This Excruciating Tribal Ritual Brings New Meaning to Losing One’s Own Flesh and Blood

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A black and white shot of a Dani tribeswoman and her missing fingers
Image: Oktobernardi Salam

While the finger-cutting ritual is a way for the tribespeople to show their grief over the death of loved ones, it may also have greater symbolism: it has been suggested that the agony suffered when a portion of a digit is removed is a physical representation of the emotional pain a tribe member feels whilst mourning.

A group Dani men all dressed up and ready for a festival
Image: Oktobernardi Salam

Intriguingly, it’s believed that the grisly-seeming practice also helps to placate the spirits of the deceased, especially if the individuals possessed great influence within the tribe. Such esteem, according to the Dani people, is carried over into the spirit world, so it’s held that these spirits must be appeased through the finger-cutting ritual and other customs.

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A Dani woman shows off her mutilated fingers
Image: Jim Marx

Prior to it being severed, string is tied tightly around the finger and left in place for more than half an hour. Then after the desired section is removed, it goes through another ritualized – and somewhat reverent – process.

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