Nigerian String Games

Northcote Thomas photograph album showing string games, Nigeria
A page from one of the albums from N. W. Thomas’s second and third tours showing some of Thomas’s photographs of string figures and their names. (UK National Archives)

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, anthropologists were fascinated by the seeming ubiquity of the popular pastime of ‘string games‘ – the making of ‘string figures’ or ‘cat’s cradles’. As the pioneering British anthropologist, Alfred Cort Haddon wrote in 1906,

In Ethnology, nothing is too insignificant to receive attention … To the casual observer few amusements offer, at first sight, a less promising field for research than does the simple cat’s-cradle of our childhood; and, indeed, it is only when the comparative method is applied to it that we begin to discover that it, too, has a place in the culture history of man.

Haddon encountered the game during his 1888 visit to the islands of the Torres Straits (the channel between northern Australia and New Guinea). He observed that the Torres Strait string figures were much more elaborate than those he recalled from his childhood in England. He also noted that they were more often made by a single ‘player’, rather than two – and by no means was the game restricted to children. He collected examples of completed figures, which he subsequently donated to the British Museum.

String figure mounted on board collected by A. C. Haddon in the Western Torres Strait islands in 1888, representing the crayfish (kaiar). Donated to the British Museum in 1889. (British Museum Oc,89+.207)

Haddon continued to document string games when he returned to the Torres Straits in 1898 as leader of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition. With W. H. R. Rivers, he formalised a ‘method for recording string figures’ and published this in the anthropological journal Man in 1902. Rivers and Haddon stressed the need to document the various stages of making each figure, rather than merely photographing, drawing or even collecting the finished figures. They proposed a nomenclature for describing the various steps and actions involved in making string figures, and this has been adopted by many subsequent researchers.

Pages from Caroline Furness Jayne’s 1906 book, String Figures: A Study of Cat’s-Cradle in Many Lands, showing the method for recording string games. Haddon wrote an ‘ethnological introduction’ to the volume.

During his 1910-11 anthropological survey in Southern Nigeria, which focused on the Igbo-speaking people of what was then Awka District (more or less present-day Anambra State), Northcote Thomas took two series of photographs of string games. He recorded ten string figures in Aguwku Nri and three in Ebenebe. These are among the earliest photographs of African string figures. Thomas did not write about string games in his reports or other publications, and no field-notes survive from this tour, so we do not know if he documented the games according to Rivers and Haddon’s methodology, or whether he simply took photographs of the finished figures.

Philip Noble, who co-founded the International String Figure Association in 1978, has made a study of Thomas’s photographs of Nigerian string figures. In an article ‘Some Nigerian String Figures’ published in the Bulletin of the International String Figure Association in 2013, Noble reconstructs the methods by which the figures were made. The article is republished, with kind permission of Philip Noble and the Bulletin’s editor, at the end of this blog. Philip Noble has also very kindly created a series of short videos for [Re:]Entanglements in which he demonstrates how each of the figures was made.

Thomas recorded the Igbo name for each of the figures. These would have been recorded in the local Igbo dialects, and Thomas’s phonetic spelling of Igbo words is idiosyncratic. In the following sections, we include Thomas’s English translation of the names, his rendering of the Igbo names, and also a translation of the names from English into standard Central Igbo, courtesy of Yvonne Mbanefo. Northcote Thomas records the Igbo word for string games generically as akpukbaỌkpụkpa simply means ‘to make or create something by hand’. Igbo-speaking friends and correspondents have told us of other words for string games: Ikpo ubo (‘to play strings’), Gadas, Atụmankasa. Some of these may refer to particular figures rather than the game more generically. As always, we welcome any feedback on these string games and their names – please leave a comment.

1. Trap to catch thief

N. W. Thomas: Eta nanwani ori; Central Igbo: Ọnya onye ori

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2836
‘Trap to catch thief’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2836; RAI 400.16249)

Philip Noble notes: This is figure is known throughout West Africa, and often has the same name. In most locations a second player inserts a hand or finger into the lower trapezoid. When the first player releases his thumb loops and extends the figure, the second player is caught in a noose.

2. Basket spirits use to carry person

N. W. Thomas: Okba mwo ji ebu mwadu; Central Igbo: Nkata mmụọ ji ebu mmadụ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2836a
‘Basket spirits use to carry person’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2836; RAI 400.16250)

Philip Noble notes: This figure is also known in Congo, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea. In Nigeria the design represents a palanquin (sedan chair) for transporting a chief. In its most primitive form a palanquin consists of a basket suspended between two parallel poles. The inclusion of the word ‘spirits’ in the title may refer to an ancient custom, recorded by P. A. Talbot, in which a large palanquin borne on the shoulders of six men, was used to transport a ‘spirit’ during a funeral ceremony.

3. Big piece of yam

N. W. Thomas: Ibeji okotoko; Central Igbo: Nnukwu ibe ji

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2838a
‘Big piece of yam’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2838a; RAI 400.16252)

Philip Noble notes: Identical or closely related figures are known throughout Africa. Nigerian yams belong to the genus Dioscorea. Prior to cooking, yams are peeled and cut into cubes, which are represented by diamonds in the corresponding string figure.

(See video below.)

4. Child of monkey eats and tears its tail

N. W. Thomas: Nwenwelie ora odo; Central Igbo: Nwa enwe rie ọ dọkaa ọdụ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2838
‘Child of monkey eats and tears its tail’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2838; RAI 400.16251)

Philip Noble notes: The construction is similar to a figure called ‘A Pair of Scissors’, published by Kathleen Haddon and Hilda Treleaven in The Nigerian Field in 1936, and another called ‘Aeroplane’ recorded by George Cansdale in Ghana.

5. Corpse and cloth

N. W. Thomas: Ozu nakwa; Central Igbo: Ozu na akwa

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2840
‘Corpse and cloth’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2840; RAI 400.16253)

6. Big belly of old woman

N. W. Thomas: Okulu agadin waiyi; Central Igbo: Nnukwu afọ agadi nwaanyị

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2840a
‘Big belly of old woman’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2840a; RAI 400.16254)

Philip Noble notes: This figure is identical to No. 19 in George Cansdale’s collection, ‘Ghana String Figures’, published in The Nigerian Field in 1993, which has the name ‘When this animal went to fetch water, the sun came down’. In the Nigerian counterpart the loose hanging loop represents the sagging belly of an old woman.

7. Bull with long horn

N. W. Thomas: Okefi mpi agi liga; Central Igbo: Okeehi ogologo mpi

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2842a
‘Bull with long horn’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2842a; RAI 400.16256)

Philip Noble notes: The design represents a bull’s triangular face and his two horns. This figure is the same as one called ‘Bat’ published by Kathleen Haddon and Hilda Treleaven in The Nigerian Field in 1936. It was also recorded by the geologist, John Parkinson, in Yoruba-speaking areas of Southern Nigeria and published in 1906, also named ‘a bat’.

Excerpt from John Parkinson’s article, ‘Yoruba String Figures’, published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute in 1906, with figure of the ‘bat’ string figure.

8. Net for load

N. W. Thomas: Ozo anele; Central Igbo: Ubu ibu

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2842
‘Net for load’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2842; RAI 400.16255)

Philip Noble notes: This figure is widely distributed in Africa, where it often represents a ‘net’. It is the same as one called ‘A Bridge’ published by Kathleen Haddon and Hilda Treleaven in The Nigerian Field in 1936.

9. Mask for ‘juju’

N. W. Thomas: Oga; Central Igbo: Ihu mmanwụ ọgwụ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2844a
‘Mask for “Juju”‘ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2844a; RAI 400.16258)

Philip Noble notes: The figure is widely distributed in Africa. It is the same as that published by John Parkinson in 1906 under the name ‘Moving Figure’.

10. Fowl’s anus

N. W. Thomas: Ubwadiye; Central Igbo: Ike ọkụkọ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2844
‘Fowl’s anus’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2844; RAI 400.16257)

11. Rope on back

N. W. Thomas: Bokulei; Central Igbo: Ụdọ n’azụ

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 2846
‘Rope on back’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Agukwu Nri, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 2846; RAI 400.16259)

Philip Noble notes: The central string represents a rope, presumably on the back of a person who is face down. The figure is identical to that published by Kathleen Haddon and Hilda Treleaven in The Nigerian Field in 1936 under the name ‘Dead Man Lying on a Bed’.

12. Trap

N. W. Thomas: Ibudu; Central Igbo: Ọnya

Northcote Thomas photograph, String Game, NWT 3499
‘Trap’ string figure, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Ebenebe, Southern Nigeria, 1911. (NWT 3499; RAI 400.20057)

Philip Noble notes: This figure is the same as ‘Bongo Skin’ and ‘Buffalo Skin (Pegged Out)’ respectively published by George Cansdale in 1993 and C. L. T. Griffith in 1925, both recorded in Ghana/Gold Coast.

It would be interesting to find out if such string games are still played in Agukwu Nri and Ebenebe, and, if so, whether these figures and names are still known. We will try to investigate this in our fieldwork.

Written instructions for recreating each of the string figures photographed by Thomas can be found in Philip Noble’s full article ‘Some Nigerian String Figures’, which can be downloaded from the link below. (Please note that there are some discrepancies between the names of string figures used in this blog and those in Philip Noble’s article. I have used the captions of the photographs in Thomas’s albums as the most reliable guide, but, since some of the photographs share the same negative number, it is possible that Thomas got these muddled up himself!) Many thanks to Philip Noble and Mark Sherman for permission to draw upon and republish Philip’s article, to Philip for producing the excellent demonstration videos, and to Yvonne Mbanefo, Emeka Maduewesi and Ayodeji Ayimoro for their help with Igbo names for string games.

Photographic Affordances exhibition

Photographic Affordances exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute, January 2018.

Marking the launch of the [Re:]Entanglements project, the first of a number of exhibitions related to the project has been installed at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. The exhibition, entitled ‘Photographic Affordances’, includes a selection of fine digital prints from scans of N. W. Thomas’s original glass plate negatives that are held in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s collections.

Photographs made during Thomas’s four anthropological surveys in West Africa between 1909 and 1915 are dispersed in various institutions, including over 5,000 glass plate negatives held at the Royal Anthropological Institute and several thousand loose prints in the collections of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Approximately half the photographs made in Thomas’s three Nigerian tours were compiled in albums. Triplicate sets of these albums were made: one was originally kept in the Colonial Office Library in London, another was sent to the Colonial Secretariat in Lagos, while the third was intended for scholarly reference and originally deposited at the Horniman Museum in London. Today complete sets of the albums can be found in the UK’s National Archives and the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, while, to date, we have located one album at the National Museum in Lagos. Hopefully, in the course of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we will be able to locate the remaining albums in Lagos.

Photographic Affordances exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute, January 2018.
Selection of N. W. Thomas’s physical type photographs on display at the Photographic Affordances exhibition.

Many of the prints on display at the Royal Anthropological Institute are so-called ‘physical type’ portraits. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century anthropological orthodoxy imagined the world’s population to be divided into distinct races and tribes, each with its own language, material culture and cultural traditions. It was also believed that people belonging to these groups were physically different from one another. Anthropologists of the era, including N. W. Thomas, expended a great deal of effort in mapping these different groups and their physical characteristics. One technique for doing this was through making photographic portraits of people – usually full face and profile – which could then be compared. The same techniques were used in the Ethnographic Survey of the British Isles, for example, but this kind of photography is often associated with colonial attitudes, which seemingly reduced people to objects that could be measured, categorized and compared.

N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part IV, PLate 18. Woman of Isele Asaba.
Plate XVII, N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria, Part IV, 1914. Physical type photograph captioned ‘Woman of Islele Asaba’.

When physical type photographs were published in Thomas’s Anthropological Reports, the captions followed this objectifying anthropological practice. Thus, people were reduced to ‘types’ and the photographs were accompanied by labels such as ‘Man of Awka’, ‘Man of Mbwaku’ and ‘Woman of Isele Asaba’. In keeping with the supposedly ‘scientific’ genre of the photographs, the subjects do not smile. They seem to manifest the colonial violence we expect of them. By examining Thomas’s photographic negatives, however, a different impression emerges: Thomas was usually careful to note the names of those he photographed and, among the unpublished outtakes, we find people smiling and even giggling. This challenges our expectations and suggests there was a more personal relationship between the anthropologist and the person being photographed.

N. W. Thomas physical type photographs, comparing negative number RAI 400.38045 and 400.38046.
Scans of N. W. Thomas glate plate negatives, comparing two ‘takes’ of NWT 6105. The sitter’s name is recorded as Laiah. In the blurred ‘outtake’ on the left Laiah appears to be giggling. (RAI 400.38046, RAI 400.38045)

Despite the large number of physical type photographs made by Thomas while he was engaged as Government Anthropologist, the colonial authorities themselves had little interest in them, regarding them as being of ‘purely scientific interest’ and of no value in colonial governance. Thomas himself seems to have pursued this kind of photographic practice more out of a sense that this was what a professional anthropologist was expected to do, rather than a conviction in its scientific import.

The physical type photographs displayed in the Royal Anthropological Institute exhibition raise difficult questions, particularly for an institution founded in the 1870s and also entangled in histories of colonialism and ‘racial science’. Some of the faces smile, but others gaze into Thomas’s camera lens defiantly. They return the colonial anthropologist’s gaze, and now, gazing down from the Institute’s meeting room walls after 100 years hidden away in storage, they confront and unsettle representatives of the discipline today.

The exhibition is not open to the public, but please contact us at info@re-entanglements.net if you are interested in seeing it.

Photographic Affordances exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute, January 2018
Photographic Affordances exhibition, Royal Anthropological Institute.

Who was N. W. Thomas?

Northcote Whitridge Thomas (1868-1936) was the first official government anthropologist to be appointed by the British Colonial Office. He was born in the English market town of Oswestry, near the Welsh border. Although his mother and father lived until 1907 and 1914 respectively, as a child Thomas was informally adopted by his mother’s elder sister, Katherine Toller, and her husband, John Askew Roberts. Roberts was a successful businessman, who ran the local Oswestry Advertizer newspaper and took a keen interest in archaeology and local folklore, the possible source of Thomas’s interest in folklore studies and ethnology.

N. W. Thomas in c.1887
N. W. Thomas in c.1887 while studying at Cambridge. Courtesy of Norman Home.

Thomas studied History at Trinity College, Cambridge between 1887 and 1891, and was awarded an MA in 1894. The famous anthropologist, folklorist and author of The Golden Bough, J. G. Frazer, was a Fellow of Trinity College. Thomas certainly became an acquaintance of Frazer in later life, though we do not know whether he fell under his influence while studying at Cambridge. By 1894 it was clear that Thomas had decided to pursue folklore and ethnological studies. Since no university in Britain yet taught these subjects, Thomas went to study ‘primitive religion’ at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris under Léon Marillier. Among his near contemporaries were Marcel Mauss and Arnold van Gennep. Thomas’s research interests at this time focused on European folk stories and superstitions relating to animals. Influenced by E. B. Tylor, he speculated that these represented the vestiges of totemism. In 1897 he submitted a thesis entitled ‘La Survivance du culte des animaux au Pays de Galles’ and was awarded a diploma. Between 1897 and 1900 Thomas lived in Kiel, northern Germany, where he continued to study European folklore as well as modern European languages.

Thomas returned to Britain in 1900 and was appointed as Assistant Secretary and Librarian at the Anthropological Institute. The period until his appointment as Government Anthropologist in 1909 was an intensely busy one for Thomas, and saw him become an established figure in anthropological circles. He served on the Councils of the Folklore Society and (Royal) Anthropological Institute, and wrote or edited several books, including volumes of the County Folklore series, Natives of Australia (1906), Kinship Organisation and Group Marriage in Australia (1906), Anthropological Essays presented to Edward Burnett Tylor (1907, with R. R. Marett and W. H. R. Rivers) and Women of All Nations (1908, with T. A. Joyce). Thomas intended to conduct anthropological fieldwork in Australia at this time, but was unable to raise the funds.

Title pages of N. W. Thomas books
Title pages of three of N. W. Thomas’s books, published prior to his appointment as Government Anthropologist in West Africa.

Thomas’s interests in West Africa seem to have arisen through his acquaintance with R. E. Dennett, who had been a trader in the Congo before being appointed as Deputy Chief Conservator of Forests in Southern Nigeria. Dennett was also an amateur ethnologist and collector, who published articles in scholarly journals. Thomas edited the manuscript of Dennett’s 1906 book, At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind: Or Notes on the Kingly Office in West Africa. This was a comparative study of Vili and Bini customs and belief. Indicative of his shifting interest towards Africa, Thomas also published an article on ‘The Market in African Law and Custom’ in 1908. Like his book-length studies of Australian kinship and totemism, this was a typical work of ‘armchair anthropology’, with data drawn from a wide variety of sources and not based on his own field research.

The opportunity to conduct anthropological fieldwork of his own would come in 1909, with Thomas’s appointment as Government Anthropologist in Southern Nigeria. But that will be the subject of another post.

Further details about N. W. Thomas’s biography and career can be found in the article ‘N. W. Thomas and colonial anthropology in British West Africa: reappraising a cautionary tale’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22: 84-107.