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Beetle-Wing Body Art: Shuar Ear Ornaments

From the Collections posts

Beetle-ornament-250

The Shuar people of the upper Amazon dress for special occasions by adorning elaborate ornaments, such as these made of beetles' wing covers. Photo courtesy of the Division of Anthropology (Catalog no. AMNH 40.0/35.04).


When dressing for special occasions, the Shuar people of the upper Amazon adorn themselves with ornaments made from materials found in the surrounding rain forest: feathers, plant fibers, animal parts, wood, and stone. Along with colorful headdresses and necklaces, men wear dramatic ear ornaments like those pictured here, which are made from toucan feathers, glass beads, and the iridescent wing covers of the giant ceiba borer beetle, Euchroma gigantea.

The Shuar are one of several Jívaroan tribes who occupy some 7.5 million acres along the border between Peru and Ecuador. The ear ornaments came to the Museum in the 1930s as part of a large collection donated by Dr. Harvey Bassler, a Standard Oil geologist who spent more than a decade studying unexplored areas of the western Amazon basin in search of petroleum. An amateur herpetologist with an interest in local wildlife, Bassler kept a menagerie of rain forest animals in Iquitos and collected thousands of biological specimens for research. He was also one of the first outsiders to spend time among the isolated indigenous peoples of the region, becoming an expert on the cultures of northwestern Amazonia and collecting artifacts in the process.

On completion of his assignment in South America, Bassler shipped 22 tons of books and specimens—including some 10,000 amphibians and reptiles, one of the largest collections of its kind from a single collector—to the Museum in 1934. He later joined the staff to help organize the material. Members might remember the ornaments shown here from the Museum exhibition Body Art: Marks of Identity, which ran from 1999 to 2000. Other examples of Shuar craftsmanship can be found in the Hall of South American Peoples, where more than 70 items from the Bassler collection are on exhibit, including a back ornament made from the wing covers of another colorful beetle,Chrysophora chrysochlora.

Click here to learn more about the Division of Anthropology’s collections.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.

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