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The Bernheim-Conant Expedition

Identifier: Film Collection no. 14

Scope and Contents

Filmed during the AMNH Bernheim-Conant Expedition to northern Africa, 1953-1954. This film is a good overall record of an expedition which covered 16,000 miles in northern Africa, showing Moslem architecture and the great variations in people and terrain of the region. Given the size of the Sahara Desert (roughly the size of the continental United States) and the people inhabiting it, attention is not focused on any one group. The expedition film was made partially due to the urging of Harry L. Shapiro, AMNH anthropologist, that changing societies be captured on film, and partly for personal reasons: Claude Bernheim, the expedition leader, had been a Free French flyer in North Africa during World War II, and wanted to share his experience of the places he had visited then with his family. The expedition was indeed a family affair comprised of his wife (an anthropologist), son, daughters Danielle and Miriam, and son-in-law Francis Conant, co-leader and anthropology student. Danielle Bernheim filmed the movie, and Miriam Bernheim recorded sounds (the film is silent, however). Ethnographic artifacts were collected for the museum's anthropology department. After preliminary scenes of truck packing and the trip to Africa, the two Dodge expedition trucks begin their journey from Casablanca, Morocco. A visit to a city en route features workers tanning and dying skins. At Khenifra, Morocco, street scenes and women in purdah are filmed. In Algeria, women of Berber or Hamitic stock perform a dance to welcome the members of the expedition, and at Beni Abbes, Berber men perform a Bani war dance, firing guns as the dance climaxes. The expedition party travels along the southern base of the Atlas Massif and stops at oasis Tammentit. Bougainvillia, date palms, and foggaras (horizontal wells) are filmed. At Adrar, Algeria, the administrative center of this area, Berber women perform household tasks: grinding grain, spinning and weaving. Children study the Koran, play and eat. French doctors and nurses vaccinate people against tuberculosis. A group of Tuareg men, who often serve the French army, ride camels while on patrol duty. (The Tuareg are also known as "blue" men because the dye of the veils they wear stains their skin.) The expedition party follows the patrol to an oasis, where women tend livestock. A tea ceremony takes place: veiled men brew the tea, and drink it under their veils; women play a native violin. Further south during the expedition, a war dance featuring the use of clubs is filmed. In Kano, Nigeria, Hausa men create huge pyramids of groundnuts packed in burlap bags. There are also scenes of native people of the Logone River area in Chad. The arid topography of the desert changes to lush green in Zaire. Brief scenes of the peoples around the city of Irumu and native peoples in dugouts on a river are seen. Fishing traps set in white water, probably the Wagenia Fisheries outside Stanleyville (now Kisangani) at Stanley Falls (partly Boyoma Falls), are noteworthy. The expedition crosses Uganda and films women in Ugandan dress. In Kenya's northern frontier district several tribal peoples are filmed: Samburu, Rendile and Boran, with emphasis on the Rendile's low shelters made of poles covered with skin and the cockscomb hair style worn by married Rendile women. More attention is given to the Boran, who are seen tending livestock and performing the difficult task of fetching water from deep wells. Little is recorded of the expedition's travels north through Sudan and Ethiopia. The trucks are boarded onto a train, then onto a ferry for the last leg of the trip through Egypt. The film ends with views of Egyptian sites and landmarks: the Valley of the Kings, King Tutankhamen's Tomb, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphynx, feluccas (sailboats on the Nile), and water wheels. The archaeological sites are well photographed, with attention given to bas-relief, hieroglyphics and obelisks.


  • 1953-1954


Language of Materials



1 Film Reel (295 minutes) : silent, color ; 16 mm.

4 Videocassettes (U-Matic (295 minutes)) : silent, color ; 3/4 in.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

3/4 in., U-Matic, viewing copy

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

Original format: 16 mm. color reversal original; incomplete.


16mm. color reversal original; incomplete.


Danielle Bernheim, photographer.

The Bernheim-Conant Expedition, 1953-1954
Iris Lee
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Museum Archives at the Gottesman Research Library Repository

American Museum of Natural History
200 Central Park West
New York NY 10024 USA
(212) 769-5420