Tribes in the East Sepik province of Papua New Guinea to this day still practice an ancient initiation ceremony. A way of testing and introducing adolescents into manhood, the ceremony is a strenuous and painful process that leaves the men’s skin scarred all over; the effect resembling the crocodile’s scales. Many boys have died from infection or gone into extreme shock from undergoing this coming of age ritual.
The meaning behind this ceremony has deeply spiritual and symbolic connotations. The tribe’s people believe that the scars are from crocodile’s teeth that have swallowed the adolescents and morphed them into ‘crocodile men’. The event culminates as the tribe’s celebration of the return of the ancestral crocodiles. Legend has it, that when they migrated through the Sepik River, the crocodiles established a human population. The ritual also bleeds the men of their maternal blood, or the blood of their mothers.
As well as a celebration, the ceremony is very important in establishing discipline and testing the strength of the young males. Their backs, buttocks, and chests all receive multiple lacerations with bamboo sticks (in the modern day they now use razor blades), creating scars that when healed form uloids (sharply elevated and often round or oval scars due to the rich production of collagen in the dermal layer). After the skin is cut the initiates rest in the Spirit House or Man House, a hut which only men and the initiates after receiving the cuts can enter. Their backs are exposed to smoke to irritate the skin which helps to produce the desired scarification, and their cuts are also treated with tree oils applied with a feather. Clay and ashes are packed into the scars to help them get the desired raised affect. Their only pain reliever in this entire process is a wild ginger root that they chew on that acts as a sort of mild alcoholic drink. The cuts take several hours and the healing process can last several weeks or months depending on infection.
In addition to the cuttings, the boys are also ritualistically humiliated in front of the tribe. They are referred to as “wives” until they complete the ritual. The elder males of the tribe play a sort of leap-frog with them in which they rub their genitals on their heads as they hop over them. Before and after the cuts they are whipped with reads. No matter how old you are, you are not considered a man in the tribe until you undergo the ritual.
Papua New Guinea is the second largest island in the world. Although it is roughly the size of California, it is one of the most rural countries on the planet and only eighteen percent of its six million inhabitants live in urban areas. Incredibly, over 800 indigenous languages are spoken in Papua; a statistic that accounts for 1/5 of the world’s total.