Ritual Amputations

In 1967, Ackerknecht wrote:

"Amputation of the fingers for ritual reasons is well known to us from South and North American Indians. The custom seems even more widespread in Africa and Oceania. In an excellent survey, Lagercrantz mentions no less than fourteen tribes in black Africa practising ritual finger mutilation. Soderstrom gives almost the same number for Oceania."4

The discovery of "mutilated" human hands outlined in paint on the walls of prehistoric caves in France and Spain suggested, initially, these were paintings of hands with partial amputations of fingers and, surprisingly, thumbs. In the case of the Gargas Cave in France, dated about 25,000 years before the present, 92 hand outlines are readable (Fig. 4.1), and Janssens supposed the missing digital parts had been removed for ritual reasons,5 as indeed was known to take place more recently, excepting the thumb, very rarely involved in known ritual amputation. By contrast, Janssens noted that Van den Broeck considered the Gargas representations were a form of signature or "visiting card."A further study by Leroi-Gourhan suggested the positions of the absent digits corresponded to the most easily flexed finger positions and, hence, the imprints could have been painted from normal hands in various attitudes, acting as a stencil for outline painting. As additional explanation, it was suggested the digital outlines represented hunting signs or a similar code.6 A later study by Hooper in 1980 concluded the images were of actual mutilations.5

Whatever the explanation of these paintings, ritual finger amputation has been confirmed in a number of societies and, indeed, still occurs in 2005 (see following), and was recorded in 1961 by cine-film among the Dugum Dani tribe, New Guinea, the amputations taking place to express family grief and to placate the ghost of a tribesman killed in battle. The sacrificial victims were little girls, linked to the dead man by blood, who had one or two lesser fingers amputated with a stone adze, without anaesthesia other than a

Fig. 4.1. Reproductions of the commonest hand prints showing apparent deformity, in the Gargas cave, c. 30,000 b.p. (From Ref. 5. Copyright the Trustee, The Wellcome Trust, reproduced with permission.)

hard rap on the elbow which may have contused the ulnar nerve to numb the little and ring fingers. The stumps were dressed with ashes and clay, wrapped in leaves and the girls held their hands vertically with clumps of grass at their elbows to soak up oozing blood (Fig. 4.2). Some Dani women were seen to have had all their fingers amputated at the proximal joints and yet remained quite dexterous.7

In similar fashion, several American Indian tribes in northwest Canada sacrifice fingers after serial family deaths in anticipation of halting the mortality. Sollas wrote:

"... when death is too assiduous in his visits to a family: the survivors... place the little finger on the edge of the coffin and sacrifice the first joint, in order, as they say, 'to cut off the deaths'."8

Among Pygmies, finger amputations are performed as a sign of mourning or a means of securing a peaceful death later, and among Hottentots the ring finger is sacrificed to avert serious illness.9

An extraordinary sacrifice of a thumb, chronicled in an ancient Hindu legend of the epic battle of Mahabharata, concerned Prince Ekalavya of the lower Hunter's Caste, an expert archer instructed by Drona, a veteran of fighting techniques. When Drona demanded his teaching fee, he said callously: "O Ekalavya, if thou art really intent on making me a gift, I should like then to have the thumb of thy right hand." Having promised there was nothing he would not give his teacher and despite the cruel demand, Ekalavya cut off his thumb and gave it to Drona. On resuming archery, his former lightness of hand and accuracy had vanished. Since then, the archers of the tribes of Bhils have made a ritual incision on the right thumb and drawn their bowstrings with their

Yubitsume Right Hand Fingers

Fig. 4.1. Reproductions of the commonest hand prints showing apparent deformity, in the Gargas cave, c. 30,000 b.p. (From Ref. 5. Copyright the Trustee, The Wellcome Trust, reproduced with permission.)

Dani Indians Amputation

Fig. 4.2. Girls of the Dugum Dani tribe, New Guinea, 1961, immediately after ritual amputations of their little fingers, dressed with ashes and clay, and bandaged; they soak up blood as it trickles down their forearms, with handfuls of grass. (From Majno G. The Healing Hand. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975:20-23.7 Copyright Peabody Museum Harvard University.)

Fig. 4.2. Girls of the Dugum Dani tribe, New Guinea, 1961, immediately after ritual amputations of their little fingers, dressed with ashes and clay, and bandaged; they soak up blood as it trickles down their forearms, with handfuls of grass. (From Majno G. The Healing Hand. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975:20-23.7 Copyright Peabody Museum Harvard University.)

index and middle finger knuckles.10 Also in India, Janssens reported:

"In the course of consecration rites among the Indians of the Mandan tribe, the first and fourth fingers of the left hand are amputated; the motive for this unknown." And: "In the hope of ridding himself of an enemy, an Indian would cut off three fingers of his left hand." And also: "In India there is a tribe called the Berula Kodo, or 'finger cutters'. Every three years, during a religious ceremony, they cut off the second and third fingers of some of their women; the reason is not known. Sometimes this mutilation is performed for practical reasons, as where certain tribes of native fishermen remove the fourth fingers of their women to facilitate their task in making nets."9

Rogers, who considered limb amputation a rarity in non-westernised Africa, nevertheless noted ritual finger amputation among Bushmen as a symbol of mourning. He stated:

"Hottentots occasionally amputate a finger by first tying the finger with sinew above the joint and then cut through the flesh and ligaments with a knife. A Hottentot widow who marries a second time must have the distal joint of her little finger amputated. Another joint is removed each time she marries."11

Rogers also recorded:

"The Assiniboin and Crows of North America have often amputated fingers as a form of mourning sacrifice. This is done with a sharp knife or with a tomahawk which was struck after the finger was placed on a block. Usually the first and second joints are sacrificed but with men the thumb and middle finger on the left hand and the thumb and two forefingers of the right hand are preserved for the use of bow or rifle. Young Sioux warriors cut off the little fingers of the left hands after the Sun Dance ritual."12

Such ritual amputations continue, even in sophisticated societies such as Japan where a South Korean doctor was arrested, in 2005, for aiding and abetting a self-inflicted finger amputation by administering a local anaesthetic to a businessman, witnessing the amputation performed with a hammer and chisel, placing the digit in a bottle of formaldehyde which he gave to its former owner and then invoicing the medical costs to the Japanese health system. It was explained that the businessman was bankrupt and indebted to a gangster of the Japanese mafia or "yakuza" for which the ancient punishment was "yubitsume" or finger-cutting, self-inflicted by the offender to demonstrate his sincerity and tolerance of pain, and, it can be supposed, to identify and expose the offender permanently in society and before his fellows for breaking their rules. "Yakuza" organisations have their origin in medieval guilds of gamblers and pedlars and regard themselves as heirs to the ethics of the "samurai." Bungling and incompetent "yakuza" sometimes end up amputating more than one fingertip or even most of a finger (Fig. 4.3).13

A frankly criminal self-amputation was reported in 2005 concerning a Dutch dentist who chopped off a finger and faked a car crash to make a claim from insurers equivalent to £1.2 million. No particular finger is mentioned in a brief news item but perhaps he weakened his extraction grip? He was heavily fined and given a suspended jail sentence.14 Another bizarre and doubtless more-ancient method of extracting money is noted by Gillis, who wrote:

"Cases have been reported in the East, where itinerant beggars, in order to arouse sympathy, have, by a process

Amputated Finger
Fig. 4.3. A member of the Japanese mafia or "yakuza" drinking with the left hand, to demonstrate self-amputated fingers, known as "yubitsume," for offending the mafia code. (From London Times, July 13, 2005.13 Copyright Bruce Gilden / Magnum Photos.)

of gradually tightened cords, severed one or both of their feet. These interesting articles were then tied by string around their necks and used as an additional incentive to extricate charity from passers-by. Two such mummified feet are on view in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. They were purchased from a footless Chinese beggar and sent to the Museum."15

Unfortunately, these specimens cannot be traced and are considered victims of the College bombing in 1941. Another approach was taken by an elderly South Korean woman and her son, who severed their little fingers as a means of political protest over a disputed barren, rocky islet lying between Japan and South Korea, without resources itself but important for defining a 200-mile economic zone with fishing rights and potential geological riches. The demonstrations took place in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul where the mother used a meat cleaver and her son a pair of secateurs. Such transverse guillotine amputations would heal poorly unless receiving surgical reamputation to promote acceptable healing and comfortable stumps; there is no comment on the after-care of these bizarre auto-amputations.16

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