Earning adulthood: Coming of age around the world

Happy Birthday. What have you got planned?

Quiet evening down the pub with mates? Clubbing? Festival? Dinner party?

There are 1.8 billion young people currently approaching adulthood – that’s a quarter of the human population. The all-important transition is celebrated by markedly different rites around the world.

Americans have their “Sweet 16” parties, perhaps ending up with the keys to their first car (or, maybe, if they’re really lucky, their first semi-automatic). Jewish kids have Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. Some Muslims recite their knowledge of the Koran during Khatam Al Koran. Christians have their Confirmation present bonanza.

Elsewhere around the globe, it can be more of a challenge.

Leap of faith: Vanuatu boys

For the boys of Vanuatu, a small island nation in the middle of the South Pacific, the leap is literal. Beginning at the tender, perhaps fearless age of 7, they start throwing themselves off bamboo towers. They’re attached only by vines – yes, vines – tied to their ankles.

Sounds like fun, right? Bungee jumping? No. The catch, one of several, is the vines don’t stretch. The closer to the ground, you get the braver you are. The slightest cock-up in vine length can – and often does – lead to broken bones, concussions, or deaths.

If you survive your first attempt, the tradition continues into adulthood, and the tower gets higher. Up to 30 meters (90 feet) higher. It impresses the ladies – though maybe not Queen Liz, who, on a visit in 1978, was treated to a young man braining himself at her feet. It also, allegedly, ensures a good harvest. No pressure, then.

The Vanuatu Attorney General is petitioning bungee operators for copyright contributions.

Ethiopian Hamar tribe

Bull bait: Ethiopian Hamar tribe

Ancient Minoans enjoyed bull-leaping – that is, using bull horns as leverage for acrobatic stunts during religious festivals. The modern-day Ethiopian Hamar tribe does much the same to demonstrate a man’s fitness for marriage.

Goaded on by the women of the tribe, the adolescent men run must naked across the backs of a row of cows four times, without falling. This marks the end of their childhood, after which they’re allowed to take a wife. Easy.

Trippy: Canadian Algonquin Indians

To transition into adulthood, the Canadian Algonquin Indians are taken to a secluded area to imbibe a plant mixture called wysoccan (derived from Jimson Weed): a powerful hallucinogen intended to remove memories of childhood. Doesn’t seem like a big deal? They take it over a period of 20 days. Yep. Twenty.

As well as suppressing memory and creating vivid hallucinations, it’s potentially lethal. Some practitioners forget who they are or how to speak. Like a night out in Dagenham. Simply surviving mentally intact is as much test of strength as rite of passage.

The Maasai tribe

Lion heart: Maasai boys

In the past,14-year-old Maasai boys in Kenya and Tanzania had to leave the community, alone. Armed with only a spear and shield, they had to hunt and kill a healthy adult male lion. Darwinism in action: If you weren’t fit enough, you were dinner.

Their subsequent circumcision was a walk in the park.

Those that made it back were called ilmeluaya, or “fearless warriors.” Quite.

Downriver: Amazonian Matis

The Amazonian Matis, expert jungle hunters, practice coming-of-age rituals as harsh as their environment. This includes having bitter plant sap dripped into their eyes, getting whipped with rattan sticks, being injected with frog poison called kampo (also a strong laxative, to cap it all), and being slapped about with stinging poces leaves. These ordeals test their strength and courage, and must be endured to prove fitness and strength.

Interestingly, peptides contained in the frog poison contain antibacterial properties that protect against several illnesses, so maybe it serves a healthy purpose too.

The Amazonian Satere-Mawe tribe

Shot in the arm: Satere-Mawe tribe

Then, in the Brazilian Amazon, there’s the Satere-Mawe tribe’s Bullet Ant Initiation. They search the jungle for Bullet Ants – guess why they’re so named? – and sedate them with herbs. The ants are then woven into gloves with their stingers pointed inwards, and the boys put the gloves on.

An hour or so later the ants wake up, really pissed off, and sting the bejesus out of the boys. It’s the most painful sting of any invertebrate on earth: each feels like being shot. To cap it off, the venom, a neurotoxin that cannot actually kill you, has evolved to prevent the body from releasing natural painkillers. Great.

Each boy will eventually wear the gloves 20 times over several months before the initiation is complete. Each session induces visions and renders them shaking uncontrollably for days.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

After all that, today’s measly rites in the west seem rather tame.

Twenty-one shots of tequila on your 21st, as is common in the States? No sweat. Perhaps a GAP year dagging sheep in the Australian outback should be mandatory? Get ‘em off their screens at least. And we’ve all run into kids who’d benefit from the Plains Indian Sun Dance ritual: hooked through their pecs and hung from a tree.

Enjoy your hangover responsibly.


  1. Andy Petherick Reply

    Makes my 18th look pretty tame! Great work Baker (or Bacon as you will be forever known by my kids!) xx

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