A new exhibit opening Feb. 8 at the Anniston Museum of Natural History is a fascinating look at the history of Africa based on how the different habitats across the world’s second-largest continent shaped the lives of the people living there.

“From Arusha to Zulu: Celebrating Africa’s Natural Resources” lets visitors see everything from an ancient Egyptian necklace to a Zulu battle shield.

“We have a nice collection of African artifacts,” said education director Sarah Burke — but most of them have never been exhibited before.

A few of the museum’s African artifacts were including in the 1980s exhibit “Man, the Versatile Adapter” — most notably the “Fire Spitter” mask, a carved wooden funeral mask made by the Senufo people of West Africa. Its wearer would literally spit sparks and flames. A replica of the mask was used as a photo prop with that 1980s exhibit, said Susan Doss, collections assistant. “That was the last time the museum has had an African exhibit,” she added.

For this new exhibit, the museum brought in several weapons and pieces of jewelry from its sister museum, the Berman, as well as birds and animals from its permanent collection.

Animals were integral to daily life in Africa, Doss said. “They ate some of these animals (the warthog, the baboon), and they had to deal with some of these animals (the hyena, the lion).”

Animals figure heavily into belief systems, as well. The hornbill  bird is extremely important in the culture of the Senufo. Look for the hornbill on the “Fire Spitter” mask, on bronze jewelry, on a wooden shrine door, and in a tall carved wooden totem.

Some tribes viewed animals differently. The Senufo considered the crocodile a dangerous villain. The Bobo considered the crocodile a fierce protector.

The exhibit is organized around five regions of Africa, from the massive Sahara desert in North Africa to the coastlands of East Africa to the woodlands West Africa. “The resources of each habitat affected life there,” said Burke.

For example, the Maasi people initially made jewelry using beads made of clay, shell, ivory, bone, horn and seeds. In the 1800s, European traders arrived, bringing with them glass beads. From then on, the Maasi used glass beads to make intricately patterned jewelry.

In the woodlands of West Africa, the Bambara people made spectacular wood carvings. “The Bambara are now considered by art historians to be the foremost wood carvers in Africa,” Doss said. Included in the exhibit is an enormous carved wooden headdress featuring a mother and baby antelope.

“You can’t help but appreciate the attention to detail and the time it took to craft these artifacts,” Burke said.

Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or ldavis@annistonstar.com.

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