The island where men cut their skin to look like crocodiles

The island where men cut their skin to look like crocodiles

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Men in various parts of the island receive these cuts when they are children.

The mottled light, which enters through the weathered thatched roof in “the house of spirits” in the village of Parambei, reveals the wavy scars displayed on his chest by several initiated males.

The spiritual houses – or Haus Tambaran – that are along the Sepik River, in northern Papua New Guinea, are the focal points of a regional belief system that reveres the spirits that manifest as animals.

These houses are full of murals and carvings of all kinds of creatures, from pigs and cassowaries to snakes and eagles. However, it is the crocodile that truly embodies animistic power throughout the Sepik.

In one of the most extreme initiation ceremonies in the world, the men of the Sepik receive cuts with razor blades on the back, shoulders and upper torso to leave elongated scars similar to the ones crocodiles have on their skin.

“The children are taken to the spirit house by their uncles to be cut, it may take an hour or two,” explains Aaron Malingi, Parambei chief counsel.

“Years ago, the cut was made with sharp bamboo,” he recalls.

A Haus Tambaran or house of spirits in Kaminimbit
Image captionA Tambaran Haus or spirit house in Kaminimbit

Looking at the scarred bodies of men I can hardly imagine the agony they will have suffered.

“Some children faint from the pain,” Malingi reveals. “The older men play sacred flutes to calm them down and the pits are covered with tree oil and white clay from the river to prevent infections.”

He tells me that the scarification symbolizes the purging of the blood of their mothers and the obtaining of their own adult blood, in a kind of metaphorical cut of the strings of the mother’s apron.

In addition to receiving the cuts, young people can spend several months inside the house of the spirits learning skills for the life of the initiated men.

“They get knowledge of the spirits of the village : how to fish, how to carve and how to support their wife and family,” Malingi says.

Man in Womburn
Image captionThe German missionaries opposed the practice and managed to make it disappear into several tribes.

I ask how the crocodile became such a preeminent figure of spiritual worship in the Sepik.

” The crocodile is a symbol of power, ” Malingi explains. “We fear them, but we draw energy from that power.”

He tells me that a myth of local creation suggests that the Sepik people descended from the crocodile and left the river as a human to walk on dry land.

Land of crocodiles

During my four-day boat trip on the Sepik I found that this custom of scarification and beliefs about crocodiles remain strong in the middle region, particularly among speakers of Iatmul languages, one of the amazing 832 language groups of Papua New Guinea.

These villages are still remote and difficult to reach, so they have had little contact with the outside world.

They live on a basic crop rich in starch, called sago, and fishing. Commercial crops include sugarcane. Pigs are raised and used in ceremonies as sacrifices and as money to settle disputes.

Sepik River
Image captionThe scarification ceremony is practiced along the Sepik River.

But the crocodile scarification disappeared in some river communities. At Kaminimbit, at midday by boat from Parambei, I was told that the scarification had stopped due to the influence of the Christian church .

After the Germans arrived and installed a colonial government around 1885, the Sepik region began to evangelize.

Even so, in these communities where the razor blades are no longer used for ceremonies, the Haus Tambaran remains close to the church and functions as a kind of social club for men to spend their time.

In the village of Wombun, nestled in a swamp flooded with lakes and tributaries that meet in a mirror-glass horizon, older men wear the crocodile initiation marks.

But the habit is disappearing. ” The missionaries were opposed, ” explains Simon Kemaken, a primary school teacher.

“We still have a ceremony every few years to revere the crocodile, but these days few local children are being cut,” says Kemaken, for whom one of the main factors for which families are no longer organizing the cutting ceremony is their high price. .

Crocodile heads decorated in Kaminimbit
Image captionCrocodile heads decorated in Kaminimbit

In Parambei, where the Catholic Church is present, scarification nevertheless remains almost universal among men, forcing us to wonder why the influence of the church had not prevailed here.

“The spirit has always been strong in our village,” Malingi tells me. “But the missionaries have influenced our practices,” he acknowledges.

It is one of those moments in which modern Westerners like me often think: “Why can not we leave the customs of these people in peace?” Until Malingi reveals that the missionaries also convinced their ancestors to stop hunting heads .

He shows me a knotted rope in one of the houses of spirits that had dozens of knots that represented severed heads. And he explains to me that those heads were stripped of their flesh, that they mixed with pork and dog meat and fed the children, to make them strong.

I imagine that the practice had disappeared a long time ago, so I am surprised when you assure me that it just ended in 1943 .

And, proud, he tells me that the next massive scarification of the young people of the village in the cult of the crocodile would take place in November.

“It is important that we continue this in Parambei,” he insists. “It gives us a sense of life, after men have suffered the pain of cuts, they are ready for anything in life.”

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