Location: Mountains of central Gabon, Africa.
Language: Mitsogo (north-western Bantu)
Neighbouring Peoples: Punu, Fang, Kota.
Types of Art: Most Mitsogo carvings in museum collections are wooden reliquary figures that were used to protect the spirits of deceased ancestors.
History: Oral histories of the Mitsogo indicate that their ancestors immigrated from an area in north-eastern Gabon around the Ivindo River valley during the 13th and 14th centuries. Art styles and techniques link the Mitsogo to other peoples in their region. Like the Fang and Kota peoples who live to the north and the Punu who live to the south, the Mitsogo carve figures whose primary purpose is to guard the relics of ancestors. They also practice bwiti, which is an observed practice of various other peoples throughout Gabon.
Economy: Mitsogo tribal economy is based on shifting hoe farming in fields that have been carved out of the rain forests through slash and burn techniques. This is supplemented when necessary with hunting, fishing, and livestock, such as goats, sheep, and chickens. The surrounding Equatorial forests also provide various fruits, nuts, and tubers for consumption. The main crops include banana, yams, cassava, maize, peanuts, and manioc. Men do most of the hunting and gathering and clearing of land, and women perform the other agricultural tasks.
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: Mitsogo religion centred around ancestors who were 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.