• History

Why And How Peoples Of The Dani Tribe Cut Off Fingers As A Way Of Mourning

For peoples of the Dani tribe, finger cutting, or Ikipalin, was a typical mourning practice. Located in a remote area of Papua, New Guinea, that is only accessible by plane, the Dani had their own unique way of dealing with and expressing grief. As a physical way to manifest the emotional pain of losing a loved one, the Dani removed a portion of a finger when someone close to them died. The custom was primarily followed by women, but older men sometimes participated as well. Although the practice was declared illegal and is no longer practiced by the Dani, evidence of the custom can be seen on older women from the tribe, many of whom are missing multiple portions of their fingers. The more loss a woman experienced, the more she lost of herself. 

Why did the Dani cut their fingers? What purpose did it serve? Scroll down to learn more about this intriguing custom.

  • Sometimes, A Finger Was Not Enough

    Photo: Stefan Winkler / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Sometimes, people worried that losing a finger didn't convey their full sense of grief.

    On those rare occasions, mourners elected to remove an ear or to cover themselves in river sludge and go for weeks without bathing. 

  • People Collected The Ashes Of Their Severed Fingers

    Photo: Corporate Video Australia / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    After a finger was amputated, it was placed in the funeral fire to burn. The ashes were then saved much like a person's ashes after cremation.

    Sometimes, the ashes were buried, but they were usually stored in the amputee's home to ward off the powerful spirits of those who have passed.

  • Fingers Symbolized A Small Piece Of A Larger Whole

    Although the tradition might seem extreme to many, the Dani have a philosophy: "each finger of the hand is related to life, universe, and each other." The fingers of one's hand are distinct and unique, but they all must work together to reach a goal, like picking something up. Like people in a community, if one of the fingers is hurt, it will reduce the potential of all others. 

    This philosophy explains their willingness to sacrifice their fingers: their physical loss is a link to the universe and family and friends who have gone before them.

  • Older Women Suffered The Greatest Loss

    Every time that a woman in the Dani tribe lost a loved one in her life, it represented another occasion to remove a segment of one of her fingers.

    The excessive loss of loved ones experienced by many older Dani women can be observed by looking at her diminished hands.