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Mangbetu: The African Tribe Who Stretches Their Skulls

The Mangbetu people live in northeastern Congo, Africa. The name Mangbetu strictly refers to the aristocracy, which established a number of powerful kingdoms in the nineteenth century. 

They are linguistic and culturally related people from northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo whos language is known as Kingbetu. The group comprises of Mangbetu, Meegye, Makere, Malele, Popoi, and Abelu.

 The Mangbetu tribe lives deep within the rainforest and engage in animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, and gathering. They can be found near the towns of Poko, Isiro, and Rungu between the Ituri and Uele Rivers. The tribe originated in modern-day Sudan before migrating. While settling in their current location, they established their kingdom under the leadership of Nabiembali who had warriors.

The Mangbetu people had a distinct appearance, this was partly due to their elongated heads. Babies’ heads were tightly wrapped in cloth at birth to give them an elongated appearance. Hippocrates’ description of the Macrocephali, or Long-heads, who were named for their practice of cranial modification, was the first written record of cranial deformation.

 The custom of skull elongation called Lipombo was a status symbol among the Mangbetu ruling classes, denoting majesty, and higher intelligence. Deformation usually begins within a month of birth and continues for several years until the desired shape is achieved or the child rejects the apparatus. This custom can also be traced back to the Mayans and Egyptians.

 While some object to this practice, this deformation had no effect on the brain. Experts have ruled out such a possibility stating that as long as intracranial pressure remains the same as with a normal person, the brain should be able to adapt and grow into the new shape of the skull, resulting in no harm other than cosmetic changes. The cosmetic changes made to the skull, however, are permanent.

 The Mangbetu people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo regard what appears to be a major deformity of the skull as a symbol of great beauty, prestige, power, and social standing in society. 

However, with the arrival of more Europeans and westernization in the 1950s, the practice began to decline. It was also prohibited by the Belgian government, which ruled over colonial Congo; however, some of the tribe members continue to practice it to this day. 

The practice is much less common nowadays, but it is not necessarily obsolete, and it is still thought to exist in some remote communities.




 The women of Mangbetu’s bride-price includes a substantial gift of livestock; which is regarded as a symbol of wealth. Polygamous marriages are permitted everywhere. Most settlements are made up of extended families with multiple generations. Today’s political organization is simple, usually consisting of local headmen and councils.

 Among this African tribe, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the person’s death, the father’s family pays death compensation. This compensation, however, is due to the belief in witchcraft that girls are said to inherit from their mothers and boys from their fathers. 

They are primarily a patrilineal ethnic group who cultivate yams, rice, palm oil, maize, and bananas. However, only men were permitted to milk cows because, unlike many other African ethnic groups, the Mangbetu believed in a god known as Kilima or Noro. Human souls, they believed, could be reborn as animals.

 When the Europeans arrived, they noticed that the African tribe were politically sophisticated and had highly developed art and music. For example, iron spears, sculpted pots, knives, and copper lances are among the tools discovered in the kingdom, demonstrating technological advancement at the time. Much of the material culture of the tribe was presumably borrowed from conquered peoples, but they encouraged the development of all the arts of the peoples under their control.

To conclude with, most Mangbetu art was reserved for ruling class and was secular in nature. Intricately forged chains and knives with carved ivory handles were among their craft. However, bronze and brass figures are believed to be ancestral portraits and were thus kept in royal court but over time, the art has since be seen displayed on museums websites.

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