The Real History Behind Black Panther

By Kimberly Ison

Unless you have been living under a rock, or perhaps in a country as “remote” as the fictional Wakanda, then you know about the blockbuster Marvel movie Black Panther.

The movie portrays an African country that is free of colonization, slave trading, and the all-out desecration that the rest of Africa has seen throughout her history.

The bumpy markings on Killmonger’s chest and torso are inspired by the scar tattoos on the bodies of the Mursi and Surma people of Ethiopia.

Real African history as inspiration

The movie gives us insight to the tribal runnings of Wakanda, but are the customs, costumes, and peoples portrayed in the movie historically accurate and based on real African history?

When the ritual combat ceremony begins we are introduced to the distinct tribes that make up the fictional Wakanda. We have a royal family with a big female influence. In the past, matriarchies, or families, groups, or states ruled by women, were prevalent in Africa. Matrilineality refers not only to tracing one’s lineage through maternal ancestry; it can also refer to a civil system in which one inherits property through the female’s family line.

Warrior women of Dahomey

This also includes the Dora Milaje, who are based on a real all-women African army. The first tracing of the women warriors is in the 1720’s. They served as guards to the palace in Dahomey, an African kingdom that existed between 1600 and the late 1800s. The army went by other names, including Mino (which means “Our Mothers” in the Fon language).

When we are introduced to the River Tribe, we immediately notice the lip plate that the leader wears. Also known as a lip plug or lip disc, lip plates are a form of body modification where increasingly large discs are inserted into a pierced hole in either the upper or lower lip, thereby stretching it. While other tribes in Africa have used them over time, the Mursi and Surma (Suri) women of Ethiopia still use lip plates till today.

African masks and writing

Similarly noticeable, the mask worn by Killmonger is the Mgbedike, a menacing long-horned mask that originates from Igbo land. Translating to ‘time of the mighty’, the Mgbedike is used during local rituals. The bumpy markings on Killmonger’s chest and torso are inspired by the scar tattoos on the bodies of the Mursi and Surma people of Ethiopia. The Mursi and Surma people regard the scars as a sign of beauty and strength.

Nsibidi script. Photo: Wikipedia

Finally, the text we see inscribed on the walls of the Black Panther’s throne room are actually from Nsibidi, with origins in modern-day Cross River state. The custodians of the language are the Ekoi – also known as Ejagham – people and they have a population of about 150,000 people. Though almost extinct, because of colonization and English education, the script is still sparingly used till this day.

So, next time you go down to your local theatre to take in the latest Marvel wonder, pay close attention to the details; there just may be a history lesson or two in there.

About the Author

Kimberly Ison
My name is Kimberly Ison and I am an aspiring History professor with a great passion and love for all things History! Besides writing for the amazing History Hustle I also run my own blog dedicated to History called KimsKonnections. I enjoy reading, spending time with my pitbull Ruby, and a great cup of coffee!!