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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

Maasai “Lion” Spear

Pictured below is a spear recovered from an outbuilding at a former family residence, at the time called “Parthia”, in Beckhampton, Wiltshire. It has been in the author’s possession since the 1980s but in the intervening 40+ years precisely what it was or where it came from was unknown. While its origin remains a mystery, the desire to identify whether it is, as suspected, an African spear finally demanded some research. Based on the evidence so far, it appears it is a possible “Maasai ‘Lion’ Spear”. Weapons like it were (are?) carried by the tribe’s young men when they are charged with protecting the cattle that the Masai depended upon from the predation of lions. Reputedly, the technique was to firmly ground the tail spike of the spear and direct the spearpoint at a lion who was then enticed to charge. If all went well, the leaping beast would be impaled on the spear. Every Maasai youth needed to kill a lion in this way to be recognised as a warrior, but the smallest mistake on the young man’s part would likely not end well.



Who’re the Maasai? The Maasai are nomadic pastoralists of East Africa who range along the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania, the Samburu of Kenya, and the semi-pastoral Arusha and Baraguyu (or Kwafi) of Tanzania. Maasai subsist almost entirely on the meat, blood, and milk of their herds. Their kraal, consisting of a large circular thornbush fence around a ring of mud-dung houses, holds four to eight families and their herds.


The Maasai maintain a number of patriarchal clans grouped into two classes, or “moieties”. Within the classes members are integrated in a system of age-sets that sees groups of the same age initiated into adult life together. The age-class thus formed is a permanent social grouping that lasts the lifetime of its members. They move up through a hierarchy of grades, each lasting approximately 15 years, including those of junior warriors, senior warriors, and junior elders, until they become senior elders authorized to make decisions for the tribe. Between the ages of about 14 and 30, young men are traditionally known as “morans”. During this period they live in isolation in the bush, learning tribal customs and developing the strength, courage, and endurance for which Maasai warriors are noted throughout the world.


Solving the riddle An image search of the internet quickly returned numerous pictures of “African spears” of varying styles and designs. A very similar looking spear (below) was listed as having been sold on the online auction site liveauctioneers.com. It had been catalogued as a “19th-century African Maasai Lion hunting spear”. Frustratingly, any further description was hidden behind a paywall.



However, another auctioneers, Fagan Arms, had clearly sold the "Maasai Lion Spear” shown below, and they had provided a useful accompanying description that read:



“68¼ inch length. Forged iron head with spiral twist to the middle. The socket with white inked “Ed” number and Africa Kenya Masai. Evidently indicating that it was used by an educational department, probably from a missionary society as was the custom. Slender tail piece and original wood grip…Excellent condition with good age character and old collection number to the wood.”


In December 2019, yet another US auction site, EJ’s Auction & Appraisal of Glendale, Arizona, had sold for $60 what they called a “Vintage 70in Senior Maasai Lion Spear” as pictured below.


These three examples were chosen because demonstrates one or more key feature against which the author’s spear can be compared. All four (the author’s included) have a central hard-wood shaft set into and connecting the sockets of the blades and shank. The type of wood is not known but each shaft is presumably fashioned from a tree indigenous to the Maasai Mara, a vast expanse of land in Kenya inhabited by the Maasai people, within which Albizia and Acacia are the prevalent trees that contribute to the unique appearance of the landscape. It is highly likely therefore that the wood is either Albizia or Acacia, unless it has been replaced by something else during the spear’s lifetime.


Each spear has a similar long iron shank forming what is essentially a pointed spear-butt. It appears that the shank is formed from a solid bar of iron flared at one end and hammer forged into closed, round, tapering socket. Any noticeable variation between the examples is evident in the blade shapes. The author’s spear has a forged, leaf-shaped iron blade, with integral socket, that is very similar to the first example shown above. Without a better description of that example, however, determining whether the two blades are equivalent in length and width remains moot. Regardless, the author’s spear blade has a total length of 864 mm (34 in).


Given the stylistic similarities, one is left to conclude that the found spear is most likely of a type used by the Maasai. Whether it is a true “Lion spear” is far from certain, but the title does evoke a warrior tradition and adds an air of adventure. Is it perhaps too tempting to imagine this iconic African object returning to the UK in the possession of a 19th-century explorer. Was it an honoured gift, looted or in the worst case, a tourist memento. Regardless, just how this spear ended up in an outbuilding in rural Wiltshire remains a mystery. Bon appétit!

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