Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 8, 2021

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Ancient ways

Remarkable Indigenous tribes with traditions you've probably never heard of

Huli, Papua New Guinea

In the Tari region of Papua New Guinea, the eastern half the world’s second largest island, it’s the young men that primp their hair all day. The tradition of growing tall wigs to be dyed and decorated with parrot feathers is an important stage in becoming a Huli man. It takes 18 months to grow a wig using you own hair; some are for every day, others for ceremonial use. Holy water is sprinkled three times daily to keep the hair soft; a neck rest with an adjustable wooden bar prevents the horrors of bed head in the morning. All of a man’s headdresses must be created before he’s married. The Huli, with a population of 90,000, consider themselves descendants of one common ancestor Huli, son of Hela, and have lived in their current location, north of Australia, for 1000 years. They fight over land, pigs and women.

Uros, Peru

The Uros of southeastern Peru walk on water every day. Descendants of the first settlers of the Altiplano, an inhospitable high-altitude land of fire and ice that stretches from Peru to Bolivia, the small tribe live on floating islands in Lake Titicaca that they made themselves using buoyant totora reeds. The ground is soft and squishy, and the wet reeds rot at the bottom and have to be constantly replenished from the top, but that hasn’t deterred about 1500 Uros from making a life on the lake near Puno, Peru. The islands that are closer to the shore have become slightly theatrical since tourists began visiting in the 1990s, but what isn’t exaggerated is that these people fled to the water centuries ago. They were discriminated against by the Incas and Spaniards, and with no claims to land, they made their own, and built homes and boats to match.

Himba, Namibia

Remote Kaokoland, in northwestern Namibia, is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in South Africa. Beginning in puberty, Himba girls paint their skin, and braid and coat their hair with a paste of red ochre and butter. Likened to the red of the earth and to blood, the “body butter” has been said to protect their skin from the sun and to repel insects. But the Himba themselves, population 30,000 to 50,000, have reportedly admitted it’s for aesthetics, a traditional makeup that women apply each morning. What’s more, Himba women don’t ever wash with water. A custom that developed during the area’s many droughts when only the men would wash, Himba women use aromatic plants and resins to take daily smoke baths. For a full body cleanse, they cover themselves with a blanket so that they sweat even more.

Kazakhs, Mongolia

The Kazakhs of Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii, the country’s westernmost province on the border of both Russia and China, are avid hunters in winter, but they don’t use anything close to firearms. Wild golden eagles are their weapons of choice, which they capture as babies from nests or as adolescents using a net. Berkutchi, or Kazakh eagle hunters, prefer female eagles; they’re larger and more aggressive than males, and more loyal. Together the pair, saddled on a short stocky Mongolian horse, hunt foxes, rabbits and hares with thick, soft winter fur. Golden eagles have wingspans of two metres and descend on prey at 250 kilometres per hour. They kill quickly by applying up to 700 pounds of pressure with their razor-sharp claws. Each hunter keeps his eagle for 10 years before releasing her back into the wild. There are roughly 100,000 Kazakhs in Mongolia.

Nenets, Russia

The Nenets of Siberia's Arctic, population about 40,000, can confirm that reindeer are real — not just figments of Santa's imaginaton. The nomadic people are reindeer herders complete with handmade sleighs. They live in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug where temperatures can drop to 50°C below. They migrate northwards in summer, back south in winter, covering more than 1500 kilometres over frozen lakes and treeless tundra each year. Their coats and tents are made from reindeer hide threaded together with reindeer sinew. Lassos are crafted from reindeer tendons, tools and sleigh parts from bone. Reindeer meat is eaten raw, frozen or boiled, the fresh blood is rich in vitamins. Rising temperatures and melting permafrost are threatening the Nenets way of life. Herders have been forced to change centuries-old migration routes to ensure that reindeers have snow to walk on. The animals have also been starving because of changes in vegetation.

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Showing 1 comments

  1. On October 31, 2017, Muri B Abdurrahman said:
    Truly fascinating stories. What will hygiene-obsessed 'modern' ladies do if asked to live for a week among the Namibia's Himba tribe where women "don't ever wash with water?" I hope we the tourists don't flock to these places and destroy their way of life, as we often do.

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