Photographer: Herbert Lang (1879-1957). Mangbetu woman photographed in Chief Okondo's village, Congo, May 1913. Biography: Herbert Lang

Lipombo: Skull Elongation by the Mangbetu Tribe.

What appears to be a major deformity of the skull is considered a symbol of great beauty and social standing in the society by the Mangbetu people of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Found in the remotest parts of northeastern DRC, the Mangbetu people have a distinctive physical appearance that is largely highlighted by their elongated heads. While some people may view this physical feature as a serious deformity, the Mangbetu people consider it a symbol of beauty, prestige and power.

A skull elongation expert from the Mangbetu tribe in DR Congo. Photo credit: AFRiTORIAL

In the ancient times, members of this (now endangered) tribe considered the skull deformation as a sign of higher intelligence and a status symbol among the ruling class.

So, to ensure their children developed the desired shape as they grew up, women in this community wrapped their babies’ heads with tight cloths at birth.

The tradition, which is locally referred to as Lipombo, begins exactly a month after birth and continues for several years until the child acquires the preferred shape of the head. This practice was also traced to the Mayan and Egyptians.

A Mangbetu woman. Photo credit: Pinterest

History of the Mangbetu people

The Mangbetu refers  to an amalgam of linguistically and culturally-related people in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The group comprises of the Mangbetu, Meegye, Makere, Malele, Popoi and Abelu. The language of the Mangbetu is referred to as Kingbetu.

The Mangbetu are found deep in the rain-forest area and they engage in animal husbandry, hunting, fishing and gathering. They can be found between the Ituri and Uele Rivers near the towns of Poko, Isiro and Rungu. They are said to have initially come from modern day Sudan before migrating. While settling down in their current location, the Mangbetu established their kingdom under Nabiembali who had warriors. He subdued various tribes and ruled over them.

Among the Mangbetu, the father’s family paid death compensations regardless of the circumstances surrounding the death of the person. This compensation is as a result of the belief in witchcraft which is believed to be inherited by girls from their mothers and by boys from their fathers.

Mainly a patrilineal ethnic group, the Mangbetu engage in the cultivating of yams, rice, palm oil, maize and bananas. The men are the only ones allowed to milk cows. Livestock is seen as a symbol of wealth and is used to pay bride price.

ust like many other African ethnic groups, the Mangbetu believed in a god called Kilima or Noro. They believed that human souls could be reborn as animals.

When the Europeans came, they observed that the Mangbetu were sophisticated politically and had highly developed art and music. Iron spears, sculpted pots, knives and copper lances are among the tools found in the kingdom, an evidence of technological advancement then.

Safety Concerns

Although the practice was outlawed by European colonialists, who invaded the country in the 1950s, some members of the Mangbetu tribe still practice it to date.

While some people are opposed to this practice, fearing that it might affect a child’s brain development, experts have ruled out such possibilities, insisting that the brain is capable of adapting and developing into any shape of the skull.

They say the brain, being an elastic organ, can grow or expand into the desired shape without any form of damage or deformity.

Nonetheless, the cosmetic changes done to the skull are permanent. Mangbetu women also wear a distinctive coiffure to highlight their artificially elongated skulls.

Photographer: Herbert Lang (1879-1957). Mangbetu woman photographed in Chief Okondo’s village, Congo, May 1913. Biography: Herbert Lang

The Mangbetu people of DRC: This Is Africa
The Art of Skull Elongation by the Mangbetu Tribe in DR COngo : Face2Face Africa

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