A Symbol of Culture: Francs Guinéens Paint a Picture of Life in Guinea

by Kaylee Gund

During a recent visit to the Museum’s offsite collections storage, one carving in particular caught my eye — the Nimba (D’mba). After living in Guinea for over a year, I immediately honed in on the familiar polished wood of the Nimba among the other West African pieces.


The Nimba.

The Nimba is a symbol of feminine power and fertility, carried on someone’s shoulders around the fields to ensure a bountiful harvest. It wasn’t one of the traditions in the region where I lived, but I still saw the Nimba almost every day in my village on the corner of the 5,000 FG (franc guinéen) note.


The Nimba appears on the corner of a 5,000 FG note.

Among many other traditional symbols, the Nimba has become an expression of national pride, as evidenced by the Guinean bank’s use of it on currency and as its logo. Guinean currency is an interesting mix of national and local identity. Each denomination represents a different culturally distinct region of the country, showing important symbols and economic activities for that region.


A gold mining operation appears on the back of a 500 FG note, paying homage to the major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture.

Haute Guinée, the eastern plateau, is featured on the 500 FG, complete with an image of gold mining on the back. A major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture, gold mining was also an occasional source of exasperation for schoolteachers, as our students would often leave for months at a time during a gold rush and “cherchent l’or,” or “search for gold.”


As you’ve probably noticed, the number of zeros behind monetary amounts in Guinea can be a bit intimidating. Pictured above is a whopping 16,600 FG, worth a little over $2 in the U.S.

What can all this money buy?


Bags of clean drinking water are sold for 500 FG each. Drinking water from the well is ill advised, so this is a worthwhile investment at $0.07.


At the peak of mango season, everyone has more fruit than they know what to do with. It spoils fast with no refrigeration, so piles of mangoes are sold for 2,000 FG (less than $0.30).


Prepared food, like this rice with potato leaf sauce, costs between 5,000 and 7,000 FG for a plate (around $1).

So many mundane things require money that it’s easy to forget what an incredible symbol it can be. Guinean currency gives a glimpse into the many traditions of its different regions, and while there is occasionally ethnic strife between groups and the road to democracy is still rocky, the entire nation is unified in using Guinean francs.

Culture is an incredible thing, and we’re lucky enough to have access to a rich treasure trove of it: from Ancient Egypt to the Amazonian rainforest, even the smallest things can hold great significance.

Next time you’re about to spend a dollar, take a look at what’s on it. You might be surprised!

Editor’s Note: Kaylee Gund is in Youth Education Sales at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. During her time in the Peace Corps, Gund was placed in Guinea to teach chemistry in the country’s national language, French.

Visit ancient India through cave art with Dr. Jean Clottes this Thursday

Dating back 10,000 years, the spectacular prehistoric art in remote caves across the center of India offers a glimpse into the lives of Asia’s ancient peoples. Join the Houston Museum of Natural Science in welcoming French archaeologist Dr. Jean Clottes, world-renowned researcher of cave art, to discover some of their hidden meanings.

13:30Balneario de Puente ViesgoEl consejero de Cultura, Turismo y Deporte, Francisco Javier López Marcano,  presenta, en rueda de prensa, el homenaje de la Consejería de Cultura al científico Jean Clottes por la declaración de Patrimonio de la Humanidad a las Cuevas de Cantabria.ROMAN GARCIA ©10 SEP 08

By ROMAN GARCIA, Gobierno de Cantabria [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The astounding images Clottes will present Thursday, Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m. encompass themes of agriculture, dance and war, but more importantly, suggest that contemporary tribal peoples still use methods that appear in this ancient art. Clottes ventured into the jungle with other researchers to make contact with tribal peoples including the Korkus, Gonds, Kols and Bhils, gathering testimonies on vanishing practices and age-old traditions to interpret the cave paintings.


“Their most obvious purpose is about the beneficial power of the images,” Clottes stated. “They are indeed images for the gods, but also and most of all for the tribal people themselves who ask for their protection through their paintings and the ceremonial practices around them.”

With Clottes, hear the story of adventure deep into the jungle and take a peek into the hidden lives of Indian residents from the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic and historical eras. Tickets $18, members $12.

Clottes has published more than 300 scientific papers and written or contributed to more than 20 books, including Des Images pour les Dieux. Art rupestre et Art tribal dans le Centre de l’Inde, a 2013 French monograph on Indian cave art. He co-authored the book with Meenakshi Dubey-Pathak.

Tibetan Buddhists use human remains to create ritual artifacts

by Kathleen Terris

Located in the heart of the Asian continent between China and India, Tibet is a region with a complicated political history that has been a part of the People’s Republic of China since 1951. Religion, specifically Tibetan Buddhism, is extremely important to everyday Tibetan life and is derived from the ancient Tibetan religion Bön and Sanskrit Buddhism from Northern India. Tibetan Buddhism has become increasingly popular in the west due to Tibetan emigration.

Rituals and ritual artifacts are important in Tibetan Buddhism, with the artifacts believed to hold tantric powers that determine how successful the ritual will be. Several of these ritual artifacts are made using human bone; these artifacts include the damaru, the kangling, and the kapala. The damaru is a two-headed, hand-held drum that is made from two skulls, a male and a female, which represent the male and female elements of life. These elements are further represented through the male and female mantras that are inscribed on the inside of the corresponding skullcap. This ritual instrument is held in the right hand and is often paired with a bell (ghanta) to create a musical offering to the deities at the center of the ritual.

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A traditional Tibetan damaru. Beasley-Hwang collection.

The kangling is a trumpet traditionally made from a human femur (kangling literally translates to “bone flute”).  Said to have a haunting sound, the kangling is typically used in rituals to summon spirits in order to help relieve their worldly sufferings.

Monk with Damaru Thighbone

A damaru and kangling used together in ritual.

A kapala, or skull cup, is used to hold offerings of herbs and flowers that are mixed with various liquids; this mixture is symbolic of aspects of the body and mind.  The skull cup is supported by a triangular base with a skull decorating each corner; these skulls represent the three vices (greed, hate, and ignorance).  The kapala is topped off with a crown-shaped lid that represents the enlightened body.

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An intricately decorated kangling. Beasley-Hwang Collection.

These instruments are used in chöd ritual, a practice that combines Buddhist meditation and an ancient shamanic ritual native to Tibet and is primarily found in Tibetan Buddhism and Bön. The goal of this practice is to get rid of the Ego, which starts with disconnecting from the body and material objects.

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A Tibetan kapala, complete with separate triangular base and crown-shaped lid. Beasley-Hwang collection.

While these artifacts are traditionally made from human bone, they may also be made from wood. When made from bone, the selection is very important to how much power the artifact has and the success of the rituals it is used in; it is believed that the karmic force of the deceased remains in these skeletal artifacts and is transferred to those who use them in ritual. For example, the bones of an individual who died violently are believed to hold the greatest power while those of someone who died a peaceful death have almost no power; the bones of a respected teacher are also thought to be powerful in ritual use. While it can seem almost morbid to use skeletal remains as ritual objects, these are often seen as the most powerful cultural objects. This is evident in the amount of decoration and symbolism included in the artifacts described here.

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Terris worked with Houston Museum of Natural Science Curator of Anthropology Dirk Van Tuerenhout and recently joined the collections department as a part-time member.

If you’re looking for more bones, visit the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the Morian Hall of Paleontology. #ChillsAtHMNS

HMNS changed the way I think about Earth, time, humanity, and natural history

After 90 days working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, here’s the verdict:

I love it here!

Through research required to compose and edit posts for this blog, I have learned about voracious snails, shark extinction, dinosaur match-ups, efforts to clean up ocean plastic pollution, Houston’s flooding cycle, a mysterious society in south China, and the inspiration for the design of costumes for Star Wars.


Look at the size of that T. rex! My love for the Houston Museum of Natural Science began with an affinity for dinosaurs.

I’ve learned about many, many other things, as well, and I could feasibly list them all here (this is a blog, after all, and electrons aren’t lazy; they’ll happily burden themselves with whatever information you require of them), but the point of this blog is to excite our readers into visiting the museum, not bore them with lists.

Coming to the museum is a grand adventure, and it’s my privilege to be here every day, poking through our collection and peering into the the crevices of history, finding the holes in what humanity knows about itself and speculating about the answer. That’s what science is all about, after all. Learning more about what you already know. Discovering that you’ve got much more left to discover.


As a writer, I identify with the oldest forms of written language, like this tablet of heiroglyphs. You can even find a replica of the Rosetta Stone in our collection!

When I took this job, I was a fan of dinosaurs and Earth science. I could explain the basic process of how a star is born and how the different classes of rock are formed. Igneous, metamorphic, sedimentary. Now, I can tell you which dinosaurs lived in what era and the methods paleontologists use to unearth a fossilized skeleton. I know that a deep-space telescope owes its clarity to a mirror rather than a lens, and I can identify rhodochrosite (a beautiful word as well as a fascinating mineral) in its many forms. And there are quite a few.


Rhodochrosite. My favorite mineral. Look at that deep ruby that appears to glow from within, and it takes many other shapes.

I have pitted the age of the Earth against the age of meteorites that have fallen through its atmosphere and have been humbled. The oldest things in our collection existed before our planet! How incredible to be that close to something that was flying around in space, on its own adventure across the cosmos, while Earth was still a ball of magma congealing in the vacuum of space.

Time is as infinite as the universe, and being in this museum every day reminds me of the utter ephemeralness of human life. It advises not to waste a moment, and to learn from the wisdom of rock about the things we will never touch. Time and space reduce humanity to a tiny thing, but not insignificant. Our species is small and weak, but we are intelligent and industrious. We have learned about things we don’t understand from the things we do. The answers are out there if you know where to look for them.


Everything turns to stone eventually, even this gorgeous fossilized coral.

I was a print journalist for three years, and I am studying to become a professional writer of fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Don’t worry. It’s a low-residency program. I’m not going anywhere.) I am a creator of records of the human experience, according to those two occupations, and in some ways I still feel that as the editor of this blog, but there is a difference.


This epic battle between a sperm whale and a giant squid recalls scenes out of Herman Melville.

Here, rather than individual histories — the story of one person or of a family or of a hero and a villain — I’m recording our collective experience, our history as a significant species that participates, for better or worse, in forming the shape of this world. We were born, we taught ourselves to use tools, we erected great civilizations, we fought against one another, we died, those civilizations fell. We have traced our past through fossils and layers of rock and ice, we have tested the world around us, and we have made up our minds about where we fit into the mix.

We are a fascinating and beautiful people, and through science, we can discover our stories buried in the ground, often just beneath our feet. To me, this is the real mission of our museum. To tell the story of Earth, yes, but to tell it in terms of humanity. In the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, we wonder what makes certain minerals precious to us when they’re all spectacular. In the Morian Hall of Paleontology, we trace the fossil record back in time and wonder how things were and could have been had dinosaurs not gone extinct. In the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we connect with the little lives of insects, compare them to our own, and fall in love with our ecosystem all over again. In the Weiss Energy Hall, we learn how life and death create the fossil fuels that now power our society. We find both ingenuity and folly in the values of old civilizations in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas.


These chrysalises, a powerful symbol of personal growth and change, teach a lesson in natural cycles and big beauty in tiny places.

I have often wondered how we justify placing a collection of anthropological and archaeological artifacts under the heading “natural science.” Why don’t we consider our institution more representative of “natural history?” In my first 90 days, I think I’ve found the answer. It’s not just about the story of humanity; it’s about the story of the science we have used to learn what we know.


The Houston Museum of Natural Science, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is truly one of a kind.

Our goal at HMNS is to inform and educate. To challenge your assumptions with evidence and bring the worlds and minds of scientists to students and the general public. It’s a grand endeavor, one that can enrich our society and improve it if we pay attention.

A ticket to the museum isn’t just a tour through marvels, it’s a glance in pieces at the story of becoming human. After 90 days here, by sifting through the past, I feel more involved in the creation of our future than I have ever been.

And that feels pretty great.