The women who cut off a finger every time they lose a loved one

The women who cut off a finger every time they lose a loved one

Having to deal with the death of a loved one is one of the few things in life that is guaranteed; a universal rite of passage that all of us, no matter how important we may like to think ourselves, will experience at one point or another. And while everyone has their own way of coping with the loss - some write poems, others put up pictures, a few even choose to have the deceased's ashes turned into fireworks - one thing that we all agree on is that, in the aftermath, you need to go easy on yourself for a while to avoid any more pain.

But for the women of the Dani tribe of western New Guinea - a tropical Indonesian territory not to be confused with the independent country of Papua New Guinea - quite the opposite is true. These wives and daughters have a rather different way of expressing their grief: every time they suffer the death of a male relative through warfare, they chop off the top of one of their fingers. Given that the tribe are well known for small-scale ritual warfare between rival villages, it’s not uncommon for one woman to lose multiple relatives - and multiple fingers - throughout the course of her life. Ouch.

The Dani people are one of the most populous ethnic groups across the Indonesian highlands, with an estimated 250,000 members. While they are one of the most well known indigenous groups in the region, - thanks to a strong outside anthropological interest in their way of life - they are also known for fiercely defending and preserving their traditions. Among some of their other customs are the mummification of the dead and the slaughtering of pigs to celebrate success, but Ikipalin, as the practice is known, has to have been one of the more controversial ones. Apparently designed to express grief by physically representing the pain felt over the death, it's also believed to have links to the idea that, if the deceased was a powerful person, their essence would be forever restlessly trapped in the village. Once lobbed off, and the spirit is presumably freed, the fingertip is cremated and the ashes specially stored or buried.

But how do you go about removing the end of a digit in the first place? It’s not exactly something the rest of us are ever likely to try. Traditionally a male relative used a “finger knife” made of stone to make the amputation, then the wound would be cauterised and wrapped with herbs and banana leaf to prevent infection.

There are no anaesthetics here - just a swift knock to the elbow with a stone, and a tourniquet wrapped tightly around the finger for a short period of time prior to the ‘operation’ to make the area go numb. Doesn’t exactly sound pleasant, does it?

Only women have to undergo the procedure and it is not required if the loved one should die of natural causes. It’s not entirely clear why it's the women that bear the burden, but according to Emma Gilberthorpe, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia's School of International Development, who lived in western New Guinea for two years, it wasn't always the way. Writing for The Conversation she explained that "digit/hand amputation was not unusual among men and women across the highland region before missionary intervention", which only happened during the 1900s. 

Thankfully for younger generations, the practice has now been banned by the Indonesian government, and as a result, it tends to be among older women that the evidence of ikipalin can most often be spotted. But at one point, ikipalin was extremely common: “Many Dani women fondle their children with hands that are mostly thumbs,” Armando R. Favazza quotes one observer in his book Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation, Non-suicidal Self-injury, and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry.

Today, as globalisation continues to take over the world, it is almost inevitable that the Dani and other indigenous tribes like them will continue to have their traditions and way of life chipped away, bit by bit. But as sad as that may be, it's probably true that this particular custom is best left in the past - because no matter what your background, grief is hard enough to deal with without recovering from brutal surgery at the same time.