Archive for the 'cotton fibers' Category

Object: Huaorani Blowgun, Quiver with Darts, and Kapok-filled Gourd



Figure 1: Huaorani blowgun. From the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. 


Figure 2: Huaorani quiver with darts, kapok gourd (the kapok fluff is visible in the plastic bag above the quiver) and piranha jaw. From the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. 

E/1968/5/001, E/1968/5/002
Blowgun, Darts & Quiver
Ecuador, South America
Unknown Date
Materials: Wood with attached plant material (blowgun); wood basket containing plant material with attached metal beads, animal bone, and fur threads (quiver & darts)

Hailing from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador, the Huaorani (also commonly known as the Waorani, Waodani, and Waos) people are historically marked by their independent nature. [1] Although Western influence has crept into some aspects of Huaorani life, such as through the introduction of shotguns for hunting purposes, some Huaorani continue to make use of traditional hunting weaponry – namely, blowguns that can reach up to 11 feet in length. A full-length blowgun, complete with quiver and darts, is located in the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. In the past, these weapons held a more prominent position in Huaorani culture. In its prime, the blowgun was a remarkable influence in Huaorani kinship and social customs, and left a legacy that remains evident to this day.


Figure 3: Closeup of the end of a Huaorani blowgun. Notice that the blowgun is built from two sections of palm wood that have been reattached. From the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. 

The physical construction of these blowguns & their accessories sheds light on the immense skill possessed by these Huaorani craftsmen. Blowpipes are made from a split palm wood rod; the two halves are grooved, then reattached with beeswax and encased in vine bark. The Huaorani smooth out the opening created by the two grooves by placing sand inside the grooves and smoothing vertically with a slim, sturdy fishing lance. [1] Darts are created from the whittled stems of palm leaves and stored in a bamboo quiver. The Huaroani often apply curare, a potent neurotoxin, to these darts. [3] Other components of the Huaorani blowgun kit include a hollowed-out gourd filled with kapok (the fluff surrounding the seeds of Ceiba Petandra) [2] and a section of a piranha’s jaw, often attached to the rope connecting the gourd to the quiver.

When hunting with these blowguns, a wad of kapok is wrapped around the lower end of the dart. When the dart is inserted into the blowgun, air passing through the pipe will not pass around the sides of the dart but will build up behind the kapok wad, pushing the dart out of the blowgun at a high speed. [2] The Huaorani then use the sharp teeth on the piranha mandible to cut a deep notch on the front end of the dart. This ensures that the poisoned tip of the dart will break off in the intended target [3] and lead to its demise; the curare poison can kill an organism after just 2-3 minutes of exposure. [4] When firing the blowgun, the Huaorani build a tremendous amount of air pressure in their mouths and release it in one rapid exhalation into the blowgun, causing the dart to fly out at a high speed and with lethal accuracy. As the volume of the blowgun is less than a tenth than that of the human lung, the most important factor in firing a blowgun lies in the control of air expenditure exerted by Huaorani hunters, who are able to strike small targets (i.e., hummingbirds) upwards of 120 feet away. [3]

Take a look at the following videos for demonstration on the use of blowguns: Waorani (Huaorani) man demonstrating wrapping kapok around the darts & using the blowgun. Amazonian native, naturalist, and guide Juan Kunchikuy demonstrating the technique of modifying & firing darts at targets placed on the head of a New York Times reporter.


In Huaorani society, the significance of the blowgun encompassed many areas of their lives and culture. Prior to the introduction of shotguns in the 1970s, blowguns were viewed as symbolic tools used to monitor the social closeness between a variety of entities. One example lies in the close bond between the Huaorani and arboreal prey such as monkeys. The Huaorani hold a great deal of respect for these primates (esp. wooly monkeys) owing to their similarity in social structure and territoriality, going so far as to spare certain individuals while hunting and to share food sources with them. [1] When hunting monkeys, the Huaorani used the blowgun to down prey they feel a close social connection to, allowing the hunters to remove the spatial distance and social distance between them by using these primates for sustenance. [1]

In modern Huaorani culture, the blowgun no longer receives widespread use; its significance as a regulator of social proximity has also declined. However, its place in the Ethnology Collection at Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History ensures that its legacy and historical significance will always remain evident and relevant.

[Daniel Quintela]

[1] Descola, Philippe, and Gísli Pálsson. “Chapter 8: Blowpipes and Spears.” Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives. N.p.: Psychology, 1996. 145-65. Google Books. Google. Web. <>.  

[2]Smith, Nigel. “Oenocarpus Bataua.” Palms and People in the Amazon. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 401-12. Geobotany Studies. Springer Link. Springer International Publishing AG. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. < 1_50&*~hmac=caec4e8034004f90f686b3b44006eca9ccda4efeeff60aec2af86ff698194bb6>.  

[3] Talbot, Steve. In the Belly of the Beast: Technology, Nature and the Human Prospect. Ghent, NY: Nature Institute, 2004. The Nature Institute. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <>.

[4] TheNewYorkTimes. “Kristof in the Crosshairs: A Blowgun Showdown in the Amazon | The New York Times.” YouTube. Google, 07 May 2008. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. <>.

Object: Fencing Mask

Fencing Mask
Painted metal, Cotton, Leather

This mask is an example of a typical Japanese fencing mask. It is made of a blue cotton head piece that has been padded to help the wearer shrug off blows from a bamboo sword. The face of the mask is trimmed in leather to provide stability. The red painted metal bars serve the dual function of protecting the face and as a marker to the opponent in the match; indicating a no strike zone.

The mask is the traditional mask worn in the Japanese sport of Kendo. The literal translation of Kendo is “Way of the Sword.” It was originally a way for Japanese warriors to train for combat without having to worry about severe injury, though one can still leave a bruise. Not only was the warrior protected from severe injury, but a priceless sword handed down through generations was also carefully guarded. Kendo is the more modern ritualized version of Japanese fencing, though it is not a solitary sport in Japan when it comes to the sword arts, which are taught to people of all ages. Two other Japanese sword arts include;  Bujutsu, which is an attempt to train individuals in traditional Japanese military skills and Iaido, which focuses on the technique and esthetic of drawing the sword. It is important to note Kendo is not Bushido, which is the way of the samurai. Kendo may have developed out of this tradition, but it has rules associated with it that combat did not.

Kendo is not just a physical sport, but also demands great mental work. When practiced properly Kendo becomes a Do; this is a path or way that can lead an individual to self-cultivation. This in turn means Kendo can lead a person to learning about him or herself, both physically and mentally.

Figure 3      Diagram of Kendo Uniform

Figure 3 Diagram of Kendo Uniform

One of the key components of Kendo is the uniform that is worn by all who practice it while in the Dojo, the hall where Kendo is practiced.  The uniform consists of a pleated split skirt called a bakam, and a heavy cotton top called a keikogi. By wearing this uniform, the students of Kendo link their modern training with the ancient tradition of Japanese martial arts. The uniform is usually dark blue or black in color which is associated with the samurai’s traditional role as a representative of social order. What this means is that samurai were a respected social class in Feudal Japan and as such were seen as a policing force just by being present and inspiring others to live by their example. Worn over the general uniform is the armor each student and master will wear to further protect themselves in bouts. The first piece of armor is the tare, which is tied around the waist as a hip protector. Next the do is put on to serve as the chest protector. The student then moves to protect the head with the hachimaki, a towel like cloth, which is also used to keep sweat out of the eyes. The second to last piece is the men, which is the face mask, an example of which is housed in the Ethnology Collection. The last piece is the kote, which are arm guards as well as hand guards.

Take a look at this video to learn more about Kendo:


Donohue, John J.

1999  Complete Kendo. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, Inc.

Sasamori, Junzo and Warner, Gordon

1964  This is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, Inc.

[Dakota Stevens]

Object: Head Flattener

Head flattener (betaneti)
Shipibo Indians
South America: Peru
Unknown date
Materials: Wood, cotton padding, cloth, string

This object is a head flattener made by the Shipibo Indians of Peru. It consists of a long narrow cotton pad attached to a wooden board which is then attached by strings to another square cloth pad. It would have been used to elongate the shape of an infant’s head.

The practice of head flattening, also known as cranial deformation, has a long and interesting history in cultures all around the world. It is thought to be the oldest form of body modification, dating back at least 9,000 years. While cranial deformation can occur naturally or accidentally after birth, many cultures choose to deliberately shape an infant’s head, generally because it is a sign of beauty or status. Head flattening, which has not been proven to cause any damage to the brain, has occurred on every continent in the world at some point in time. Pressure is applied to a baby’s skull during their first several weeks of life when the bones of the skull have not yet fused together. It is accomplished by using a cradleboard or a special binding board such as the one in the Ethnology Collection. This process gradually shifts the bones of the skull, forming an elongated shape. The bones then fuse together in that shape.

Papua New Guinea, Africa, Central America, and Australia are only a few places where cranial deformation has occurred. North American tribes, including the Chinookan people of the Columbia River area in Oregon and Washington, used cradleboards to produce a wedge-shaped head in a child. This practice died out by the 1950’s, but it illustrates the prevalence of this practice. Even ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek nobles practiced head binding as a statement of beauty. In the Andean areas of Peru, cranial deformation was a common practice for both women and men between AD 1200 and 1450 (before the time of European contact with Central and South America). The head flattener from the Ethnology Collection possibly derives from this fascinating tradition.

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Shirt

Shirt or Huipil
Chuj Maya
ca. 1945
Materials: Cotton

This shirt, or huipil, from the Sam Noble Museum collection was made by an unknown member of the Chuj Maya community of Guatemala. Chuj is a language belonging to Q’anjobalan-Chujean family of Mayan languages. There are five branches in the Mayan language family, namely, Cholan-Tzeltalan, Huastecan, Q’anjobalan-Chujean, Quichean-Mamean, and Yucatecan. The Chuj language is spoken by many people in Guatemala and Mexico today. In Guatemala, most Chuj live in the department of Huehuetenango. Huehuetenango is one of Guatemala’s largest departments and is located along the Sierra de Los Cuchamatanes mountain range. This shirt is believed to have come from San Mateo Ixtatá, one of the two main Chuj communities in the region.

The huipil is a traditional Mayan garment, usually made of one or two pieces of hand woven cloth that is heavily decorated with embroidery around the neck. The designs used on huipiles are usually specific to the maker’s community and combine elements of Precolumbian and European styles. The influence of modern western-style clothing on traditional Mayan garments can be seen in this huipil’s fabric. Rather than being woven on a traditional backstrap or treadle loom, the fabric for this shirt is commercially produced muslin.

The following video shows a woman using a traditional backstrap loom.

[Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Beaded game bags

E/1944/1/112 a-b
Game bags (or bandolier bags)
Ojibwe (aka Chippewa)
North America: Eastern Canada and/or Northeastern United States
Unknown: prior to 1944
Materials: Cotton cloth, velvet, glass beads, & yarn

These game bags are attributed to the Ojibwe tribe of Eastern Canada and the Northeastern United States. Prior to the reservation period the Ojibwe, sometimes called the Chippewa or Anishenabe, people lived in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Ontario. They speak a form of the Algonquian language and are closely related to the Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes.

Bandolier bags are large, heavily beaded pouches with a beaded strap, worn diagonally over the shoulder. This style of bag was copied by native tribes of the Great Lakes area from those used by European soldiers to carry ammunition. Early versions of these bags did not have a pocket, but were solely for decoration. Beaded bandolier bags were produced mainly from the latter half of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, but they continue to be made today.

The following video shows historical photographs of Ojibwe people and their traditional dress.

Other examples of bandolier bags can be found the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Nebraska State Historical Society, Science Museum Minnesota, and others. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Apron

Ceremonial Apron
Tibetan Buddhist
Prior to 1961
Materials: Bone (likely from sheep), and cotton cloth (not original to object)

This object is an apron traditionally worn by Buddhist practitioners during Tantric ceremonies in Tibet. Tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayāna Buddhism, is a type of Buddhism that focuses on helping others to achieve enlightenment rather than on reaching personal Nirvana. In order to achieve this goal Tantric Buddhists repeat sacred chants or prayers called mantras, read sacred texts called tantras, practice yoga, and study with a guru. While some aspects of Tantric Buddhism are well known many of the teachings of this type of Buddhism are deliberately shrouded in mystery to prevent the uninitiated from learning religious secrets.

While this apron is made using sheep bones, aprons like this one were sometimes made using human bones. The bone decoration was meant to symbolize the death of the wearer and a release from his physical body in pursuit of enlightenment.  A set of six bone ornaments, including the apron, are meant to symbolize the six paramitas, or perfections, necessary for the attainment of enlightenment. These perfections include: generosity, ethics, patience, perseverance, concentration, and wisdom.

The following video shows traditional Tibetan Buddhist dancing. A bone apron can be seen briefly on some of the dancers around  minute 1.

Similar aprons can be found at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology, the Australian Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art among others. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Loom

Cakchiquel, Maya: Backstrap Loom
Date unknown
Materials: Wood, yam, cotton fibers

The Mayan tradition of weaving is one that reaches beyond textile production. Through the use of tools such as this backstrap loom, weaving can become a mechanism to strengthen and empower the female identity. From an early age, a Maya girl is taught the importance of her role as a weaver. This is instilled as soon as she enters the world, when female elders give her a toy loom. Within the first ten years of her life, this gift will be used as an educational tool as she becomes familiar with the look and feel of the loom. Once her spirit is ready, female family members will teach her how to weave.

In the Mayan worldview, weaving and female fertility are inextricably linked. The very act of weaving is referred to as “giving birth.” Various components of the loom and implements associated with weaving are given names related to female deities associated with life-giving powers, and human body parts such as the female heart, womb and umbilical cord. If the loom is used properly, the rhythmic sounds of the batten and shuttle will sound like a prenatal heartbeat, and the swaying body of a weaving woman should imitate the movements of a woman in labor.

Equipped with the skill and knowledge of textile production, women are often self-motivated to use weaving as a social movement, achieving solidarity among fellow female community members. Many women accomplish this by participating in a weaving cooperative. Membership in such an organization serves to galvanize the female gender identity, and provide a somewhat marginalized group with the means to boost morale and build economic stability and independence. By entering the marketplace, Mayan women have an opportunity to personally share their craft of weaving with people outside their culture group, using the loom as a communicative device regarding their heritage and traditional customs.

Through a shared identity found in cooperative efforts of conservation and education, there is a raised awareness of the rich cultural tradition of weaving. As a result, weaving’s deep connection with the feminine identity is shared with, and kept alive for, future generations of both the Mayan weavers and the public audience.

[Anna Rice]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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