In the remote mountains of southern New Guinea, there remain primitive tribes who have liittle contact with the outside world; who are still surviving as hunter-gatherers and engaging in the same rites and tradtions as their ancestors did for hundreds of years.
One such tribe is the Etoro, famous, or rather infamous, for their ritual practice of homosexuality. They are an extradordinary people with extraordinary beliefs that are as far away from Western concepts of science, reason and social sensibility as you can get.
The Etoro are an isolated tribe of around four hundred and are known chiefly for the highly unusual homosexual practices that occur between the men and boys of the tribe.
The Passing of Knowledge
Etoro tribespeople believe that in order to become a powerful adult male, young boys must drink of the semen of their elders in a kind of 'transferance' of knowledge and power. The tribe maintains that semen contains a vital force and can only be passed on via oral insemination. In a highly structured social cycle , young boys of the tribe are assigned a partner - a young adult man - and as the boy develops through adolescence, various partners are exchanged until the boys, in turn, become inseminators themselves. Gratuitous homesexual relations between non-partners are frowned upon.
The tribe has other complex soclal imperatives that are interwoven with the primary belief in a vital force. If possible, the older partner must marry the younger sister of his boy-partner, if not he must marry another relative of the boy, in order to reinforce the male partnership bonds. Although all Etoro men are required to marry, it's delayed for as long as possible and within the tribe women are accorded a very low status, with her role as wife and mother given ittle regard. While homosexuality may be practiced at any time throughout the year, heterosexual sex is only allowed for one hundred days a year and if a woman fails to get pregnant, then she is accused of wasting the vital force. In addition, a woman who is perceived to enjoy sex too much is labelled a 'witch' and accused of trying steal the force from her male partner.
There are other strange and quirky beliefs too - all related to the ubiquitous vital force which seems to hold the key to the tribes social structure and is the corner-stone of the Etoro's value system and behavior. For example, a boy who grows too quickly is accused of sucking the life force out of other boys. the tribe also believes that too much heterosexual sex will cause an early death while homosexual behaviour will delay it.
A Clash of Culture
Most Westerners of course, would be horrified by such practices, not least because the sexual innocence of childhood is highly regarded in our culture and any hint of exploitation is, rightly, abhored. Nor of course, is there any scientific validity to the Etoro's belief; rather it's a conviction that is based in ignorance and superstition.
Yet, it is what they believe. Could it be some sort of convenient, perhaps unconscious, societal rationalization in order to legitimize the practice homosexual pedophilia? That opinion of course comes from a Western perspective, with a different set of cultural beliefs and practices. The Etoro would not be the first society to practice homosexuality with minors; some scholars suggest, that in ancient Athens, for example, it was an integral part of the social fabric.
However the Etoro's practices are so systematically organized and widely practiced that it has become an inescapable social compulsion.
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Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology, 12th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
Kelly, Raymond, Witchcraft and Sexual Relations, In P. Brown, and G. Buchbinder (eds.), Man and Woman in the New Guinea Highlands, 1976
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