Carved souvenir head

Carved vegetable ivory souvenir head,

Ecuadorian, 20th century

A.1940.33.s

What is this object made from? Although it looks a bit like ivory, this little head was carved from a nut. The tagua nut, Phytelephas spp, is also known as ‘vegetable ivory’. Tagua palms grow in South American rainforests. The white flesh of tagua nuts can be made into a drink when they are young but if the nuts are allowed to mature and are left to dry they become very hard and can be carved into shapes. This picture shows a tagua palm fruit cut in half to show the white nuts inside.

 

Where did it come from? The head was brought to Glasgow as a souvenir by Andrew Holmes who went on a trip through South America in 1925.

Are tagua nuts used for anything else? During the 19th century tagua nuts were shipped from the rainforest to the factories of Europe where they were made into buttons until plastic buttons and zips became a cheaper alternative. These days, tagua nuts are used for carving small ornaments and jewellery for sale as souvenirs. In 1925 most carvings showed tribal peoples like this one, but today animal carvings are more popular.