Accustomed as we are to the global village and social networks full of people broadcasting every aspect of their lives, there are still many people in our wide, wonderful world that you might not know about. These might be undiscovered tribes or people who live among the larger nation but are genetically or culturally distinct. Let’s begin in the southern Pacific ocean, east of Papua New Guinea, lie the Solomon Islands. Much of the Solomon Islands is undeveloped, without roads, electricity or telephones. It’s also one of the most linguistically diverse nations in the world, with dozens of languages spoken, with the most commonly used language being a pidgin of English and Melanesian languages. There had been a short-lived Spanish settlement on the islands, but not much else in the way of outside contact until Britain claimed the islands as a protectorate in 1893. What existed were numerous autonomous clan-based communities often headed by a male leader with assistants. Community and family were, and are, important to Solomon Islanders. The people there have dark skin and 1 in 10 has blond hair and blue eyes. Globally, blond hair is rare, occurring with substantial frequency only in northern Europe and in Oceania, which includes the Solomon Islands and its neighbors. Many assumed the blond hair of Melanesia was the result of gene flow — a trait passed on by European explorers, traders and others who visited in the preceding centuries. The islanders themselves give several possible explanations for its presence – they generally chalked it up to sun exposure, or a diet rich in fish, say the researchers.
Now a genetic study has found that the islanders have a ‘homegrown’ gene that gives them blond hair – and it’s different from the one in Europeans. ‘Its frequency is between 5 and 10 percent across the Solomon Islands, which is about the same as where I’m from,’ said study author Eimear Kenny, PhD, who was born in Ireland. ‘Within a week we had our initial result. It was such a striking signal pointing to a single gene — a result you could hang your hat on. That rarely happens in science,’ said Kenny. ‘It was one of the best experiences of my career.’
The researchers recruited participants and assessed hair and skin color using a light reflectance meter, took blood pressure readings and measured heights and weights. They asked the villagers to spit into small tubes to provide saliva to be used for DNA extraction. In the span of a month they collected more than 1,000 samples. They then selected 43 blond and 42 dark-haired Solomon Islanders from the opposite extremes of the hair pigmentation range.
Because the vast majority of human physical characteristics analyzed to date have many genetic and environmental factors, Kenny expected an inconclusive result that would require much further study. Instead, she immediately saw a single strong signal on chromosome 9, which accounted for 50 percent of the variance in the Solomon Islanders’ hair color. The team went on to identify the gene responsible, TYRP1, which encodes tyrosinase-related protein 1, an enzyme previously recognized as influencing pigmentation in mice and humans. Further research revealed that the particular variant responsible for blond hair in the Solomon Islands is absent in the genomes of Europeans. ‘So the human characteristic of blond hair arose independently in equatorial Oceania. That’s quite unexpected and fascinating,’ Kenny said.
In nearby New Guinea, Yali tribe is most likely the smallest of Papuan nations. I wrote “likely” because may anthropologists are convinced that not all the peoples living in New Guinea have yet been discovered. The Yali were only discovered in 1961 as it is. They make their homes in the highlands, which are the least accessible territories. The Yali tribe are believed to believed to be cannibals and are considered to be pygmies, people who display a widespread even unilateral tendency toward short stature. This is not uncommon in isolated communities. Recessive genes can be redbouled easily in the absence of genetic diversity. Even the Amish in North America have a higher than average occurrence of Ellis-Van Creveld Syndrome dwarfism. Yali men stand less than 150cm/5ft tall on average. Seems like a fine height to me.
Height notwithstanding, the Yali are respected by their enemies. The fear reached such a degree that the Yalis couldn’t travel freely to visit each other. As a result, each valley in which they lived saw their language developed in a different way. The difference was so striking that the Yali tribe members themselves claim that the valleys don’t understand each other. They were feared because they didn’t not only defeat their enemies, they utterly destroyed them. They did not only eat the body, but they allegedly grinded the bones to dust, which was then thrown into the valley. They did all this to prevent the victim from ever returning. People from the neighboring villages were not only killed for revenge, sometimes just for meat, allegedly.
The Papuan mountain Yali tribe members live in round huts build from cut planks and roofs made of pandan leaves. Women and men live separately. Women have their own houses, and men live in community houses (honai). Men wear traditional big “rattan” skirts and kotekas. The skirts are composed of large number of separate approximately 5 mm wide strips of rattan, which are coiled around the body like a tire. These “tires” are connected on several places. The result is a kind of skirt. This skirt covers the body of Yalis from breasts down to knees. The front of this skirt is supported by a koteka, a “penis tube” made of wooden fruit of a bottle plant. Yali women wear traditional small and short skirts made of grass which only cover the genitals, and their breasts are left bare. The skirt consists of four layers. The first layer is given to girls, when they reach approximately four years of age. One layer is added every four years. As soon as the number of layers reaches four, it means that the girl is mature and she can marry.
France is France and Spain is Spain, with a distinct line between them and the people on each side of the line are one or the other, right? Not if you’re Basque. The Basques form a small, stateless nation of three million people, whose seven historical territories cover more than 20,000sq km (8,000sq m) across the French-Spanish border of the Pyrenees mountains. The Basques form a regional culture, dominant in three Spanish provinces and, to a lesser extent, in three French provinces, and present only in parts of a fourth Spanish province, Navarre.
The Basques are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in Europe. They have lived in the same place for more than 2,000 years; some Basque nationalists claim that should read 10,000. They say that they are descendants of Cro-Magnon Man and that they are the only European people who continue to occupy the sites where they originally evolved. Their language, Euskera, bears no clear relationship to any other language in the world and is the oldest living language in Europe. Renowned linguists and historians believe that it can be the direct descendant of the language spoken by the dwellers of the caves of Altamira, Ekain or Lascaux. Currently, Euskera is spoken by 37% of the Basque people, so there are about a million euskaldunak, a Basque word meaning ‘Euskera speakers’.
At least one Basque passion crosses all political boundaries: an obsession with food and drink. The Basque region boasts that they have more Michelin stars per square kilometre than any other country. Tens of thousands of Basque men belong to gastronomic societies, where they cook elaborate meals for each other at least once a week. Women are traditionally excluded as members, though they may enter as guests. The Basques are said to ask themselves three questions every day: Who are we? Where do we come from? And the most important of all: Where are we going for dinner tonight? “
In the far north of Europe, ancient sounds, unique craftwork traditions and a particular language live side by side with modern technology. The Sami people live in four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They are estimated at 80,000 strong, half of whom live in Norway. The Sami language belongs to the Uralic linguistic group along with Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian. Even though the Sami live in Norway, their language isn’t related to Norwegian or other Indo-European languages. And it’s not so much one language as nine, of which three dialect are still in use. The Sami language is used in nine municipalities, two counties and a range of state institutions. The language is official in Norway, but is not accorded the same prominence as Norwegian.
Traditionally, the Norwegian Sami made their living from herding reindeer, and the majority of the region of Northern Norway is still used for raising reindeer. They also supported themselves through fishing, livestock farming and hunting, along the coast, on the fjords and alongside the large rivers farther inland. Today, a large proportion of the Sami people live outside the traditional Sami areas and have moved into the towns of Northern Norway or to the Oslo area. Even more still live in traditional Sami settlement areas, but earn their living in the modern industries.
The Sami culture has many unique forms of expression. Joik, one of the oldest song traditions in Europe, is alive and well. A joik is dedicated to a person, an animal or a place, and the harmonies reproduce the qualities of the object of the song. Traditionally, joiks have no lyrics, or very few. They usually consist of chanting, not unlike that found in some Northern American indigenous cultures, and can also include mimicry of animal sounds. Most people acquire their own melody, like a personal theme song. Because the melody is so closely associated with the person, Sami speak refer to making a joik based on a person’s appearance or personality as of “joiking someone.” It’s bad form to perform your own joik – it is seen as a kind of boasting. Most joik melodies are about people, but also animals and places can have their own joiks, which have been passed down for generations. These older joiks can be about animals that are important in the Sami landscape, such as wolves, reindeer, or birds such as ducks. Joik can be performed for purposes of entertainment, but they can also have a spiritual function. In past times, a noaidi (Sami shaman) could perform joik whilst beating on a Sami drum, to contact the spiritual world. During the Christianization of the Sami from the 1700s on, joiking was condemned as sinful. Nevertheless it is still alive as a means of expression and an important cultural symbol.
A few timezones west in Siberia, reindeer are also herded by the Nenets people. Through a yearly migration of over a thousand kilometres or 600 miles, they move gigantic herds of reindeer from summer pastures in the north to winter pastures just south of the Arctic Circle, an environment where temperatures plummet to -50C and where crossing the world’s fifth largest river as it deep-freezes is just part of the routine. Withstanding those conditions isn’t too surprising from people who’ve withstood early Russian colonisation, to Stalin’s terror regime, to the modern day dangers of a rapacious oil and gas development programme. There are traces of indigenous reindeer economies on the Yamal peninsula that stretch back a thousand years, but it is recent history that shapes the current Nenets way of life. In 1961 the Soviets collectivised reindeer herds and created several large state farms. This is how nomadic herding became part of the soviet economy and how the tundra effectively became an open-air meat factory where the nomads were workers of the soviet agricultural system with fixed contracts and salaries. After the Soviet Union, the private reindeer economy began to thrive and state farms dwindled. Today, 80% of the reindeer are privately owned by the herders with the remaining 20% owned by the current state-farms, most of which today belong to the local government.
The reindeer are raised for meat and for their antlers, which are exported to China as a male potency drug. Reindeer maintains a cultural significance for the Nenets. For example, it is still common that a bride price in the form of reindeer is paid, and a dowry is brought into the young family when a tundra couple marries. It’s believed the original Nenets and the reindeer entered a kind of social contract, where reindeer offered themselves to humans for their subsistence and transport, and humans agree to accompany them on their seasonal migrations and protect them from predators.
The Nenets still rely on traditional clothing sewn by the women. A Nenets man wears a Malitsa which is a coat with hood and glove made of around 4 reindeer skins, with the fur worn on the inside and the leather on the outside. In extreme cold conditions men wear yet another layer of reindeer fur, known as a Gus. Unlike the Malitsa the Gus has leather on the inside and fur on the outside and equipped with these two layers a man can stay outside overnight and sleep with the herd in temperatures down to -50C and below. The women wear a Yagushka which has a double layer of around 8 reindeer skins and which is buttoned at the front. Both men and women wear hip-high reindeer skin boots which consist of an inner and outer boot that are worn together.
The division of labour is essential to the smooth running of the mobile village. As a general rule men and boys run everything connected to grazing, tending, slaughtering etc the reindeer and the female sphere is everything else. Nenets women would think nothing of carrying 8 gal/30 litre water containers or chopping wood in blizzard conditions. Interaction with the village is often a joint activity, where both men and women can go and trade. There is a slight tendency for selling being a male activity and buying being a female activity.
When talking amongst themselves Nenets speak a language that is not related to Russian, but is of the same family as Estonian and Finnish, just like the Sami. There are two main divisions in the language between Forest Nenets and Tundra Nenets with the Tundra Nenets further divided into 11 sub-dialects that are all mutually intelligible, meaning the dialects are so different as to almost be different languages. From the late Stalin period on, all children were put into Soviet boarding schools, where Russian was the primary language and for this reason almost every Nenets person under the age of 50 will speak fluent Russian. The enforced attendance of boarding school came as something of a shock in those early days and families resisted the policy. Today, boarding schools have become part of the usual Nenets life cycle and parents are supportive of the opportunities that education provides, such as the ability to make a choice between living in the tundra or remaining in a town. Although the tundra-Nenets dialect is the main language of the tundra, without fluent Russian, proper contact with the markets would be impossible.
Not nearly as cold as Siberia is Poland, whose Kashubians are a true ethnic minority, distinct from the Poles in both language and culture. Originally western Slavs with ethnic links to the Poles, the Kashubians are believed to have settled in the area around 1,500 years ago. Estimates as to just how many Kashubians and people of Kashubian descent live in Poland today vary wildly. In Poland’s 2011 census a quarter million people declared themselves to be Kashubian but just 16,000 declared Kashubian to be their sole nationality. Many Kashubians even believe themselves to be the last surviving tribe of the ancient Balts. Similarly while 108k people said they spoke Kashubian at home, only 13k declared Kashubian to be their native tongue. In both cases of language and nationality, Kashubians consider themselves Polish and speak Polish. Kashubian enjoys legal protection in Poland as a minority language, is taught in Polish schools, and can be found on some street signs.
One of the things you’ll notice if you visit Kashubia is the proliferation of folk art, both religious and secular. Of the many folk art disciplines, the Kashubians pride themselves on their embroidery. Kashubian embroidery uses just five colours: green representing the forests, red for fire and blood shed defending their homeland, yellow for the sun, black for the earth and shades of blue for the sky, sea, and lakes. Kashubian ceramics are decorated with a number of traditional designs including the Kashubian star, fish scales and local flowers, all embellished with wavy lines and dots. The Kashubians are also great weavers, even managing to weave buckets and jugs from pine roots and straw capable of holding water. Their weaving skills can also be seen on the roofs of the many thatched houses in the region. Wood is also carved into elaborate walking sticks, animal heads and musical instruments, including the extraordinary burczybas, similar to a double bass but in the shape of a barrel with a horse hair tail. A bizarre instrument indeed, a burczybas is played by a total of three musicians. The Kashubians are great snuff takers, making it themselves and giving it to visitors as a sign of joy, good luck and an invitation to meet again. Traditional Kashubian snuffboxes are made from cattle horns that are boiled, flattened, and cut into unique shapes.
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Named for the region between the Himalayas and Karakoram mountains in which they live, the Ladakhi people have lived in the harsh northern Indian desert since the days before Buddhism. The cold climate leave them with a growing season only four month long, leaving them with a lot of indoor time to devote to organizing a lot of festivals and celebrations, involving complex religious chanting, masks, and dresses. There community is divided into Muslim and Buddhist subsets.
The Ladakhi economy has traditionally been based on small farms and on herding, but since the 1970s, tourism and other outside sources of income have also become available. The Ladakhi strongly disapproved of public displays of anger, disharmony, or discontent. They idealized a peaceful, united, harmonious community, free of conflict and anger. Conflict, they felt, is a manifestation of a society that is degenerate—though they recognized the failings in their own community. They use third-party arbiters, whoever is nearby, to settle disputes before things can rise to the level of conflict. If that doesn’t work, the goba, the elected head of the village, who listens to both sides of the case and makes a decision. If the goba can’t resolve a conflict, the matter is passed along to a yulpa, a meeting of the village men. While they may vote, they rarely do so, since they are normally able to reach consensus decisions. Part of their reason for trying to settle disputes locally is their desire to avoid outside interference in village affairs.
Though the husband is usually the dominant partner in the marriage, the couple may easily separate and divorce. In traditional Ladakhi society the oldest son would inherit the house of the parents; younger brothers, in order to gain a share of the inheritance, could also marry the older brother’s wife. Each man was equally responsible for all of the children and jealousy is said to be rare. The practice of polyandry, and management of the household economy, gave a lot of power and satisfaction to the wives. Ladakhis have a long history of harmonious, peaceful inter-faith marriages and good community relations between Buddhists and Muslims. Their traditional society has consisted of extended families, small, interconnected communities, and mutual interdependence. Their contentment and peace of mind do not rest on external circumstances, but rather on their own inner resources and calmness. Because of the harsh mountain environment of Ladakh, helpfulness and cooperation among families is essential for survival. The Ladakhis establish cooperative groups called phasphuns, in which several unrelated families maintain alliances of friendship, cooperation, and helpfulness. If both parents in a family would die, other adults in the phasphun would adopt the young children. If a family separates, the other members of the phasphun make a fair division of the property. In such a tight-knit community, the ultimate form of punishment is ostracism, though it is rarely needed. If the person does not cease the offending behavior, the lamas may stop serving the religious needs of the offender, which is highly demoralizing to the Ladakhis.
South-west of Ladkhi is the land of the formerly-nomadic tribe of the Rabari. Though there are a number many creation stories involving Hindu gods and goddesses, the Rabari may have migrated from the Iranian peninsula millennia ago, making them genetically distinct from other Indians. Today, most of the Rabaris are settled, though some still continue to nomadic, raising cattle, camels and goats. Those who settled down often live in villages or towns with other tribes, but Rabaris can be easily identified by looking at their women, who are usually clad with long black head scarves, copious jewelry, distinctive heavy brass earrings which hang low, stretching the earlobes and tattoos of magical symbols on their necks, breasts and arms. In contrast to the women, Rabari men commonly appears in white dhoti, a sort of pants-skirt cross popular in India, a short vest, and gold earrings. Embroidery is a vital, living and evolving expression of the crafted textile tradition of the Rabaris. Rabari women have done embroidery as an expression of creativity, aesthetics and identity as far as the tribe’s collective memory goes. Rabari embroidery features bold shapes and designs taken from mythology and from their desert surroundings. They also include tiny glass mirrors in a variety of shapes to really make things shine.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. I’ll leave you with the story of a discovered people who could all fit in a soccer van. In 1984, the last nine members of the Pinupti tribe in Australia met white men for the first time. They didn’t know about cars or even clothes. When planes flew overhead, they thought it was the devil and hid under trees. The two sisters and their seven children said they had been separated from the rest of their tribe, but no more Pinputi have ever been found. Thanks for spending part of your day with me and a late Hannukah Semach for my brethren in the tribe.