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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sepik River Scarification

An example of the healed scars, by the amazing Rita Willaert.

Among the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea, boys as young as eleven years of age are given scars all over their torso that resemble the scales of a crocodile. The process involves making small cuts, and then deliberately infecting them with ash from plants to form a keloid scar (A type of thick, raised scar tissue). The process comes after months of spiritual seclusion, and is both very painful and sometimes fatal.

It happens in a place called the Spirit House, where initiates are taught family and tribal history during their painful ordeal. The ritual is expensive, and sometimes families will pool money saved for many years to put a boy through the initiation. The cost covers the food during the months of seclusion, and pays the cutter and helps support the Spirit House.

During their time in the Spirit House, initiates are secluded, and endure more than just painful cuts. Males from the tribe will taunt them, throw food at them, and even force them to dance through the night so they are exhausted and deprived of sleep. The initiates can only sit on the ground, must face the wall when eating, and are fed a special diet. The process is thought to make the young men stronger, and to rid them of residual femininity.

But why crocodiles?

A legend among the Chambri people tells of a crocodile spirit known as Nashut who taught one of their ancestors everything they needed to

Chambri men with their healed scars. Photo from Nina Chang.

know about agriculture, headhunting and warfare. Nashut also said that if the men of the Sepik river took on the marks of the crocodile, they would inherit its power. It was crocodile spirit Nahut who first taught the Chambri people’s ancestors how to build the Spirit Houses.

The Spirit Houses themselves are complex constructions and are the center of the village. Since the Chambri and other Kaningara tribes are traditionally headhunters, the Spirit House is built on a foundation that contains at least two heads taken from enemy tribes. Often inside the Spirit House the walls will be decorated with shelves containing skulls from both enemies and famous ancestors, sometimes with their faces rebuilt in clay.

The centerpiece of the Spirit House is supported by a large “housepost” that is carved from the trunk of a tree and may weigh more than a ton. The housepost depicts a particular spirit, the patron of that tribe, and is invariably male, and often includes an erect penis.

The process of cutting and seclusion has changed over the centuries. Prior to the 20th century, the period of seclusion may have been more than 2 years, it was later shortened to several months as times and tribal needs have changed.

Much has been written about gender inequality among the Chambri and neighboring Kaningara tribes, and it’s true that women are prohibited from the scarification themselves, and are also not allowed to enter the Spirit House or touch any object that is imbued with spirits. This stems from a belief that women were once dominant over men, and according to legend men stole the Spirit House back from women, and gained the ability to ‘make’ new men themselves.

Here's an amazing shot of a Spirit House in Palembei Village by Nina Chang.

It’s this idea of making new men that is the center of the crocodile scarring ritual. While the boy’s uncles on both his mother’s and father’s side of the family will whisper lessons on manhood and geneology and tribal history, the boy’s maternal uncle is the one who does the actual cutting. It’s believed that the blood shed is the boy’s mother’s blood. When the mother’s blood is removed, it is replaced by the crocodile spirit and only a man’s blood is left.

And so a new man has been made, or reborn.

With time, the scarification rituals of the Chambri and neighboring tribes are dying out. People are leaving the villages to get modern jobs, and meanwhile at home the scars have become a tourist attraction. Today, it’s no longer required that young men go through the rituals to become a man, and many are instead encouraged to seek out education.



I couldn't have gotten the great images for this blog without the help of Rita Willaert and Nina Chang. They both have lots and lots of incredible images of Sepik River people and their scars and villages. If you're interested in seeing more, I definitely encourage you to check them out.