Crocodile scarification: An ancient Chambri Initiation

Crocodile scarification is an ancient initiation practised by the Chambri tribe of Papua New Guinea.

The Chambri tribe believe they evolved from the mighty crocodile. Source: Supplied

DEEP within the jungle of Papua New Guinea (PNG), there is an ancient initiation tradition that turns boys not into men, but into crocodiles. The men of the Chambri tribe in the East Sepik province of PNG practise crocodile scarification, an initiation for boys entering manhood during which their skin is cut and scarred to represent the scales of a crocodile.

The Significance of the Crocodile

The crocodile is a significant spiritual and symbolic animal in PNG, and the Chambri tribe believes it descends from the powerful predator. The ancient myth tells the story of how crocodiles migrated from the Sepik River onto land to eventually become humans.

In Papua New Guinea it is thought men evolved from crocodiles. Picture: Nina L. Chang.

In recognition of this ancestral connection, the young men of the tribe are inflicted with hundreds of deep cuts in cascading patterns down their backs, arms, chest and buttocks to give their skin the look and feel of a crocodile’s body.

The Scarring Procedure

The intensely painful scarring procedure involves discipline, focus and dedication. The young initiate first joins his uncle in a spirit house, where he is held down while tribal leaders make hundreds of slices roughly, two centimetres long, into the boy’s skin with a bamboo sliver.

There is no pain relief other than the chewing of the leaf of a medicinal plant, as the young boy must show enough strength to prove he is a man. The Chambri people believe that by suffering immense pain at a young age, they will be better equipped to withstand pain later in their lives.

Photo: David Kirkland

Once the cuts have been made, the boy lies near a fire where smoke is blown into the wounds and clay and tree oil pushed into the cuts to sculpt the scars so that they remain raised when healed.
Then the initiates are adorned in an ornate headdress and jewellery at a big tribal ceremony, where the boys officially become not men, but crocodiles.


6 thoughts on “Crocodile scarification: An ancient Chambri Initiation”

  1. I love your blog, but…

    Even though these people feel this is a “spiritual” ritual and even though I agree that children should be allowed to suffer pain to help them mature, this rite seems, to me, neither spiritual nor humane…


  2. This is some initiation rite! I’ve read of several such rites amongst ancient tribes worldwide, and all are painful. But this one looks very extreme. It’s all understandable, though, when viewed in the light of the tribe’s deep spiritual beliefs. A really interesting post.


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