Luba Tribe of Africa: African Tribes and People

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Location: South-eastern Congo (Zaire), Africa

Population: 1 million

Language: Ciluba (central Bantu)

Neighboring Peoples: Chokwe, Ndembu, Kaonde, Bemba, Tabwa, Hemba, Songye, Lunda

Types of Art: The iconographic representation of women in Luba sculpture is widespread and correlates to the important role of women in Luba society. The Luba are best known for their stools, divination bowls (mboko), beautifully carved bow stands, and memory boards (lukasa).

History: The relentless expansion of Luba empire can be traced as far back as 1500, when it emerged from the Upemba depression which is still the heartland of the Luba. Eastward expansion to Lake Tanganyika intensified under the leadership of Ilungu Sungu between 1780 and 1810. This was followed by north and southeast expansion until 1840 under Kumwimbe Ngombe and then to the northwest and northeast from 1840 to 1870 under Ilunga Kabale. The empire began to diminish after his death in 1870 as Arab slave traders and European invaders challenged notions of Luba supremacy in the region contributing to the decline of Luba power. The legacy of the great empire is still recognizable in the region today, where local customs and art styles often reflect a strong Luba influence.

Economy: During the height of its reign, the Luba empire operated on a complex system of tributes which acted to redistribute wealth throughout the region. The ruling class had a virtual monopoly on trade items such as salt, copper, and iron ore, which allowed them to continue their dominance. Most citizens of the empire relied on slash and burn farming for subsistence. This was supplemented with fishing and hunting. The importance of hunting was reinforced by social institutions, which celebrated the fortunes of good hunters.

Political Systems: The Luba empire was characterized by centralized authority vested in a sacred king (mulopwe). This king enforced his power through the control of subordinate regional leaders who normally inherited their status based on their positions within various patriclans. The mulopwe's power was reinforced by a royal diviner who was responsible for formally initiating him into his royal position. Numerous institutions existed to counterbalance the absolute power of the king. The best known of these institutions is the Bambudye society, whose members are responsible for remembering the history of the kingdom and whose interpretations of history could often influence the actions of active rulers.

Religion: The primary religion was based on veneration of the ancestors and involved paying tribute to the spirits. The Luba royalty incorporated religious elements into the justification for their rule. Like the monarchies of western Europe, the position of the Luba king was seen as divinely inspired and directly correlated with the genesis myth for the people. As such, the investiture of the king's power was represented in a complex coronation ritual involving religious confirmation from a diviner.

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