Image: Sebastien Cuvelier
Image: Sebastien Cuvelier
Deep within a verdant mountainous region of West Papua, a group of people has lived in relative isolation for generations. Indeed, the area in which they reside only began to be explored in earnest by westerners in the late 1930s. And while various of these tribespeople’s traditions may seem a little strange to outsiders, one ritual in particular might accurately be described as gruesome.
Image: Michal Dzikowski
The Dani group dwells in West Papua’s Baliem Valley – a relatively isolated but charmingly picturesque part of the world at an elevation of almost 5,250 feet. It’s thought that around a quarter of a million Dani reside in and around the valley, and some are distinguishable by a feature that might initially alarm those unfamiliar with their customs.
The distinctive disfigurements – for that is what they are – are the result of a practice, driven by tradition, that’s a little macabre. For older members of the Dani tribe, part of a finger should be severed when a husband, wife or other immediate family member dies. As a consequence, some Dani tribespeople can be seen going about their day-to-day lives with at least one mutilated digit.
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.
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.
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.
This procedure involves the finger segment being dried out and subsequently burned. The leftover ashes are then interred in a specially designated space.
Today, while the practice has been officially banned, its legacy can still be witnessed by visitors to Baliem Valley who encounter older – and most often female – members of the Dani community lacking part of a digit or two.
Yet finger cutting isn’t the only Dani ritual related to death that may seem bizarre to outsiders. Another is gruesome on a whole new level and certainly isn’t recommended for those of a weak disposition.
When a highly respected elder tribesperson dies, their body is “smoked” above a fire for a number of weeks. Moreover, the resulting mummified corpse is sometimes put on show; one notable example can be seen in the village of Jiwika near the Baliem Valley town of Wamena, while another is located in the village of Akima.
Indeed, tourists who have made the somewhat complicated trip to Jiwika have been invited by the local Dani people to see the village’s mummy for themselves, albeit in exchange for money.
Not all Dani practices, however, are quite so morbid or macabre. One recent tradition is an altogether more colorful affair. For the past 25 years, the Dani, along with members of the neighboring Yali and Lani tribes, have taken part in the Baliem Valley Cultural Festival – a joyous celebration that involves song, dancing and feasting on roasted pig.
The festival falls around the time of Indonesia’s Independence Day in August. During the event, simulated battles are put on by the tribespeople, and these displays come alongside others such as spear throwing – an example of the tribes’ long-standing customs and a practice that has helped keep them alive.
Throughout the festival, painted tribe members can be seen in decorative headdresses, fashioned out of brightly colored bird feathers, and sometimes with boar tusks springing from their nostrils. The men traditionally sport “kotekas” – sheaths made from dried pumpkin that cover their genitals – while the female tribespeople dress in skirts woven from plant matter.
Although they still live in customary timber-and-straw huts and retain many time-honored rituals, the Dani haven’t remained totally untouched by the outside world. For example, some members of the tribe have adopted more contemporary fashion styles.
Tourism has also emerged in the area, with visitors coming to see the Dani, their mummified tribal elders and their other fascinating customs. The Baliem Valley Cultural Festival is additionally held, in part, to present longstanding aspects of Dani – as well as Yali and Lani – life to outsiders, with whom the tribespeople now have a cordial relationship.
The battles staged at the festival are still an important part of Dani life, but the clashes now have a different purpose to that of real fighting in days gone by. Whereas once inter-tribal conflicts were a way of obtaining power, today’s mock skirmishes, though significant, concern the resolution of everyday disagreements over matters such as animals and women.
As increasing numbers of tourists travel to the Dani’s native land looking to catch a glimpse of tribal life, it’s possible that the indigenous locals will be further affected by outside influences and adapt to the modern world – something that coincides with the decline of more antiquated practices like finger cutting.
An arguably more entrenched threat, however, comes in the form of malaria – a disease that’s especially problematic in this part of the world – not to mention the scourge of HIV/AIDS. At least, though, treatment centers now exist to help afflicted locals.
For now, at any rate, the Dani remain a people who’ve endured and maintained many of their customs – despite the attentions of curious visitors from all over the world.