The Tuareg, a nomadic people in Northern Africa, have symbols that do everything from identifying your village to warding off evil. Although they converted to Islam in the 7th century, many of their cultural practices and symbols date back to an Indigenous African spiritual practice called “animism”. Animism is based on a spiritual “lifeforce” in all living things, even plants! One of the most basic symbols, shared by many cultures in Africa, is the “X” on small leather bags holding crushed plants. The “X” indicates that the power spreads in all directions. Similar X symbols were found in early African American archaeological sites.

Where the Tuareg people live in Africa.

An example of the spread of power represented by an X.

A more intricate X pattern.

Over time the “X” evolved into more complex forms. Another ancient cultural practice is the balance of male and female social power, symbolized by the combination of shapes in these Tuareg silver amulets. Each amulet identifies a place of origin, handed down from father to son. But leadership is inherited on the mother’s family line, and religious rituals associated with some symbols refer to female spirits and fertility. These symbol shapes became the basis for stamped leather shapes, as you can see to the right.

Some of the famous Tuareg jewelry.

The men had reputations as warriors of the region, and still today many families have a traditional sword or Takoba. But women do the leatherwork that covers the handle and scabbard. Chasity before marriage is not required for either gender, and there is no shame in divorce. The freedom and equality for men and women in Tuareg tradition are a great example for understanding that our stereotypes about gender, culture and religion are often wrong.

Today many leather goods are made for the tourist market, as well. Jewelry boxes are especially popular.

Leather box with an intricate design demonstrating symmetry.

More symetric and geometric patterns.

Leather scabord of the Tuareg.