In the Western world, the concept of “cutting” has become somewhat of an epidemic. Depression sufferers sometimes cut themselves to transform their mental pain into something physical.
Not only can physical pain serve as a visual marker, but it will also heal in time. For some, this self-destructive act seems like the only way to step away from emotional pain, which can be difficult to overcome.
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.
The Dani people used this same concept to explain finger cutting.
Physical pain was an important part of expressing the emotional pain of grief. Although their wound would eventually heal, they would always show the scars from their 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.
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 herself. Why did the Dani cut their fingers? What purpose did it serve?
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 restrict circulation, thereby numbing it so removal was less painful.
After removal, the open wound was cauterized to prevent bleeding and to help form a newly callused fingertip.
Those who were opposed to sharp objects could elect to remove a piece of a finger without any actual cutting. Some people chewed at their knuckles to weaken them and then tied a rope around the finger to cut off circulation.
Others avoided the chewing part and just tied up their joints to stop the blood flow. In either case, the muscle and nerves died from oxygen deprivation and the deadened finger segment was more easily (and less painfully) removed.
When a Dani member had a lot of influence and power in life, the tribe feared they would be equally strong in death. To keep restless spirits at bay and to avoid an ancestor’s ill will, the Dani provided their amputated finger segments as offerings to appease the spirit of the deceased.
After they were removed, the segments were dried and burned and the ashes buried in a special place. 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.