If you have to chop off part of your body, the finger is a good choice. It’s easy, you have nine spares, and you probably won’t bleed to death like you would if you chopped off a foot or an arm. People have been amputating their own fingers for the past 20,000 years, and in some parts of the world, it is still a common practice.
The Dugum Dani people of New Guinea sacrifice the fingers of young girls when family members die. The ghosts of dead warriors are thought to terrorize the town if they aren’t given a sufficient number of little girl fingers. Ghost kings are especially bad news, so in the past, every girl in the tribe contributed a finger when the king died. Some older Dani women have only their thumbs remaining.
This might sound painful, but the Dani came up with a creative anesthetic solution. They knew that hitting the “funny bone” would stun the ulnar nerve, which controls sensation in your ring and pinkie fingers, resulting in numbness. Prior to amputation, the Dani take a rock and smack a girl’s ulnar nerve as hard as they can. While the girl is distracted and numb, they chop off a finger with a stone adze. Dani funerals are much more exciting than Western ones.
In West Africa, if a man dies without bearing children, some tribes cut off one of his pinkies and shove it into his rectum. The spirit is supposedly so embarrassed by this disembodied finger suppository that it reincarnates as a fertile woman when it returns from the spirit world.
This ensures that the tribe will have sufficient childbearing women to sustain future generations. Presumably, it also provides an incentive for men to do their best to procreate while alive. Knowing that your relatives will soon be messing around with your butt seems like it would put a damper on even the most peaceful deathbed exits. This ritual is less traumatic than that of the Dugum Dani, as being dead is a rather effective anesthetic, but it must be pretty uncomfortable for the person who has to deposit the finger inside the corpse.
As a sign of devotion to their profession, Aboriginal fishing women tie coarse spiderwebs around their pinkies until the the upper joints die from blood loss and fall off. After the finger dies from the spiderweb tourniquet, the woman rows out to sea and throws the finger into the ocean to be eaten by fish.
The Aborigines believe there is a magical link between the eaten finger and the hand it came from. The finger wants to get back to the hand, but it’s inside the fish, so it brings the fish with it. This magic was thought to be powerful enough to impart fish magnetism on fishing lines made by pinkie-less women. The women who have sacrificed their fingers for their trade are held in high regard, and the finger stump is a symbol of social standing.
The Shambaa are an indigenous group residing in the Usambara Mountains of northeastern Tanzania. In the past, Shambaa mothers with vision-impaired children chopped off one of the afflicted child’s fingers and dripped the blood from the severed finger into the child’s eyes. The administration of blood to the eye was thought to improve vision and cure a multitude of eye problems.
That isn’t the only interesting eye medicine practiced by the ethnic Tanzanians. The Shambaa also know of a plant that supposedly cures blindness. They believe the plant loses its power if it’s touched by human hands, so healers gather it using only their mouths and then spit it into a cloth to be squeezed into the eyes of the afflicted.
The Japanese Yakuza is one of the largest, oldest, and most feared criminal organizations in the world. When a Yakuza member makes a mistake, he apologizes by cutting off one of his fingers at the joint, wrapping it in silk, and handing it to his boss. Larger mistakes require additional finger joints, which can be taken from higher up on the same finger or different fingers.
This practice is known as yubitsume. It allows Yakuza bosses to judge someone’s trustworthiness at a glance. Apparently, trustworthiness is in short supply among the Yakuza—approximately 42 percent of Yakuza are missing at least one finger joint. Even gambling debts can be paid with fingers.
This tradition may have its basis in feudal Japan, when cutting off a little finger made it difficult to handle a weapon, forcing the victim to become more reliant upon his feudal overlords. Readers should note that giving finger joints as apologies may not work outside the context of a criminal organization and that it is considered very rude in some cultures to distribute finger joints taken from someone else.
5Preventing Infant Mortality
The Ashanti tribe of Ghana believes in a ghost world that parallels the physical world. When a baby is born, it is impossible to tell if the baby is a human or a ghost. If the baby survives eight days, it is probably a human. If it dies, then it is definitely a wandering ghost, sent from the spirit world by a ghost mother to terrorize the living. The dead baby’s fingers are cut off, the body is disfigured, and the corpse is buried among the village’s trash. The family of the baby pretends to be very happy about the death to dissuade the ghost mother from sending more ghost children.
The BaBoyes people also believe infant deaths are caused by evil spirits. After one of these spirits kills a child, it is said to remain at the burial site of the child and continue killing infants. To keep the spirit at bay, parents chop a finger from the hand of each subsequent child. These fingers are buried in the grave of the first infant so the spirit can eat the delicious baby fingers and not hunger for the rest of the children.
Speaking of delicious fingers, a number of people have eaten their own digits in experiments with auto-cannibalism. After one man’s finger was irreversibly mangled in a car accident and amputated, he asked to keep it. He took it home, boiled it with salt, and ate it.
Another man became obsessed with cannibalism, so he decided to chop off his fingers and cook them. After cooking one finger, he planned to chop off the rest and cook them as well, but he came to his senses and went to the hospital instead. Some criticized his actions, but since he only ate his own fingers, no crime had been committed.
A Serbian man named Zoran Bulatovic ripped his finger off with a hacksaw and ate it to protest his inability to buy food due to the Serbian government’s refusal to pay its textile workers. He commented, quite predictably, that “it hurt like hell.”
In the Western world, engaged couples ornament each other’s fingers with overpriced rocks to symbolize their emotional investment via financial investment and demonstrate devotion so strong that even exploiting child labor is no matter. But wedding rings can be lost, stolen, or pawned to finance a freelance writer’s crippling addiction to Cheetos. Finger amputations, on the other hand, are forever.
The Khoikhoi cut off the fingers of engaged couples as a sign of their eternal commitment. If one spouse dies, the other can remarry, but the living spouse must chop off another finger to release the dead spouse’s spiritual bonds. Understandably, divorce is rare among the Khoikhoi.
Protesters go to great lengths to demonstrate their seriousness, and finger amputation is certainly one way to get the point across. One imprisoned Australian serial killer sliced off his finger and tried to mail it to the Australian High Court to protest jail conditions. The corrective services commissioner was not impressed, remarking, “He probably couldn’t count to 10, anyway.”
In South Korea, a mother and her son were so upset by a dispute over a tiny rocky outcrop between Korea and Japan that they cut off their fingers in public. In another incident, 20 South Koreans publicly amputated their fingers to protest Japanese politicians who visited war memorials commemorating Japanese World War II soldiers. One Chinese artist chopped off his fingers in Tiananmen Square to protest the Chinese government. He then buried the fingers in a porcelain flowerpot.
This practice has even made its way to America, where a pro-gun activist and city councilman cut off his trigger finger and convinced a friend to deliver it to state legislators while they debated a gun control bill. The legislators were not persuaded by his argument.
Some members of the South African Xhosa tribe engage in ingqithi, the ritual sacrifice of the little finger to appease the wrath of ancestor spirits. The Xhosa believe this sacrifice is necessary to prevent bed-wetting and ensure good health. Before the surgery, the healers bind and blindfold the child before chopping off his pinkie or ring finger, after which the bleeding is stopped with dirt from a mole hill and the wound is rubbed with fresh cow dung.
Ingqithi is still practiced today, and its practitioners caution against judging the ritual without first understanding Xhosa culture. After all, many Westerners have paid people to shove blades through their ears, eyebrows, or nipples so they can place ornamental pieces of metal through the resulting holes, and lots of us will be performing ritualistic symbolic cannibalism in church this Sunday. When we call something bizarre, it’s all about perspective.
Jake Klink is a cellist. Sometimes, he writes for money.