For centuries, students have been taught about many cultures around the world. Whether it be the Egyptians, the ancient Aztecs, their ruins, or the many Chinese dynasties. Although this knowledge proves beneficial to those wanting to graduate, for some it’s not enough. For most educators, it seems that going beyond the history textbooks is out of the question.
For those who make a career out of travel, crossing the globe can be a fantastic wake-up call. Not only to the glorious landscapes and structures, but to the cultures living their everyday lives. Unfortunately, without the help of these travelers, those like myself have never heard of them. However, throughout this article, we will learn about these cultures and their magnificent history.
The Konyak Tribe, India
Found in the depths of the Mon District of Nagaland in Northern India, the Konyak Tribe is one of the largest remaining communities in that area. Also gathered in the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal, their language comes from the Naga sub-branch of the Sal subfamily of Sino-Tibetan. Among their fascinating characteristics, the Konyak is known most prominently for their many tattoos.
Placed autonomously on hilltops, Konyak villages are typically guarded and sometimes booby-trapped to avoid invasion. Though the need for security has lessened considerably, village members stick to what they know best. However, due to the high elevation ranging from 900 to 1,200 meters, they haven’t been able to stay self-sufficient for very long. Stacking skulls outside their huts, the more heads a village had, the more powerful their reputation was.
Ruled by one king, each member of the village has a strict set of responsibilities for each day. Whether it be hunting, clothes-making, or general upkeep, everyone has something to do. Although the king holds the most respect, they can have up to six “sub kings” depending on the village size. Their job is to take charge of certain village sections and can be recognized by the blue beads worn around their ankle. The more beads worn, the more power that an individual holds.
Additional Konyak Culture and Reputation
Up until 1969, the Konyak had a reputation of being “war-loving head hunters.” In order to establish a reputation of power, members of the tribe would sever the heads of their enemies in battle. For male members specifically, bringing back a head to the village shows their transition to manhood. Like many other cultures, men are considered the head of the household and are responsible for providing necessities for their families.
The women of the tribe have experienced an extreme uplift in reputation over the last few decades. Nowadays, they have quite a high status in the tribe. Able to participate in education, the number of female graduates has gone from a measly 2 to an overwhelming 60. Despite the village’s efforts to respect women, they remain fierce workers for the tribe. Working tirelessly in the fields and at home, they prepare food and weave baskets for their families.
As the 19th century rolled by, the tribe experienced visits from European missionaries preaching Christianity. British colonists made their way to India as well, discouraging the people from cutting off their enemy’s heads. Building churches on their land, many members were generally forced into the religion. In spite of their resistance to colonialism and religion, much of the Konyak tribe practices Christianity to this day.
The Nubian Tribe, Southern Egypt
Living among the ancient Egyptians since 2,000 B.C are the Nubians. Located along the Nile river in southern Egypt, the Nubians were known for having many powerful kingdoms back in the day. It is considered the earliest known African civilization in history. In spite of the fact that Nubian culture can be found in two different countries, much of its history is found in Nubia, Egypt.
Due to their striking nature, Nubian villages aren’t difficult to spot. Consisting of bright colors, each home is entirely made out of mud and clay. Though the patterns seem quite random, they have meaning. Many Nubians paint their homes to tell a story of their ancestry and family, sort of like the Egyptians did with hieroglyphics. Surrounded by a large, decorated wall, villages have been welcoming tourists for quite some time.
Like many small western towns, the villages consist of food vendors and shopping markets. Unlike many minority cultures, the Nubians seem to encourage tourism. Referring to it as a way to spread their culture beyond the clay walls. In spite of their traditions seemingly dying out, many Nubians hold their practices near and dear.
History of Nubian Culture
Though ancient Nubian land was seized long ago, many of their descendants still remain there today. Referring to it as “Old Nubia”, they are divided into many large tribes. Traditionally, the women in Nubian tribes are encouraged to marry someone in their own tribe, as the opposite isn’t amiable. The groom typically is in charge of arranging a home and its contents. Though this tradition is dying out, it is still quite common.
Compared to the others in this piece, the Nubians have developed quite a modern life. Many people work in larger cities, practice Christianity and Islam, and drive cars. However, it seems that their culture remains just as fascinating as it was centuries ago. Their relationship with the Egyptians, striking houses, and works of art will continue to stand the test of time.
The Rungus, Malaysia
Known properly as the Momogun Rungus of Borneo, this ethnic group primarily resides in Sabah in the thick of Malaysia. As a sub-culture of the Dayak, over time the Rungus have developed their own distinct dress, language, and literature. Considered one of the most traditional communities in Malaysia, they hold a great belief in the bounty of food and crops.
Elevated up to five feet above the ground, people reside in longhouses. Different from traditional Native American longhouses, they are built from split bamboo. Many believe this is to keep the area well-ventilated, as it is warm year-round. Though the structure seems quite simple, each family member has access to their own room. According to EcoBusiness, in the past, each house would have up to 75 doors in total. Nowadays, they rarely have more than ten.
Though they have many festivals each year, the most celebrated occasion for the Rungus is called Magahau. Considered an ancient tradition from the Rungus calendar, Magahau signifies the start of the new year. Meaning “festival of thanksgiving”, the people spend days telling legends, singing songs, and wearing fantastic garb. Because many cultures are typically invaded by modernism, many people feel this is the only time they can be their authentic selves.
History of Dress and Customs
Traditionally, the Rungus dress consists of fabrics mainly black in color. To accompany this, brass is worn in rings around the neck, arms, ankles, and fingers. Although these coils and fabrics are quite extravagant, people hold the most importance in their beadwork. Said to tell a story simply based on pattern, these complex works of art have been around since the beginning.
Heated over a flame on a spoon, many beads nowadays are made from glass or plastic, as materials from long ago aren’t as easily available. With various names to distinguish their uses, beads can be found covering individuals from head to toe. They are said to be what distinguishes the Rungus from other cultures in Sabah.
Due to their ancient appreciation for cuisine, the Rungus diet generally consists of vegetables. As a community of farmers and fishermen, the people serve their cooked veggies with rice or cassava, and sometimes with fish. Using various peppers and herbs, people seem to keep quite a clean regimen. However, other additions to their cuisine include Tinonggilan, an alcoholic drink made from maize, and baked flatbreads.
Modernization in Rungus Culture
Though they keep to themselves as much as they can, many of the Rungus have reluctantly caved to modernization for funds. Though many men go to neighboring towns for their jobs, the communities have realized they can receive income another way. In spite of many cultures typically being weary of tourism, this cannot be said for the Rungus. Receiving many visitors each year, Rungus women have the talent to sell their beadwork and weave work for tourists. While making ends meet, individuals have noticed it’s a great way to spread the word about their culture.
The Akha Tribe, Northern Laos
Spanning across southeast China and various parts of Asia, the Akha tribe has been around for many centuries. Associated with the minority group of the Hani by the Chinese government, this group disagrees. Consisting of nearly 400,000 individuals, they consider themselves quite distinct from their neighbors. Interestingly enough, among their various “hill tribes”, it’s rare to find an Akha who’s an actual citizen. Unfortunately, they are registered by the government as “aliens”.
In this day and age, many Akha dwellings range greatly from very traditional to more modern. In spite of the interference of western modernization, many have found they’re able to practice tradition with success. High on the mountaintops, the entrance to Akha village is adorned by a grand wooden gate. Inscribed with carvings of ancient artwork, it is known as a “spirit gate” showing a divide between man and domesticated animals and the outside spirit world.
For centuries, Akha homes have been built from logs, bamboo, and thatched hay. Typically, a single property consists of two types of structures. The first is referred to as “low houses” built on the ground, and the second level is built on stilts called “high houses.” Though they seem flimsy looking, these structures have been known for the last generations.
Additional History and Facts of Akha
One area of life that fascinates many is the relationship between Akha men and women. In a typical home, the area is divided in half for each gender. This includes sleeping and eating quarters. The common area is the only bit shared by both. In everyday life, duties are assigned. Women stitch clothing, fetch water, and work in the fields, while the men hunt and cook.
A celebration that spans the Akha villages is called the Swing Festival. Taking place in late August each year, it signifies 120 days following the planting of rice. For four days, the people sing songs, dance, and “eat bitter rice”. The women find this event most important, as this is their opportunity to show off the clothes they spent months making.
Throughout history, the Akha people have faced fierce rights issues. Because many individuals aren’t legal citizens, many others who inhabit Thailand view them as “less than”. Despite working hard to build their property, the Akha are unable to officially purchase land for themselves. This makes it easy for land seizures by the Taiwanese government. They are moved to other villages, typically less fertile, and their homes are sold to logging mills.
Issues within the Tribal Culture
As if this wasn’t hard enough, these government-regulated villages have also suppressed crops that aid the Akha. The opium crops have been revoked, leading many individuals to turn to addictive narcotics such as heroin. Many women have turned to the sex work industry for “easy money”. Like the Rugus, the Akha have been exposed to tourism over the years. Although hesitant, the people welcome them as a relief from the poverty they face in the village.
The Black Hmong Tribe, China and Vietnam
Located on elevated mountaintops spanning across China, Vietnam, and Thailand, the Black Hmong separate themselves into sixteen clans. Typically associated with the color of dress they wear, each clan is connected by a mythological ancestor. Villages consist of between seven and fifty homes in total, arranged in a horseshoe shape descending the mountaintop.
Unlike the Akha and other lowlanders, the Hmong build their homes flat on the ground. Typically, each home is constructed with timber and bamboo, while in China they use brick and mud. Although they are sheltered by forestry, some wealthier families can afford sound roofs made of zinc. Furnishing in each home is minimal, with stools for eating and bamboo beds for sleeping. A characteristic many homes share is the placement of a simple altar to honor spirits.
Similar to many other farm-based clans, much of the Hmong diet consists of things that grow in the ground. Although the preference for most dishes is white rice, they also add vegetables and herbs to their dishes. Raising pigs, chickens, and cattle meat is also on the menu, but rarely. Lower down the mountains, a diverse range of fruits are grown. The Hmong’s cash crops consist of maize and opium.
Further History of The Hmong Tribe
When it comes to their clothing, the Hmong people are known for their weaving and embroidery. With marvelous colors and patterns, women wear ornate turban-style headdresses. The traditional dress consists of several layers and, on occasion, different coins are set to jingle as they walk. The men wear dark “skull caps” and will carry a dagger hung on their belts. Other methods used to design clothes come from various dyes and wax to create a “cracking pattern”.
As far as beauty standards go, men and women alike used to have massive holes in their earlobes. Nowadays, they are filled with stoppers or wooden disks. Hair is something many individuals lack and it is said how amazed they are at how many foreigners have. Lastly, many in the tribe consider a full row of teeth to be “ugly”. In order to avoid this, they visit their local dentist to have their teeth filed and covered with black tree sap.
What interests many researchers is the Hmong idealism regarding health and healing. In spite of biological factors, they believe that supernatural events determine health. The length of one’s life is predetermined and many believe that severe illnesses are supernaturally caused. Unlike most westernized cultures, the Hmong believe that any extra effort to prolong or save a life is futile. This is why, since 1970, the average lifespan of the Hmong is around 35, with infant mortality reaching 50 percent.
From History to Acknowledgement
Despite there being so many other cultures not discussed in your history book, the ones listed are among the most fascinating (of course, this is up to your own opinion.) Though the involuntary history and culture lessons end after schooling is over, it’s important to keep the mind open to information.
From the Konyak to the Black Hmong, awareness of cultures beyond your own must be discussed. Whether it be the fun facts regarding their traditions or the hardships they face, the good and bad are equally as important!