The weird elongated head trend of the Mangbetu people

The ancient tradition of elongated heads was once a symbol of status but now it is extinct.

Although this practice has long ago been stopped by the Belgian colonialists who took over the territory in the early 19th Century, it is still an interesting part of African heritage to know about.

They are culturally related to the people of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo and practice agriculture, small animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, and gathering, producing cash crops such as palm oil, coffee, peanuts, rice, bananas, and maize.

History of the Mangbetu people

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Mangbetu were only one of many small groups of people that settled on the northern edge of the Zaire rainforest. 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.

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, a distinctive coiffure that emphasized their artificially elongated heads; carefully carved stools, dishes, gongs, trumpets, and canoes etc.

The tradition of head elongation

'Lipombo' is the custom of skull elongation, which was a status symbol among the Mangbetu ruling classes at the beginning of the century and was later copied by neighboring groups. The tradition survived until the middle of this century when it was outlawed by the Belgian government.

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.

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