Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Earth Sciences Institute for the Study of Earth and Man

Mosasaurs and Mardi Gras: Smithsonian’s ancient creature exhibit inspires Chief Shaka Zulu’s Mardi Gras suit

SMU NEWS- Internationally-known for his exquisite Black Masking Mardi Gras suits, Chief Shaka Zulu got his inspiration for this year’s suit from an unlikely source: fossils of ancient creatures discovered in Angola.

Credit: danielle c. miles

Chief Shaka saw the remains from the large, prehistoric marine reptiles in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The fossils from the Cretaceous Era were found by SMU paleontologists Louis L. Jacobs and Michael J. Polcyn and others. Chief Shaka was particularly struck by the fact that Mosasaurs — the same type of giant sea creatures featured in the “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” exhibit — had also been discovered in Louisiana.

Considering the history of the slave trade between Angola and Louisiana in the 18th and 19thcenturies, and knowing that his wife’s ancestry traces back to Angola, Chief Shaka found historic inspiration for this year’s suit. It was unveiled on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 21) for the first time.

“From Angola to Louisiana, history is repeating itself,” Chief Shaka noted.

Jacobs and Polcyn worked with Chief Shaka to provide him with scientifically accurate 3-D images of large mosasaur teeth for the suit.

“Zulu’s suit, with its prehistoric fossil sea monsters, its Louisiana magnolia blossoms, and its allusion to slavery, brings our Earth history, human history, and American history  together in the art and culture of New Orleans,” said Jacobs.

Chief Shaka is a master of Black Masking suit design, an art form specific to New Orleans, which originated as part of the Indigenous and African culture in the city.