Although primates physically remind us of ourselves, it is the animal's behavior that is of particular interest to African cultures.

Monkey figures in the Baule culture are usually associated with trance divination cults. They symbolize the wild spirits of the bush, or the world outside of the village. Encrusted with offerings over its entire surface, not just the bowl it holds for sacrifices, the monkey's semi-crouching pose and aggressive open jaws is in stark contrast to the Baule's still, serene human figures. Monkey figures are concealed from women not because they are evil, but rather because of the extent of their power.

        Similar concerns with spiritual power are woven into the construction of nkisi mbumba among the Vili and Yombe groups of the Kongo peoples (acc. no. 73-8-8). The skull, housed in an intricately knotted holder, serves as a container for magical medicinal substances that heal and defend.

        The Dogon mask is far less threatening. This wood mask is, despite its black color, carved in a form usually identified as a white monkey. Neither the monkey nor the blank face have teeth and are considered non-aggressive.

Monkey mask
Hemba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo
Early to mid-20th century
Museum purchase, 85-15-16

Medicine skull (nkisi mbumba)
Vili group, Kongo peoples, Republic of the Congo
Early to mid-20th century
Chimpanzee skull, plant fiber, accumulative material, pigment, fur
Gift of Benjamin Weiss, 73-8-8
X Radiography - Learning about an object

        Art and artifacts from Africa are sometimes comprised of materials of unknown origin, as was the case with the National Museum of African Art's nkisi mbumba--medicine skull--a Kongo power object containing a primate skull embedded in a woven basket and covered with encrusted pigment. This video documents the inquiry into the species identification of the skull by presenting the process of X-radiography with conservator Stephanie Hornbeck and the expert consultation undertaken with primatologist Richard Thorington in the Central African primates storage area at the National Museum of Natural History, conducted in May 2009.