetu women. The elongated heads represent the Mangbetu's Queen Nenzima and King Yangala

                                 Mangbetu Boy


They are distinctive in that they are the founders of one of the few centralized political systems in Central Africa. The territory that was eventually ruled by Mangbetu stretched about 300 kilometers east from the Uele River Basin and about 150 kilometers north from the Nepoko River. The number of people under Mangbetu control has been estimated at between 80,000 and 150,000. A 1959 census reported about 150,000 people in Mangbetu territories, and a 1985 count lists 650,000 Mangbetu speakers in Zaire.

The land occupied by the Mangbetu is a transitional zone in which environmental conditions vary considerably from north to south. Within 200 kilometers north to south, rainfall patterns range from almost no dry season to a dry season of three to four months; vegetation ranges from tropical forests, to forest-savanna mixture, to gallery forests, to wooded savanna. In this ecological zone, there is a variety of wild plant and animal life that exceeds that of the more uniform forest in the south or the savanna in the north. The Mangbetu, for example, traditionally hunted both the okapis of the forest and the zebras of the savanna.

                                 Mangbetu men (Circa 1930)

A large range of domesticated plants can be found in the region as well. The long annual rainy season provides plenty of moisture for crops. In the dry season, there is ample time to cut down, dry, and burn trees for gardening. Numerous forests provide land for shifting agriculture. Regularly planted crops include grains (e.g., sesame, millet, maize), African and Asian yams, oil palms, sweet manioc, and the Mangbetu staples—sweet potatoes and plantain bananas.

The favorable environment of the forest-savanna ecosystem has been attractive to a large variety of human groups. Immigrants from east and west tended to remain in this abundantly rich area rather than to move on. Immigrants from the north were drawn to the area by its resources and were blocked from moving farther south by the forest barrier. The resulting clashes and intermarriages have contributed to the region's ethnic and cultural variety. There are at least fifteen dialects belonging to three different language families, which, in turn, are parts of two major linguistic groupings (Keim 1979). The Mangbetu, along with five other groups, speak the Kere language (more often known as "Mangbetu"). Kere is classified as being in the Central Sudanic Language Family, which is part of a larger grouping of Chari-Nile languages.


Mangbetu tribe  photo: Patellani    ‘Let’s Travel in the Congo’  1969

The Mangbetu creator god is known as Kilima or Noro. Ara is a god associated with water and was known to take the form of an animal that was to be feared. They also believed that human souls could be reborn as animals. The Mangbetu royalty demanded that their ancestors be venerated. Bad spirits (Likundu) demanded offerings by punishing those who ignored them with sickness and misfortune. These spirits could be directed at an individual by witches. The job of the diviner among the Mangbetu often involved uncovering and correcting the work of witches.

Northern Zaire, Mangbetu: "On ceremonial days the chief's dancers, including his wives and other members of his family, sport hats of woven dyed raffia and decorated with brightly-coloured parrot feathers. Some well-to-do women wear skirts made of grass and colobus monkey skin."
(C) Angela Fisher, 1987

The religion of the Mangbetu is reflected in their material culture. The material wealth of "great rulers" included many items that were reserved for their exclusive use and that symbolized their links with divine authority. For example, the skin, tails, teeth, and claws of leopards were sacred and were reserved for the use of the king alone; the nekire (whistle) and bangbwa (war drum) were used exclusively by the king to protect his people or goods or to bring good luck. The king was also believed to have the ability to control rain, which he used not to help with the crops but to permit outdoor gatherings and to serve as a weapon in war.

Mangbetu king holding what appears to be a well forged knife with a central ridge. Although this is a highly expressive knife, it still falls under "functional expressive". 

In the nineteenth century another supernatural force entered into Mangbetu society, possibly in the context of a secret society that was focused on Mangbetu opposition to colonialism, but perhaps even earlier, in the 1850s. In the beginning, this force, called nebeli, seems to have been a potion that could attract animals to traps and subdue feared animals. Later, it was used to defeat enemies. Eventually, its use was incorporated into the rituals of a secret society, also known as nebeli, the purpose of which was to protect the larger community and its culture. Most Mangbetu leaders of the twentieth century were nebeli members, and most used the society to strengthen their rule over their subjects.

                     Mangbetu woman and her baby

Belgian colonialism, beginning early in the twentieth century, drasticallly changed Mangbetu society. Generally speaking, there was acceptance of Belgian rule without full Mangbetu cooperation or participation in the Belgian administrative system. The Mangbetu and their subjects accepted Christianity very slowly and sent few of their children to European schools. Mangbetu production of cash crops was lower and more painfully extracted than elsewhere in the Belgian colony. When towns grew up around administrative and commercial centers, the Mangbetu participated in relatively small numbers. By contrast, other groups, especially the Budu, became clerks, servants, drivers, laborers, vendors, and students.

                          Modern day beautiful Congolese Mangbetu woman

A prevailing explanation for Budu successes (and Mangbetu failures) is that the Budu were under attack from the Mangbetu at the time of colonial contact, and so conformed to European wishes in order to save themselves. Conversely, the Mangbetu, who were proud conquerors, withdrew in defiance and preferred to reminisce about past glories and plot a return to power. It is clear that Mangbetu prestige suffered with their loss of slaves, the end of raiding, the disgrace of being conquered, and other such humiliations, but colonial policies also kept the Mangbetu from developing more successfully. By prohibiting the entrepreneurial activity of lineages, by reducing the prestige of the Mangbetu court, by regulating succession, and by reinforcing the power of the "great rulers" to keep subjects in line, the colonizers effectively suppressed Mangbetu culture.

   Mangbetu girl with her traditional tribal Mangbetu Briaded Hairstyle

The Mangbetu Art of Daily Life

The Art of Adornment | Houses | Tools | Ceramics |
Fiber and Gourd Objects | Wood Carving and Metalwork
The peoples of northeast Congo manufactured the most ordinary tools and utensils with skill and with an eye for beauty. Fine craftsmanship was valued in the construction of virtually all household objects, and modern informants tell us that the care given to the appearance of an object was to make it beautiful and to show the intelligence of the creator.

Many useful objects served as ornaments when first made and as implements when they were older. The best brooms, for example, were used first in dances, where they were held in the air as wands, and later for sweeping. People demonstrated their wealth and position by the fine decoration on their utilitarian possessions. Spears, knives, and even shields were worn or held as ornaments. Toothbrushes and drinking straws were sometimes wrapped with ornamental copper wire. Fly whisks had carved wooden or ivory handles and, for high-status people, were wrapped with copper, brass, or iron wire.

               Mangbetu, playing on carved ivory horns. Niangara, Belgian Congo, 1915.

The Art of Adornment

Many of the ethnographic objects collected by Lang and Chapin were designed for adorning the bodies of their owners. These objects include finely carved ivory and forged metal hairpins, woven and feathered hats, belts, and elaborately designed jewelry made of glass, plant and animal parts, iron, and copper. The Mangbetu also sometimes wore or carried bark cloth ornamented with free-flowing graphic designs and thicker back aprons made from banana leaves used to cover their buttocks. Each of these objects was made with great attention to quality as well as a keen awareness of style and aesthetic effect.
Mangbetu Woman    Photographer: Herbert Lang (1879-1957). Mangbetu woman photographed in Chief Okondo's village, Congo, May 1913.
Mangbetu Woman with a traditional necklace. Photographer: Herbert Lang (1879-1957). Mangbetu woman photographed in Chief Okondo's village, Congo, May 1913.

The art of adornment among the Mangbetu and related peoples is closely tied to notions of health and well-being, and it is difficult to describe many of the objects that people wear or apply to their bodies without discussing notions of human development and health. Although beauty was certainly of concern, most adornments were worn to protect the person, enhance some personal quality, or influence the outcome of an activity.

 The Mangbetu were known for their striking treatment of the body, particularly head elongation, body-painting, scarification, and the wearing of the decorative back apron, but these elements represented only a minor part of what was important to them. More than anything else, they were concerned with obtaining and wearing objects that protected and improved their lives.

1892 Wood Engraving Mangbetu Indigenous Woman Nude Orientale Congo Africa Tattoo 

   Mangbetu girl with her traditional hairstyle and body adorned with ornaments


Mangbetu people, Democratic Republic of Congo

Collected by S.P. Powell and donated by him in 1940; 1940.7.027Collected by S.P. Powell and donated by him in 1940; 1940.7.027These ankle ornaments are made from lots of small brass rings strung on strands of bast and knotted together at one end. Known locally as ekoki, they were made by the Mangbetu people and worn by a chief's favourite girls and wives.
This ornament refers to a status gained not by achievement but by association. The chief would display his position through ornate feather ornaments and finely made knives and shields, and his status was transferred to his wives, who showed their elevated rank by wearing these ornaments.
The Mangbetu have a distinctive artistic culture – their round houses are often decorated with varied designs, they sculpt stools and pots in unexpected shapes and, although less common today, women would have their skulls artificially shaped from infancy into an elongated shape, topped off with the typical complicated halolike hairstyle decorated with metal and ivory hairpins.

Source: Pitt Rivers Museum Body Arts | Anklets 


In 1910, both mud-walled and reed houses were in fashion, and Lang commented on the great variety of reed patterns. The most spectacular reed building was a Great Hall that Lang himself commissioned a year before. Two other forms of house decoration were important at that time: sculptured house posts and murals. House posts often had geometric designs cut into them, and some of the surfaces were burnished or blackened with dark mud, forming the same pattern of alternating light and dark tones found on many implements throughout the region. Lang wrote of house poles:
"They never have two poles alike in any house. Very often there are only two, sometimes four or more. They are nearly always split lengthwise [to support crossbeams]. The poles are cut only with the adze and no knife is used for carving any portion of them. Before they work on them they let the poles soak in water for one or two days. It takes an experienced worker about a day to finish a pole if it has been previously soaked and peeled."

At the turn of the century, mural painting was common throughout the Mangbetu region. The most spectacular Mangbetu mural painting was found north of the Bomokandi River, where many people decorated the exteriors of their houses with paintings of animals, people, and geometric designs. Mural painting may well have resulted from contact with grassland peoples such as the Matchaga and Bangba in the last half of the nineteenth century, when the shift from woven reed to mud walls began. Geometric designs in the nineteenth century may have been copies of earlier ones executed in raffia on walls and mats.
In many parts of the region, Lang photographed houses decorated with both representational paintings depicting encounters between Europeans and Africans and geometric designs. The houses in King Okondo's village that Lang photographed were decorated with fine geometric patterns, painted in red and black. The designs resemble the diamond and checker-board patterns found on many Mangbetu objects, from arrow heads to incised pottery, as well as the woven patterns of mats and baskets. Lang's fieldnotes and Chapin's watercolor sketches of the walls in Okondo's village noted the symmetry of the patterns. But Lang also photographed wall paintings in non-Mangbetu villages of the region. These photographs suggest that at this period of Zande and Makere wall designs were more free-flowing than the Mangbetu patterns.

                              Mangbetu House

Lang's colorful and detailed descriptions of productive technology are still applicable to Mangbetu life, despite the introduction of money and imported goods. Many of Lang's most detailed observations of technology were made in 1910-11 during his first period of serious ethnographic collecting. These notes (up to note number 804) were made among the Meje people living in villages near the government post of Medje. Although the decorative patterns on tools and finished objects varied among the different peoples of the region, their basic technology was similar.

Sideblown trumpet. Mangbetu, The Democratic Republic of Congo.The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Agricultural work was performed with simple tools, including a large assortment of iron tools and baskets. Most of the tools used for work were decorated, and some, especially knives, were worn as ornaments first and relegated to mundane work when they were older--after they were, literally, worn. Lang described one ordinary, general-purpose knife, called nede for women:

                    Vessel in the shape of a female head.

Most of the ever varying and difficult plantation work is done with these knives. They cut down brush, high grass, bananas, clear roads and work the soil, [the knife is] used specially for planting bananas, manioc, corn, etc. With these knives, they also dig holes into the ground out of which they take the moist soil to build the elevated platform of their huts. Women carry the better kind of these knives also during dances and visits, for show-purposes only, very often they exchange them on a friendly scale for a similar knife.

This Mangbetu authorative knife was originally used as a weapon of war and an agricultural implement. They later developed into luxury items to provide symbols of status. There are two uncommon sections of wirework in the examples mid section.

Some knives were specifically for men or women, but others could be used by both. Many tools had multiple uses. The hoe, called negede, was used, according to Lang, for plantation work, clearing roads, and building houses. The heavy knife (emodu), used by men for heavy plantation work such as putting young banana plants in newly established forest clearings, also served to cut grooves in the ivory or bone hammers that were used to beat bark for barkcloth. The axe (nombi) was used to cut trees to make clearings for new plantations, to chop firewood, and to cut trees, sticks, and grasses for building houses.

They use these axes with remarkable dexterity and they are much more efficient than the small axes of white men. The handle is called nambieme and is used for diverse purposes, especially as a pestle in their small wooden mortars, to crush cooked bananas·. [It] is also used for hitting sticks [to remove the bark], to beat the ground to even it or harden the floor of huts, etc. The axe (iron piece) they also considered as some sort of money which is in common use.
Tools were so important to productive technology that they had the value of currency, here as elsewhere in central Africa. According to Lang, in 1910 a metal axe blade with a decorated wooden handle was equivalent to one heavy brass ring :
Iron and brass knives, spearheads, hatchets, etc. are much appreciated objects of wealth. They never are kept in their huts but hidden in the ground or in the brooks and rivers, these places being known only to their owners and after their death are in most cases lost.

               Ceremonial Mangbetu knife.   

Women went to the fields with large carrying baskets hung over their shoulders and from their foreheads, and came back laden with bananas and wild plants, including forest leaves, roots, tubers, and mushrooms, as well as termites and other insects. The collecting activities of men ranged further afield. Using many different kinds of traps they caught guinea fowl, pigeons, rails, thrushes, other small birds, and all kinds of rats. Lang writes: "Very often they clear a place in a plantation of four to eight yards square, put some food on the ground and lay out a number of traps until the whole place is covered. They may catch five to seven guinea fowls out of one flock."
Besides using traps, men hunted with snares, pitfalls, bows and arrows, spears, and nets. Much hunting was done at the beginning of the dry season, when the Mangbetu would set the tall grass on fire in deliberate patterns designed to draw animals into view. Whole herds of elephants were sometimes trapped in the flame and smoke. Men particularly enjoyed hunting in groups with nets and dogs, a technique the Mangbetu say they borrowed from the Azande in the nineteenth century. The men who owned the nets strung them end to end along a horse-shoe-shaped track. They hid with spears while a dog owner took his dog to the open end of the horseshoe. The dogs, of a barkless breed, wore a wooden bell around the neck and were specially trained to drive animals into the nets where the men could spear them. The largest portions of meat went to the owners of the dogs and nets, to the man who organized the hunt, and to the man who speared the animal.
Ornamentation was important on all kinds of tools, including the metal blades and wooden, ivory, or metal handles of knives, axes, hoes, and spears. Wooden arrow shafts had fine patterns cut into them that produced alternate facets of light and dark surfaces. There was also a great variety of metal points. Arrow shaft patterns seem to correlate with the purpose and design of arrow points. The shaft decorations are incised, allowing the hunter to select the arrow he wants by feeling the pattern on the shaft.


Domestic pottery used for cooking and serving was made in a wide range of forms and patterns (See Schildkrout, Hellman, and Keim 1989). Most pots served multiple purposes. Lang writes:
The large pot (nembwo) serves general purposes, such as taking water from rivers to cook vegetable food, for toilet purposes, or as a receptacle for water. The water for cooking, drinking, and toilet purposes is usually taken in the middle of a river. Such work is performed only by women, who carry the pot on one of their shoulders. They rarely carry a jar on their head on account of the elaborate hairdress.<.p>
Pots were made by the coil method and fired over an open fire. Surface designs were applied with the hands or with small tools, including shell scrapers and wooden roulettes. The incised patterns, the depressions worked into surface design, and the baskets made to fit around pots were functional as well as decorative; they prevented pots without handles from slipping. Pots with handles and long necks held liquids that were drunk through straws. Lang collected a wide assortment of pottery-making tools and described how Meje women made pottery:

         Palm wine vessel | Mangbetu peoples, DR Congo | Terracotta | ca. early 20th century

All women know how to make the ordinary jars, but the more elaborate ones are made by women who are experts in this line. The decorations of the ordinary pots and jars are made by a mechanical device. The negative of the desired pattern is cut in such a manner into a piece of wood, that rolling it over the white soft clay it produces a pattern. Other devices are regular dies into the end of which the pattern is cut; or fibers are strung together in such a way that in rolling them over the still soft clay they leave the desired decoration. Much of this work is done by hand or has to be adjusted afterwards·. They are blackened afterwards over the fire. The Mangbetu have an abundance and attach a small value to the ordinary kind
Utilitarian pots found throughout the region were decorated, more or less elaborately. Pottery styles spread throughout the area, with the highly burnished complex forms of the north spreading southward from Niangara. Mangbetu, Zande, and Barambo pots of this period had many similarities in form and surface design, suggesting that styles, potters, or the pottery itself were spreading throughout the region. Lang collected pots from all these peoples with similar multi-chambered forms and highly burnished black surfaces, textured by incising and finger pressure.

                       Mangbetu Terracotta Vessel

What Lang described as "art pottery"--a category that undoubtedly included anthropomorphic pottery--was found, in his day, mostly in the region around Niangara, where there was a great deal of inter-ethnic contact. The cosmopolitanism of Niangara, along with the impact of the new [European] patrons, contributed to the efflorescence of anthropomorphic potters that occurred in this period. Others found a great elaboration of pottery shapes among the Mangbetu in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, but it was not until Lang's time that Mangbetu anthropomorphic pottery was described or collected. The anthropomorphic pots that Lang collected, first in Niangara (1910) and later in Medje (1914), included examples that were virtually identical in shape and surface design to the long-necked water jars made at the same time, and probably earlier, suggesting that the head was added as an embellishment to an already accepted form.

      Mangbetu Pottery, Museum of Natural History

Fiber and Gourd Objects

The Mangbetu widely exploited their environment to obtain an array of fabrication materials that when subjected to their inventive technical expertise yielded items of utility and beauty. The types of plants collected for basketry objects included grasses from swamp areas, fibers from food crops such as sorghum, millet, and bananas, the fibers from oil and raffia palm plants, rattan, papyrus, and vines. All parts of the plants were used. For example, the bark of the fig tree was used to make bark-cloth; split leaf sections, particularly of the raffia and oil palms, were used to make baskets and cordage; mid-ribs of oil palm leaves were used as instrument strings; palm stalks, whole or in sections, were used to make furniture; split stem materials of all kinds had wide use as binding, tying, and wrapping materials, as well as serving as foundation elements for basketry of all types. The Mangbetu used these plant parts in their natural color and also dyed them red or black.

Pottery, Mangbetu - African objects in the American Museum of Natural History

Woven basketry techniques were used to create baskets, mats, hats, shields, rattles, and cordage. The primary techniques used were plaiting and twining. An incredible variety of patterns was possible using these two basic weaves. With twill plaiting (a weaving technique in which all fibers are active elements) diamond, checkerboard, cross, striped, lozenge, and zigzag designs were achieved. Twining (a technique employing stationary warp and active weft elements) was commonly used to make basket and hat rims, rattles, and, by the Azande, sturdy shields. Floated fibers were utilized within a plaited ground to add further design variation, particularly in creating motifs that stand out from the overall field. Combinations of dyed and undyed fibers further enhanced pattern variations. Placement of the fiber's glossy cuticle layer facing up or facing down was another artistic choice for augmenting an object's visual effect. Both regular and asymmetric designs were achieved using all of the above techniques.

   Hat. Culture: Mangbetu. Medium: Box weave, palm fiber. Dates: early 20th century

Supplementary fibers were used to elaborate the designs of woven structures. Wrapped loops on hats and edgings on hat rims were constructed of elements that were not essential to the integrity of the woven structure. The sides of baskets often had nonstructural fibers inserted through the plaited foundation. These additions, as well as being decorative, may provide extra strength to a basket, allowing it to hold heavier items without sagging. Supplemental overlays of fibers--on quivers, for example--may also have served as reinforcement, but they were clearly applied in such a way as to also create a decorative effect.
Africa | Basket, Mangbetu peoples, DR Congo.  ca, before 1929.  Natural fibers.
           Basket, Mangbetu peoples, DR Congo. ca, before 1929. Natural fibers.

Straps for baskets, stools, shields, musical instruments, and pots were made using a single-element looping technique. Plaited overlays were added to wooded or ceramic objects, such as the plain weave bands used on the borders of rectangular wooden shields and the open-latticework basketry constructed over jars. Such plaiting was used for reinforcement, to provide a grip, as a repair, or for decoration. Further embellishment of plaited objects was common. Various decorations, often signifying status, were attached to hats. Animal hides were used not only for straps but were also attached to shields as talismans.

Fine baskets were treasured and upper-class women had better ones than other women. A bride's family gave her decorated household items, especially pots and baskets, when she moved to her husband's compound. In addition to these items, household furnishings included carved wooden bowls, made with or without covers and with or without handles; stools carved from a single piece of wood, used by women; stools and beds made from palm stalks; bamboo drinking straws, sometimes decorated with brass or copper wire; and by the early colonial period, steamer chairs, used mainly outside the house by important men.

                             Small Mangbetu Mat

Wood Carving and Metalwork
(A large early 20th century anthropomorphic ceramic pot from the MANGBETU area of the DRC.   Two female heads share a single body. The heads show the elongated skull achieved by binding in early childhood with a hairstyle common to women in the area prior to the 1950's.   Each head shows individual geometric scarring patterns while both have large circular ear rings and heavy necklaces with a matching waist girdle.   The arms serve as handles and the rotund belly sports a large geometric scarification pattern.. The circumference of the large spherical pot (which can be filled through apertures in the headdresses) is chased all round with geometric designs and there is a spout on the reverse.

In many cases carvers were also blacksmiths, for in addition to making the blades of knives, adzes, axes, spears, and hoes, they fashioned the wood handles that held them. Lang wrote in his field notes that the "famous stools (nobarra)," carved from a single piece of wood, used by the Mangbetu women were made by special artists who enjoy a wide reputation.) 


They sign their work on the lower end by a mark deeply cut into the wood and rubbed, usually with redwood powder, which is an expression of good wishes for a future owner. These stools accompany their owners (women only), on their visits and voyages and wherever they go. The strap fastened through the hole (in the rear) is laid over the forehead, the stool hanging down the back, the seat against the skin. Sometimes also the strap is laid upon the right or left shoulder, the stool hanging down the side. Important chiefs' women have a special woman to carry the stool behind them. They are surprisingly light.

                    Mangbetu Terracotta Vessel in the Form of an Anteater

Only the stools of the most important women were decorated with metal studs, but all the women attached to a chief's household, including the chief's mother, wives, sisters, and daughters, had finely carved stools. They were an integral part of one court dance in which the women, seated in a great circle on their stools, with their knees together and their feet apart, moved up and down with the rhythm of the drums.

                        Mangbetu Head Rest - D.R.Congo

Although men did not sit on the small blackened stools made for women, several Mangbetu chiefs had a large double version that enabled the seated chief to remain taller than his female attendants. Today stools are rare and wood carving in general seems to have declined for all but the most necessary implements like axe and adze handles.

         Stool. Mangbetu, 20th century. Courtesy: The Cleveland Museum of Art

Two items of furniture were especially important for chiefs. One was a bench made from the midribs of palm fronds with slats of slit bamboo. German botanist Georg Schweinfurth's drawing of Mbunza shows him seated on just such a bench. These benches were made in many sizes; some had long extensions so that they could serve as litters, like the one Lang collected and photographed with Chief Okondo's wife, Nenzima, upon it. The other item of furniture was the backrest placed behind the bench and decorated with brass studs or copper wire.

A superb Mangbetu drum, Democratic République of Congo.
estimate : € 40.000/60.000. © Sotheby's Images.

The Mangbetu were well known in the region for their skill as blacksmiths and carvers, and the best carvers were often also smiths. Iron in the form of tools and weapons or in chunks directly from the smelting furnace was highly prized, and anyone who worked with iron had a special status. Smiths often became rich men because families would bring them their daughters to marry with the expectation of receiving iron and ironworking services as bridewealth.

                                   Mangbetu knives

Smelters were distinct from smiths. According to modern informants the ritual of smelting excluded women and in the case of the king's double bell [a court instrument and key symbol of a chief's authority involved human sacrifice and cannibalism. Mangbetu bellows were made of wood covered with banana leaves and were used in sets of four (Zande bellowsZ were covered with hide). Smelters had to abstain from sexual intercourse before beginning to smelt and were assisted by a naando practitioner, who would chew the naando root and sing the sacred songs that would ensure a successful result.

                Mangbetu Women @ market ZAGOURSKI L'Afrique AFRICA Old Postcard

Blacksmiths made spear blades, harpoon points, arrow points, adzes, axes, hammers in many sizes, as well as metal ornaments. Originally working only in iron, wood, and ivory they extended their repertoire in the nineteenth century to include brass and copper. The fact that the same artisans were working in many materials accounts in part for the variety of substances used to produce very similar objects.

Two Mangbetu bone hair pins and a steel razor hair pin with cane ornamentation, Congo 19th century

 Hairpins were made of ivory, wood, iron, and copper; boxes with almost identical heads--almost certainly made by the same carver--were made of bark, ivory, and wood; knife and spear handles were made most often of wood but sometimes of iron; and pendants were made in copper, brass, and iron in the form of canine teeth.

Classic Antique Mangbetu Iron-Wood War Spear Africa Ex Christensen Collection

In the early colonial period the idea of rendering an object in a novel material was applied to traditional objects, like hunting bows, and to new kinds of objects, like European forks and spoons. These nonfunctional objects were made purely for the purpose of being admired as art.

                  Grand Chief Mangbetu Okodongwe

From 1910, Queen Mutubani of the Mangbetu people being body 
painted by serving girls — it's good to be the Queen.
(Schildkrout, Enid, Jill Hellman, and Curtis A. Keim. 1989. "Mangbetu Pottery: Tradition and Innovation in Northeast Zaire." African Arts 22 (2): 38-47.)


Mangbetu Woman  -  Congo, 1924 Photographer: Unidentified photographer of the Citroën Expedition

Mangbetu mother and her baby. The Mangbetu people of north-east Democratic Republic of the Congo also practised head elongation. Babies' heads were bound with cloth to create the desired shape. As adults, the effect was emphasized by wrapping the hair around a woven basket frame so that the head appeared even more elongated.

    Mangbetu women and their babies. 

                      Mbombio, Chief Mogendo's principal wife, Medje village, Congo

Mangbetu Woman, c.1930 (gelatin silver print photo)
Mangbetu Woman, c.1930 (gelatin silver print photo), Queen Elisabeth of Belgium
 (1876-1965) / Private Collection / © Michael Graham-Stewart / The Bridgeman Art Library

            Women in traditional costume. Mangbetu. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Palm cloth

BA186  "MANGBETU WOMAN - AFRICA"  Malvina Hoffman

                                1958 Bruxelles Belgian Congo Mangbetu village



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