Kota Tribe of Africa: African People and Tribes

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Location: Eastern Gabon, Africa

Population: 75,000

Language: Kota (equatorial Bantu)

Neighboring Peoples: Kwele, Aduma, Fang

Types of Art: The reliquary figures of the Kota may be distinguished from their neighbours by the copper overlay on them. Some masks are found in collections, but these are extremely rare. Other utilitarian objects, such as pots, baskets, stools, and knives were often decorated with delicate patterns.

History: The Kota arrived in their current location after completing a series of migrations that started to the northeast, possibly near Sudan. These migrations began in the 18th century and were underway when European contact was first made about 150 years later. Unlike the Fang, their neighbours to the east, the Kota were a peaceful people who preferred to pick up and move rather than engage in warfare. European references dating to the 1870s identify the Kota in their modern homeland. 

Christian missionaries who entered the area in the early 1900s converted many of the Kota peoples. As a result, many of the art objects associated with their traditional religion were destroyed, buried, or in some cases thrown down wells. Since the 1930s efforts have been made by Europeans to locate these discarded objects, which have been divested of power, and remove them to Western museums. Often the Kota dig them up themselves and sell them for profit.

Economy: The rain forests which surround the Kota are farmed with slash and burn techniques, combined with crop rotation. By moving crops from year to year, erosion and soil depletion is avoided. The main crops grown are plantains and manioc. Large knives are used to clear the forests, and most of the cultivation is done with a hoe.

Political Systems: The peoples throughout this region of Gabon share similar political systems. Each village has a leader who has inherited his position based on his relationship to the founding family of that village. As a political leader, he often serves as an arbitrator and is equally recognized as a ritual specialist. This enables him to justify his position of power based on his relationship with the ancestors of the village. Each village consists of bark houses in arranged in a balanced pattern along straight streets, and the size of the village is often determined by the resources available.

Religion: The traditional religion of Kota centered around ancestors who are believed to wield power in the afterlife as they had as living leaders of the community. The skulls and long bones of these men were believed to retain power and are said to have control over the well-being of the family of the relics' keepers. 

Usually the relics were kept hidden away from the uninitiated and women. Wooden sculptures covered with sheets of copper and brass, known as reliquary or guardian figures, were attached to the baskets containing the bones. Some believe that the figures are an abstract portrait of the deceased individual, while others argue that they are merely to protect the spirit of the deceased from evil. 

It must be remembered, however, that it was the bones themselves that were sacred, not the wooden figures, thus there is no apparent contradiction to individuals selling what in effect was the tombstone of their ancestors for considerable profit to art dealers. During migrations the relics were brought along, but the reliquaries were often left behind.

Credits:  Christopher D. Roy also see credit page
Professor of the History of Art
The University of Iowa