Friday mystery object #55 answer

On Friday I presented you with this anthropological mystery object:

I wanted to know what it is, what it’s used for and where/what culture it’s from. Since there are skulls on it I thought it would be a good idea to ask you to identify them while you were at it. No small task then.

Alistair was first to notice that the skulls belonged to monkeys, then Smallcasserole made the comment:

It’s the Predator’s earthly trophy bag with human skulls!

Which although not entirely accurate, is correct in identifying what this object is used for – it’s for carrying trophies. Moreover it’s for carrying the same trophies that the Predator might be out collecting…

Jonquil and Dave Godfrey worked out that it’s a basket rather than a bag and then Jonquil came through with a tribe in the right culture and place. I can’t be sure of the particular tribe this is from, but the culture is that of the Naga from the Northeastern part of India (Assam in this instance), who were renowned for the practise of head-hunting (and I don’t mean in the recruitment sense) until quite recently.

As to the monkey skulls, jonpaulkaiser suggested one may be from a Macaque and Jonquil suggested Gray Langur, while Dave Godfrey suggested Macaque and Gibbon. David Craven then provided a remarkably coherent and accurate answer:

Looks like a head-hunting bag, as used by the Naga (I couldn’t give a specific tribe). Still a very fraught part of the world unfortunately.

So, what sorts of monkeys do we have in that part of India?
Loads of Macaques, but others have said Macaque without being censored. Unless that’s too general to be censored…

I’ll say Capped Langur on the left (I also considered Hoolock Gibbon).
Macaque on the right? Hard to find good images of macaque skulls for some reason, so I have to shoot in the dark a little. Stump-tailed Macaque.

I think this is about as good an answer as I could hope for, partly because it reflects the levels of uncertainty that we are often stuck with in the museum world. The basket/bag came from Assam and it entered the collections around 1903 judging by its label. There was no tribe name associated, so that information would prove difficult (if not impossible) to track down. The primate skulls are damaged and they are attached to the bag, making them difficult to inspect in the kind of detail needed to make a certain identification.

I was personally leaning towards the skull on the left being that of a Hoolock Gibbon Hoolock hoolock (Harlan, 1834) based on the distance between the eyes, but I’m not convinced that this is reliable and the shape of the nasal opening (long and heart-shaped) doesn’t quite fit with this idea. It could indeed be a female Capped Langur Trachypithecus pileatus (Blythe, 1843) but probably not a Gray Langur Semnopithecus sp. Desmarest, 1822 because their range doesn’t quite fit. It could even be a female Macaque of some sort (although the width between the eyes looks too big for that).

The skull on the right looks like a male Macaque, probably a Rhesus Macaque Macaca mulatta (Zimmermann, 1780) or a Stump-tailed Macaque Macaca arctoides (I. Geoffroy, 1831) – with my preference being the more common and widely distributed Rhesus (compare 1 & 2). I am keen to see David Craven’s reasoning, to see what I may have missed.

Many thanks to everyone for their comments and suggestions. I particularly liked the idea by cackhandedkate that the basket was one of Lady Gaga’s costumes – something that I would not be surprised by.

2 thoughts on “Friday mystery object #55 answer

  1. Bob O’Hare asked how I’d come by my answer. Normally, that would be “looked at lots of images till one fitted”, but it’s slightly more complex this time, so worth answering.

    I was actually schooled as a Roman Catholic. My parents weren’t believers, it was one of those “convert for the sake of the schooling” decisions. But that landed me in a Catholic school, nuns ‘n’ all.

    In our “Religious Studies” lessons, we often had someone come in to give us “ethics” lessons, which focused on graphic illustrations of the horrors of such evils as sex, abortion, contraception, etc. (Always amazes me how sex-obsessed the chaste are. Or maybe not so surprising…).

    One day, we had a missionary come in to talk to us about the great work they did, converting savages from their primitive beliefs to a completely different primitive belief (I may have paraphrased there). The example used, was the Naga. And this guy went through slides showing their barbaric head-hunting practices. The illustration of village “head trees” stuck with me, as did the little baskets they carried the collected head in. So, when Paolo posted this, I immediately remembered “those Indian people” (I had to look the name up as it had been lost from memory).

    It was actually the only one of the “ethics” lessons that ever really stuck with me. By that point I was well on the road to atheism, but did think missionary work seemed great if you got to travel and meet interesting tribes (although my parents weren’t religious, we had to go to church as a condition of the schooling. Being a child, I just assumed the things your teachers told you was true, so obviously Catholicism was right. This is why all schools should be secular, no faith schools at all. I digress…). I think we need a new “agnostic missionaries” movement, well-funded people who go to Africa and other places, giving people books by Richard Dawkins and telling them to think for themselves!

    Anyway, that’s how I knew the anthropological object. After that, I simply focused on the primates of Nagaland (because I could tell they were primate skulls), and drew up a short-list.

    My reasoning on Capped Langur/Hoolock Gibbon is identical to Paolo’s, so nothing to add there. The nasal opening looks like the LAngur, the eyes look like the gibbon.

    In terms of the macaque, I’m really not sure. I’ve been reading a couple of molecualr analyses of Macaques since posting. I’d originally gone with Stump-tailed as I had it down as related to the Crab-eating macaque (M.fascicularis), and the dentition looked similar. But it seems it’s actually in a different group, more closely related to the Toque Macaque (M.sinica). Without good comparative material it was a bit of a blind guess (as I said in my post), so I think it could really be either Stump-tailed or Rhesus. What I would say is that the Naga Hills are a bit of a stronghold for the Stump-tailed, so while the Rhesus is more common overall, in that specific area there is a “ready supply” of Stump-tailed.

    • Thanks for that reply, David. I would never have guessed your FMO skills were taught by nuns and missionaries!

      The idea of agnostic missionaries handing out books by Dawkins appeals – I hope they taste worse than Christian missionaries.

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