dani, indonesia

There’s lots of photography and literature around on primitive tribes that seem relatively unchanged from time immemorial. An aspect of these peoples that seems pretty ubiquitous is complex ritual. Appearance seems always altered by tattoos, body modification, elaborate headdress, scarification, body and face paint, massive jewellery, and mutilation, such as pulling out teeth or amputating fingers in mourning for dead relatives. In one article I read on the Dani in Indonesia, the main elder seems to have kept a mummy in the attic of his shack — a dried corpse of a previous chief. All of this stuff, it seems to me, would be hard to read in just bones and artifacts. And I imagine that intangible aspects of ritual — taboos, ritual, mores, beliefs, would be even harder to read from 35,000 years later. So, very hard to read these people, and, I’m thinking, we wouldn’t relate to a lot of their world view. If you google the Dani people of Indonesia, you might feel that these are people you and I wouldn’t enjoy spending a lot of time with. Not your Pocahontas or Minnehaha story. HOWEVER! Bizarre ritual, if we had enough evidence of it to put it up as god’s truth, fictional narrative style, could be used to great effect to confuse, move, frustrate, fascinate, an audience. There could be a repeated sort of pageantry that appears very purposeful: dance, chants, fire, apparently torture, sacrifice, etc.; and the audience is led to expect something to materialize as a result. But nothing does. The ritual is just … ritual. Done for its own sake. The audience knows no more than do the practitioners, why they are arranging stones a certain way, sacrificing somebody a certain way, screaming at the sunrise, etc. These mysterious practices add … mystery. I mean, not all prayers that have been chanted in large cathedrals throughout history have resulted in immediate action by God.

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