Were the old tribal bead workers colour-blind?

19th century photograph of a young Zulu couple. Did 18th and 19th century tribal bead makers have a perception of colour that was different from ours?


Tribal bead workers are almost always meticulous perfectionists. A woman’s beadwork, worn in public by her husband, her children and herself, made important statements about her skill, creativity as an artist, diligence as wife and mother and peer group status. It also indicated the wealth of her family and her personal rank in the community.

So, if peer group approval was so important to any bead maker, why do we keep on finding “wrong” colours on beaded items? Why has the maker of a Batonka skirt from the banks of the Zimbabwe replaced traditional dark blue beads with green?  And why do some pieces mix several shades of one colour in the same piece?

The medallions on Batonka backskirts are invariably red, whiteand blue, so why has green been sustituted for blue in some of these?

 Three different reds, for example? This looks obviously wrong to us, but is it wrong to members the societies which produce the pieces?

I had always put these “errors” down to necessity or financial hardship. Beads have never been cheap for tribal people living in largely cashless societies, and in fact are now so expensive that they are being replaced with plastic strips and other inferior materials. Did the Batonka lady simply run out of dark blue beads? Were yellow beads in short supply, or did the variations simply not matter –yellowness being the only qualification?

There are at least four shades of yellow in this small Bushman fore apron form Namibia or Botswana.

Recently, I found a book that offered a fresh approach towards the use of colour in tribal art – it is called “Through the Language Glass, why the world looks different in other languages” by Guy Deutscher. It has already provoked a tribal art post from me (“Hooray for the red, white and black”, Praise Tribal Art, Oct 12 2012), but in this post, I want to look specifically at tribal bead work.

Deutscher’s theory is fairly radical, but it is based on a lot of research. He says that although tribal people live in a world with a blue day sky and a black night sky, red flowers, a yellow sun and green grass, their perception of the colour spectrum is culturally influenced and that this in turn affects and is affected by language and the net  results is a

A Zulu warrior painted by George French Angas in the 1840s.

limmited colour vocabulary. Most colours and distinctions of shade are simply not part of the old tribal languages and not important enough to be part of everyday speech.

This, by the way, is not a racist observation – Deutscher points out that in Ancient Greece, the cradle of Western civilisation, the poet Homer had a very limited colour vocabulary.  Subsequent research with tribal peoples (who were reckoned to be closest in lifestyle and culture to the Ancient Greeks than western societies) ,    revealed two very  fascinating things: First that red, white and black were the three primal colours all humans recognised, second that as colour awareness grew, it happened in a prescribed sequence – most languages expand their colour

20th century Zulu beadwork utilised a very broad palette of colours

repertoire in the same order – first  red, black and white, and then yellow, and then green, pink and orange and finally, blue, which apparently is always the last.

Another point worth mentioning is that when E.W Rivers, the Father of Anthropology, undertook a field trip to the Torres Straits (between Australia and New guinea in 1896, he noted that Mer Islanders had no trouble distinguishing variations in colour and shades – they knew they were there and could see all the distinctions of shade lightness darkness, etc, but they simply had no standard names in their language for these colours or much interest in using these adjectives to describe things.

A 1950s Xhosa collar in blue and pink

Rivers was astounded that old men could point up to the bright blue sky and describe it as “black”, just as Homer and the ancient Greeks did. Similarly, brown, pink and red were all referred to as red, and no distinction was made between yellow and orange.  Thus the Mer Islanders were not blind to colour variations, they just did not rate them as meaningful. Perhaps the same applied to the Zulu?


Zulu beadwork is widely recognised as some of the world’s best and most complex. It is produced in a rainbow of colours and there is even a code of meanings in bead colours. Yet the Zulu language has no separate words for blue and green – one of dozens of languages which exhibit this lack of distinction.

The beaded yoke of a superb Lakota Sioux dress

That wonderful book “South East African Beadwork” by Stevenson and Graham-Stewart tells us that although glass seed beads had been available in the colony of Natal since at least the 1830s, when they were introduced to the kingdom of Zululand, their distribution was controlled by the kings – Shaka, and later Dingane. Until the reign of Mpande began in 1840, ordinary people were not allowed to own or wear them except as a royal favour. Here again, supporting Deutcher’s colour thesis, the most popular early colours in the Zulu kingdom were red (the primal colour), white and blue, though contemporary writers also 

Native America and mainstream America unite when this Sioux vest proudly waves the US flag .

state that pink and green beads were popular from about 1850 onwards. I can also say that when I paged through South East African Beadwork, all of the earliest pieces were red, white, black and blue. 

The English-born artist George French Angas, (1822-1886), is famous for his paintings of the Zulu in Natal, the Aboriginal people of Australia and the Maori in New Zealand. His Zulu paintings, made in the reign of Mpande the1840s,  show men and women wearing only three colours of beadwork -  red/ pink , white and black or dark blue. Is it possible however, that the Zulu were actually using many more colours at this time?

And what are we to make of the closely allied Xhosa tribe in the Cape , who have been using  various blues and to supplement red, black  and white or centuries?

A super Ojibwa beaded jacket isnpired by European embroidery

Is Deutische correct about blue being the last colour to be named and discerned when here is a lot of blue in 19 century Zulu and Xhosa beadwork and in beadwork from many other areas of Africa, including East Africa(the Kikiyu and Kvorondo), and the Sudan (the Bagirmi). One thing we should bear in mind regarding Deutscher’s thesis is that although all humans seem to accept new colours in a prescribed order, there is no set speeds with which they can be accepted and become everyday concepts.

Almost all the anthropological research into colour perception mentioned by Deutscher took place in culturally isolated communities like the Torres Straits, where there was little

Old world vs. new world - a red, white and black belt made of hand ground shell beads from the geographically isolated Solomon Islands in the Pacific

chance of previous exposure to new colours in desirable forms.  In the case of Africa, there were centuries of contact with Arab and European explorers. The slave trade, for example, seems to have been financed largely with Venetian millefiori glass beads, and look at the colours in those!

I think that Deutscher’s assertion that blue was the last colour to be perceived, named and used in tribal societies has far too much evidence behind to be ignored, but at the same time,  the fastest accelerator of a wider colour vocabulary is cross cultural contact with traders and colonisers who introduced new objects and concepts.

And if Zulu beads challenge Deutscher’s status quo because the blue   beads was  recognised  so early, what are we to think about Native American beadwork? The many colours and complex patterns of Native American and Canadian First Nation beadwork show complete colour fluency.

A Venetian trade bead card circa 1900 - the colonial world's colour educator.

At the same time, we must remember that Native Americans had contact with Europeans since the 17th century. I think that this is significant because cross cultural contact between tribespeople and European invaders/traders/settlers could create an almost sub-conscious learning process spurred by the introduction of many novel objects (including beads) in many more colours. This is nowhere more apparent than in the beautiful floral scrolling of the beadwork of the Northern Woodlands and Great Lakes tribes such as the Ojibwa –  it is so clearly derived from European printed fabrics or embroidery that this must have been the inspiration.

To me, the most interesting aspect Deutscher’s theory is that that something as basic as the recognition and the act of naming of the colours of our world applies universally to all humanity. Thus, while we can instantly see the differences between Zulu, Dayak and Plains Indian beadwork, it has more in common than the obvious stylistic difference that set it apart.  If the development of a colour vocabulary is a universal evolution from red, black and white to a full spectrum, than it is one of the many shared concepts that make us human.

 See tribal art catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/beadProducts.asp

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