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Here is a fascinating status object from the deepest Congo. This is a ceremonial knife of the Mangbetu people, a tribe of approximately 1 million people who live in the northeast portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Mangbetu people are historically famous for metalworking prowess, beautiful art, and elongated skulls (which were artificially lengthened by skull-binding during infancy). Early visitors were struck by the sophistication of Mangbetu politics, architecture, and crafts as well as by the breadth of their agriculture (which included diverse crop cultivation and cattle herding). These early historical accounts also remark upon the Mangbetu penchant for cannibalism (but such accounts are viewed with skepticism among prevalent schools of modern cultural scholarship).

A picture of the distinctive elongated skull favored by Mangbetu elites (circa early 20th century)

The ethnological history of the Mangbetu tribe is interesting and instructive. The Mangbetu language is Central Sudanic in character (as to a greater extent is Mangbetu culture), yet the people are Bantu and live in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is believed that during the climate crisis of the little ice age, Sudanic climate refugees fleeing south met a larger Bantu community migrating north and the two groups annealed (with the Sudanic people claiming group leadership). This cultural cross-pollination explains the Mangbetu’s political and technological strength relative to the other peoples of their territory (the Mangbetu conquered their lands and displaced or otherwise dealt with the original inhabitants).

Anyway, these knives were not weapons or tools, but rather ceremonial objects denoting power and status which could be exchanged for goods and services (I guess in the modern world we call such things “money”). As greater globalization reached the Mangbetu in the 19th and 20th centuries, they realized that their valuable ceremonial status knives were valuable to other people as well, and they began to mass produce more and more of them for trade. This means that many of these knives exist but that the quality is not always consistent with the refinement and beauty of early pieces.


I kept tropical aquariums as a child and, out of misplaced love, I killed ever so many poor little fish (I still have frequent anxiety dreams about my past mistakes).  My favorite of those hapless fish friends was a black ghost knife fish (Apteronotus albifrons).  Here’s a picture, but it doesn’t do the fish justice (because it’s hard to photograph things that are all black):

My black ghost knife fish, Ripley, was a fascinating character who would freeze into the shape of sword plant leaves and sway in the current to fool prey.  Ripley was an uncommonly gregarious fish who would always swim up to the front and show off for his (her?) favorite people when they entered the room.  During feeding time, Ripley would eat out of my hand and even lie across my palm.  He also liked to play in the bubble stream from the aerator and “surf” the water stream from the filter.

According to the redoubtable ichthyologist, Herbert Axelrod, Amazon tribal people believe ghost knife fish to be returned spirits of  dead ancestors and do not molest the fish.   Although I never heard a tribesman confirm this,  the fish do indeed look most ethereal.  Ghost knife fish hunt by reading/sensing electrical fields and they can emit an electric shock to fish who nip at their vermiform tail.  Because their almost vestigial eyes are not their foremost sense (and thanks to the remarkable fin which stretches down the length of their body), they like to swim backwards.

Although these fish can be bred in captivity, successful pairings are very rare.  Evidently Ripley was captured in the Amazon basin and shipped to the pet store where my little sister purchased him as a birthday present!  He lived in my community tank and one day I was trying to heal another fish’s fin rot so that it wouldn’t spread to Ripley.  But the medicine killed him.  Gah!  Rest ye in peace Ripley! You were the most likable fish I have ever known…

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2021