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In 1970, while on assignment for National Geographic, I made a brief detour to see the Dani people, who occupy the Baliem Valley high in the Central Highlands of West Papua (the western half of New Guinea island, governed by Indonesia). They live in small fortified family compounds. Both sexes work industriously on their gardens of sweet potato, interlaced with drainage ditches dug by the men. Women raise and look after the pigs, which are a source of both food and prestige. Since a man’s wealth and stature is measured by the number of pigs he owns an ambitious male therefore needs to acquire several wives. During major ceremonies the pigs are slaughtered and their flesh distributed amongst invited neighbors, thereby procuring their allegiance in times of trouble. Traditionally the men engaged in ritual warfare with neighbouring clans, preparing ambushes and hurling spears at one another until one or more members were killed or injured, at which point - not unlike some sporting event - the battle came to a halt and the victors went off to celebrate with song and dance.

The photographs shown here are of a cremation ceremony for a young woman, which I was invited to witness. Whenever a close relative dies her female kin will often have a finger or end joint amputated as a mark of respect. It is not uncommon to see some older women with no fingers at all!


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