Ritual and Religion in Prehistory: Unit 7 Ancestor cults

7.3 Masks and figures

The material culture associated with ancestor cults is rich and varied. In the Mortlock Islands of Micronesia, masks representing ancestors were used as ornaments in ceremonial houses, while in New Guinea wooden figures believed to contain the spirit of an ancestor were placed in shrines in houses in order to protect personal objects and family members from malevolent forces. The Dogon of Mali use ancestor masks at funerals to usher the spirits of the dead away from the village, thus restoring the order of the world. Among the Chokwe peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, on the other hand, masked dancers perform in villages during the initiation period, when newly circumcised boys are secluded for instruction in the initiation lodges. The masks represent a female ancestor who died at a young age, and thus serve as a reminder of the theme of death, which is part of the initiation experience of death and rebirth.

Discussion activity: African ancestor cults

Follow these links to find out more about the material culture associated with ancestor cults in Africa:

If similar objects were found in prehistoric contexts, would they be interpreted as evidence of an ancestor cult? Post your thoughts, if you like, on the Ancestor cults forum.