AMNH Collection: Mangbetu Ivory Combs of the Belgian Congo

Ivory hair combs for the American Museum of Natural History were collected on a cultural expedition by Herbert Lang and James P. Chapin from 1909 to 1915.


James Chapin and a child, name unknown

They were made by the Mangbetu people, who lived in Panga and Medge, small villages in King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which became the Belgian Congo in 1908. The Mangbetu were known for Lipombo’, the art of elongating heads, as this comb shows.

This comb features a grey crowned crane.

The Mangbetu were featured prominently in early photographs distributed to show Europeans how well people were doing under Leopold’s rule. The photographs, taken against false backgrounds and made into postcards, were propaganda to sell the mass quantities of ivory and rubber brought in on Belgian cargo ships. They also hid the fact that Leopold had turned the entire country into a slave labor camp, which killed 10,000,000 people.

Lang and Chapin’s field notes state that combs were made by men and often worn by women in the hollow of their hair dress, which can be seen from the back.

However, ivory hairpins are the most visible ornament in Mangbetu hair styles. These were collected from the Lang and Chapin expedition:

This lot of 17 hairpins sold at Sotheby’s for 8,400€ on September 7, 2013,

and this is how they were worn:


First picture: Warrior, Poko region, Congo, 1945

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If you would like to buy a contemporary Mangbetu wood comb, I am confident in recommending

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For more scholarly research please examine the AMNH Collection and these books


King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

African Reflections: Mangbetu Art

In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa, 1885-1960

3 Responses to AMNH Collection: Mangbetu Ivory Combs of the Belgian Congo

  1. thanks Barbara, I always loved the simplicity of style Mangbetu people like in their hair ornaments…specially their elegant hairdo with elegant hairpins, as seen on the photographs…..

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