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Lukasa: The Ancient Memory Board of the Luba Kingdom


The Lukasa is a fascinating device that was used in the ancient African Kingdom of Luba (in Democratic Republic of Congo) as a memory aid.

It is a handheld wooden board, decorated with beads and shells, and carved with geometric shapes, lines, and dots.

It is a unique and fascinating artifact that tells the story of the Luba people’s rich history and culture.

Each of these markings represents an important aspect of Luba culture, history, and geography, serving as a visual aid for oral historians and keepers of tradition.


This article will explore the history and significance of the Lukasa, providing an extensive overview of this incredible piece of African heritage.

Brief history of the Luba People

The Luba people, also known as the Baluba, are an ethno-linguistic group native to the south-central region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Luba people have a rich and complex history that dates back centuries.

The Luba people were initially organized into small chiefdoms, each led by a chief or mwami.

However, by the 16th century, the Luba people had developed a complex political system that was centered around a centralized kingdom.


The kingdom was ruled by a mwami who was advised by a council of elders.

The Luba kingdom was a powerful and prosperous state that controlled a vast area of central Africa.

The kingdom’s wealth was based on the control of trade routes and natural resources such as salt and iron.

The Luba people were renowned for their artistic achievements, especially their carvings of anthropomorphic figures and ceremonial axes.

The Luba people were also known for their Lukasa memory board, which they used to record important historical events, political structures, and other cultural knowledge.


The symbols and designs on the Lukasa represented different aspects of Luba culture and history, and it was considered a sacred object that was consulted by the king and his advisors before making important decisions.

The Luba people also had a complex social structure that was based on a system of clans and age grades.

Clans were groups of people who shared a common ancestry, while age grades were groups of people who were born during the same period.

The Luba people believed in a supreme being who created the world, but they also believed in a pantheon of lesser gods and spirits who were responsible for various aspects of life.

In the late 19th century, the Luba kingdom was conquered by the Belgians, who established a colony in the region.


The Belgians introduced Christianity and European-style education to the Luba people, which led to significant changes in their culture and way of life.

Despite these changes, the Luba people have managed to maintain their unique cultural identity and traditions.

Today, the Luba people continue to be renowned for their artistic achievements, and their carvings and other artworks are highly sought after by collectors and museums around the world.

The Lukasa memory board remains a symbol of Luba culture and heritage, and efforts have been made to preserve and revive its use in contemporary Luba society.

The Lukasa Memory Board

The Lukasa is believed to have originated in the early 18th century during the reign of King Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe.


According to Luba tradition, it was created by a courtier named Lueji, who was tasked with devising a system to record the kingdom’s history and traditions.

The Lukasa memory board is a fascinating artifact that has played an important role in the cultural heritage of the Luba people.


These hourglass-shaped wooden tablets are adorned with multi-colored beads, shells, and bits of metal, with holes and lines cut into them, and cowrie shells attached at the top and bottom.

They serve as archives for the topographical and chronological mapping of political histories and other data sets.

The beads on the Lukasa board are arranged in three distinct ways, including a large bead surrounded by smaller beads, a line of beads, and one isolated bead.


The colors and placements of these beads are used to stimulate the recollection of important culture heroes and their deeds, paths of Luba migration, significant events and relationships, places, things, relationships, and events.

There are three main categories of Lukasa boards, each emphasizing a particular kind of knowledge.

The first is the Lukasa Iwa nkunda, also known as “the long hand of the pigeon,” which contains information on mythical heroes and early rulers, as well as the mythical migration routes of the Luba people.

The second type of Lukasa board is the Lukasa Iwa kabemba, also known as “the long hand of the hawk,” which is concerned with the organization of the Mbudye secret society.

This society played a significant role in the political and cultural life of the Luba people.


The third type of memory board was created for the use of individual Luba rulers and contained secret information about divine chiefship.

This information was closely guarded and was only accessible to the ruling elite.

The Lukasa was primarily used by the Luba elite, who were responsible for maintaining the kingdom’s traditions and history.

The elite included the king, the council of advisors, and other important figures in Luba society.

The Lukasa was used to record important events and information, such as the names of rulers, the lineage of ruling families, and the locations of important resources such as iron and salt mines.


It was also used to keep track of alliances and conflicts with other neighboring kingdoms.

The Lukasa was made by highly skilled craftsmen, who used a variety of materials to create intricate designs and symbols on the wooden board.

These symbols represented different aspects of Luba culture, including the political and social structure, the natural environment, and the spiritual beliefs of the Luba people.

The Lukasa was often passed down from generation to generation, with each new owner adding their own symbols and interpretations to the board.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Lukasa is its ability to be interpreted in different ways, depending on the user’s knowledge and understanding of Luba culture.


The symbols and designs on the Lukasa were not always explicit in their meaning, but rather, they relied on a shared cultural understanding to be interpreted correctly.

This allowed the Lukasa to be used as a tool for both education and communication within the Luba society.

The Lukasa also played a critical role in the Luba political system.

The king and his advisors would consult the Lukasa before making important decisions, such as declaring war or forming alliances with other kingdoms.

The Lukasa was considered a sacred object, and its interpretation was left to the experts, who had received extensive training in Luba culture and history.


In addition to its use as a memory device and political tool, the Lukasa also had a spiritual significance for the Luba people.

The Lukasa was seen as a conduit for communication with the ancestors and the spirits of the natural world.

The symbols on the Lukasa were believed to contain spiritual power, which could be harnessed by the user for protection, guidance, and inspiration.

The Lukasa memory boards have a rich and diverse range of information recorded on them.

Each Lukasa tells a unique story, with some detailing the great Kings of the Luba, while others allude to the different deities that were worshipped among the Luba people.


The intricate design of the Lukasa board ensures that this knowledge would only be accessible to individuals who were trained to read it.

Also read: Akan Drum, The Oldest African Artifact in The British Museum

The different patterns and colors on the Lukasa board were used not only to preserve and pass on Luba culture but also to safeguard knowledge of this culture among those deemed worthy.

The Lukasa boards thus play a critical role in keeping Luba culture alive and preserving the history and knowledge of this ancient civilization for future generations.

By employing complex visual and symbolic language, the Lukasa memory board has acted as a medium for cultural expression and preservation for the Luba people, even as the world around them continues to change.


Unfortunately, the use of the Lukasa declined with the arrival of European colonizers in the 19th century.

The Lukasa was seen as a primitive and superstitious artifact by the Europeans, who did not understand its significance to the Luba people.

Many Lukasa were destroyed or taken from their original owners and are now held in museums and private collections around the world.

Despite this, efforts have been made in recent years to preserve and revive the Lukasa as a symbol of Luba culture and heritage.

The Lukasa has been recognized as a significant cultural artifact by UNESCO, and there have been initiatives to promote its use in contemporary Luba society.


In addition, artists and scholars have created contemporary interpretations of the Lukasa, incorporating its symbols and designs into new works of art and literature.


It’s obvious that this ancient memory device has played a crucial role in preserving the history and traditions of the ancient African Kingdom of Luba.

Its symbolic markings and intricate design have continued to fascinate scholars and admirers, and it remains an important symbol of Luba culture and identity.





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