For the people 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 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 ends 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...
It is unclear why the custom applied primarily to women. Some older men in the tribe participated in Ikipalin, but typically it was the women who had bits of their fingers amputated. It applied mostly to older women, but the practice carried all the way down to female babies, who had the tips of their fingers bitten off by their mothers in a similar ritual. This practice likely originated when infant mortality rates were high among the Dani due to various causes. It's possible that mothers were trying to make their babies appear different than those who had died before them, and so undertook this practice in hopes that it would help an infant survive.
Beveled and sharpened stone blades provided the blunt force necessary to break the phalanx and amputate the upper section of a finger. Prior to removing part of the finger, it was tied off at the joint to After removal, the open wound was cauterized to prevent bleeding and to help form a newly callused fingertip.
Those who feel squeamish around sharp objects may elect to remove a piece of finger without any actual cutting. Some people chew at their knuckles to weaken them and then tie a rope around the finger to cut off circulation. Others avoid the chewing part and just tie up their joints to stop the blood flow. In either case, the muscle and nerves die of oxygen deprivation and the deadened finger segment is more easily removed.
When a Dani member has a lot of influence and power in life, the tribe fears he or she will be equally strong in death. To keep restless spirits at bay and to avoid an ancestor's ill will, the Dani provide their amputated finger segments as offerings to appease the spirit of the deceased. After they are removed, the segments are dried and burned and the ashes buried in a special place.