Tortoiseshell powder compact

Khoisan people, Namibia, 1990

Purchased from Anna Claude in 1990; 1990.25.1Purchased from Anna Claude in 1990; 1990.25.1This unusual object, known locally as a zem, was made by the Ju/'hoansi people (also known as the Ju/Wasi or !Kung), a San bushmen (Khoisan) group living in the desert regions of Botswana, Namibia and Angola. The tortoiseshell is a natural vessel and this one contains a sweet smelling powder that may have made from the charcoal of a fragrant wood or crushed flower petals. Worn as an ornament by women on the arm, this example also contains an applicator puff of animal fur and is decorated with hide tassels strung with white ostrich-shell beads.

No other region in the world boasts a greater diversity of tortoises than Southern Africa, which is home to fourteen species. This example belongs to the high-backed genus called Psammobates, its varieties identifiable by their colourful, geometric patterning. Psammobates means 'sand loving; and these creatures are still commonly found across the Kalahari desert.

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