February 23, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Karo: The Ethiopian Tribe That Practices Human Sacrifice


The Karo Tribe

The Karo tribe living in Ethiopia is best-known for their stunning body art, earning them the nickname: The White Chalk Tribe.

But their appearance isn’t the only thing they hold high. From body scarring to child sacrifice, the Karo tribe has some seriously dark traditions. 

Location

The Karo tribe lives along the east banks of the Omo River in southern Ethiopia.

Karo Tribe menLuisa Puccini, Shutterstock

Population

The Karo have an estimated population between just 1,000 and 3,000—they are one of the smallest tribes in Ethiopia.

The Karo tribe woman and childrenShutterstock, Luisa Puccini

Famous Ability

The Karo tribe are most known for their attention to appearance, having extraordinary body and face painting rituals.

Designs vary in content, from simple lines, dots and shapes to animal motifs and handprints.

Unidentified Karo Man in body and face paintMatej Hudovernik, Shutterstock

Body Painting: What They Use

The Karo people use colored ochre, white chalk, yellow mineral rock and other natural resources to paint themselves.

Portrait of a boy from the Karo tribe doing a traditional paintingchris piason, Shutterstock

Body Painting: Significance

Men use clay to create elaborate hairstyles and headdresses that signify status, beauty and bravery. Male and female scarification is also a common practice both for its symbolism and aesthetic beauty.

warrior of the Karo tribeDietmar Temps, Shutterstock

Body Painting: Rituals

The Karo men cover their body and face with ashes mixed with fat, a symbol of virility for important festivities and the ritual combats between the clans, which take place after the harvest.

Unidentified Karo Man  in body paintOscar Espinosa, Shutterstock

Body Painting: Attraction

The ritual combats that take place are important because the men are not only able to exhibit their beauty and courage, but they also use this time to hopefully attract a woman.

Aside from paint, the men also use something else to make themselves more appealing.

Unidentified Karo Man in body paintOscar Espinosa, Shutterstock

Attraction Techniques

Large beads worn around the neck of a man signify a big game harvest, and the scars and lacerations upon their chest are highly esteemed marks of valor—which Karo women are attracted to.

These scars are not always from hunting or fighting, though.

Karo tribal men in body paintMatyas Rehak, Shutterstock

Body Scarification: Men

The scarification of the man’s chest indicates that he has taken the lives of enemies from other tribes, and he is highly respected within his community.

Karo Tribe, Omo, EthiopiaRod Waddington, Flickr

Body Scarification: Representation

Each line on a Karo man’s chest represents one life he took, and complete chest scarification is not rare.

The women take part in body scarification as well.

Karo man with body scarsVlad Karavaev, Shutterstock

Body Scarification: Women

The Karo women are considered particularly sensual and attractive if cuts are made deep into their chests and torsos and ash is rubbed in.

This creates a raised effect over time, enhancing their intimate beauty, and making them desirable to men.

a woman from the Karo tribe, with traditional painting on facechris piason, Shutterstock

Traditions

The Karo people are clearly very skilled artists, and use art for various rituals and ceremonies within their traditional culture.

However, body painting and scarring are not the only things they’re known for.

Karo Tribe village and peopleRod Waddington, Flickr

Home Life

Traditionally, the Karo people were famous for their magnificent houses. After they lost their wealth, they adopted much more discreet conical huts.

Their villages are smaller than before.

Karo Tribe, EthiopiaRod Waddington, Flickr

Village Size

A typical Karo village today has 20 to 30 huts around a meeting place and also enclosures of branches to keep cattle and goats.

Karo tribe in EthiopiaRod Waddington, Flickr

Houses

Each Karo family owns two houses: the Ono, the main living room of the family, and the flat-roofed Gappa, the center of household activities.

Karo tribe , EthiopiaRod Waddington, Flickr

Sleeping Arrangements

When it comes to sleeping, the men and women both sleep on the ground. They may use available cloths for added comfort, and the men use their headdress as pillows.

Aside from those two huts, there’s another family hut of importance.

two boys from the Karo tribe in face paintchris piason, Shutterstock

The Men’s Hut

Aside from the two main huts that make up their homes, the Karo tribe also have special men’s huts called “chifo”, where they go to rest.

Men also have another hut important to them.

Karo Tribe houseRod Waddington, Flickr

The Ceremonial Hut

The tribe has a ceremony hut, called “Marmar” where married men speak of important matters to the tribe.

Their marriage rituals are very specific too.

Karo Warrior in villageRod Waddington, Flickr

Social Structure

The Karo have created a complex social hierarchy where they avoid intermarriage (marrying within their own tribe) in order to try and keep their lineages pure.

The Karo tribe often marries with the Kwegu tribe.

Kwego Woman wearing beadsRod Waddington, Flickr

Marriage: Girls

Girls get married whenever the scarification process is complete. The scarification process for them usually begins around age 12, during a coming-of-age ceremony.

Karo Girl in face paintRod Waddington, Flickr

Girls’ Coming-of-Age Ceremony

During this ritual, the girl’s skin is pulled tight and cut with a razor blade, several times for about ten minutes.

The way she tolerates the pain is an indication of her emotional maturity and willingness to bear children.

Karo Tribe womanRod Waddington, Flickr

Marriage: Boys

Men marry once they complete the bull jumping ceremony—and initiation rite which signifies the coming-of-age.

Karo Tribe WarriorRod Waddington, Flickr

Boys’ Coming-of-Age Ceremony

A coming-of-age ceremony involves leaping over rows of cattle six times consecutively without falling.

If successful, the boy will become eligible for marriage (as long as his older brothers are already married) and he will be allowed to appear publicly with the elders in sacred areas.

Karo Tribe boysRod Waddington, Flickr

Marriage: Plural

Men in the tribe may have as many wives as they want, as long as they can afford them. Typically, a man will marry only two or three women.

For each wife, a payment must first be made.

man from Karo tribeLuisa Puccini, Shutterstock

Marriage: Dowry

Karo marriages require “bride wealth”—a payment made to the woman’s family generally consisting of goats, artilleries and numerous cattle.

Also, women are allowed to choose their own husbands during a ceremonial dance.

Woman in body paint Karo TribeRod Waddington, Flickr

Marriage: Adultery

Adultery is considered an insult and shame to one’s family. Divorce is possible, but it must be negotiated.

Women have very little freedom when it comes to their intimate nature.

Karo Woman in beadsRod Waddington, Flickr

Women’s Intimate Freedoms

Women can only be intimate if they are married, and only to their husband. This is strictly because they have no means of contraception, and when a child is born out of wedlock, it is a serious (and sad) situation.

Portrait of a Karo tribe woman and her kidhakanyalicn, Shutterstock

Children Born Out of Wedlock

Any child who is born out of wedlock is considered an “abomination”, and sadly, their life will be taken. In addition, the woman will be publicly shamed. It is an “unpardonable” act in the tribe.

This wasn’t the only sad ritual involving Karo children, though.

Karo tribe MotherRod Waddington, Flickr

The Practice of Mingi Sacrifice

Traditional Karo tribes took part in a dark practice called “mingi”—meaning child sacrifice.

There are a number of incidences when a child would be considered “mingi”, and a consequence would follow.

Karo Women wearing beadsRod Waddington, Flickr

Mingi Children

A “mingi baby” was said to be any child born a twin, babies born to unwed mothers or to married parents who fail to perform certain rituals for the elders, and children whose upper milk teeth erupt before the lower ones.

But what they did to mingi babies is where it gets dark.

Karo tribe woman with her childhakanyalicn, Shutterstock

The Mingi Baby Curse

The Karo tribe believed that disasters, such as drought and epidemic disease, were averted by taking the lives of “cursed” children.

Mingi children were considered “cursed”, and therefore, they had to go.

Woman of Karo tribe wearing beadsVladislav Belchenko, Shutterstock

Mingi Baby Sacrifice

Babies considered “mingi” would have their mouths stuffed with dirt, and abandoned in the bush and scavenged by predators or thrown into the crocodile-infested river.

Their little bodies were never buried for fear the earth itself would become infertile.

If that isn’t bad enough, it gets worse.

Young woman from the Karo tribe in traditional dressMarco Polo's Rhino, Shutterstock

Mingi Ages

Taking the lives of infants is never justified. When a newborn is an obvious mingi baby—a twin, born out of wedlock, or physically disabled—they are taken away immediately.

But a “tooth mingi” is a baby whose upper teeth erupt before the lower ones—meaning they are usually almost a year old when this occurs, sometimes older.

Karo ChildRod Waddington, Flickr

Tooth Mingi Babies

The “tooth mingi” toddlers are immediately taken away from their mothers as soon as the elders determine the child as a mingi.

This is often a very difficult time in the village as the baby has come to be well loved among many by that age.

Old Karo WarriorRod Waddington, Flickr

The Mingi Practice

Thankfully, the Mingi Practice has been abolished as of 2012. There are now shelters available for mingi babies, so they do not have to lose their lives—however, they still do not stay within the village.

Portrait of unidentified Karo womanVlad Karavaev, Shutterstock

Kinship

Healthy Karo children act like normal kids. Boys and girls play together while they are still young and have minimal responsibilities. Babies are well loved by the entire community.

Once they reach mid-childhood though, things change.

Karo Girls playingRod Waddington, Flickr

Gender Roles

Once children reach a certain age of maturity, somewhere around 8-10 years old, the girls become responsible for helping the women with chores, and the boys are tasked with taking care of the cattle.

Portrait of Karo tribe boysVladislav Belchenko, Shutterstock

Community Roles: Midwife

Each village has at least one midwife who also knows some basic traditional medical knowledge. Western medicine does not exist here. They use traditional practices involving plants and healing rituals.

Karo Tribe, older womanRod Waddington, Flickr

Community Roles: Elders

Each Karo village has a group of elders. The elders make important decisions and are the main players in most ceremonies.

Once a man becomes an elder, he adds something to his “look”.

Karo Warrior, EthiopiaRod Waddington, Flickr

Haircuts

Men always shave their head while women plait their hair into many braids and decorate them with beads.

But then there’s a specific hair piece that is worn by both genders.

Karo Warrior, EthiopiaRod Waddington, Flickr

The Clay Hairbun

The clay hairbun, sported by both men and women can take up to three days to construct and is usually re-made every three to six months, but can be worn for up to a year.

Typically, men wear a grey and red clay hairbun once they are considered brave and courageous. When they become elders, they add ostrich feathers to their hairbun.

Karo WarriorRod Waddington, Flickr

Clothing: Women

Karo women usually wear only a loincloth made from hide, and drape colorful beads around their necks. They lather their hair with ochre mixed with animal fat, and of course, paint their bodies.

Karo WomanRod Waddington, Flickr

Clothing: Men

Men wear only a piece of cloth wound around the waist that extends to the knee cap. An extra cloth is slung over their shoulder.

They use hides and skins from animals to make some of their clothing.

Men of Karo tribe playing a gameMatyas Rehak, Shutterstock

Cultivation

The Karo traditionally practiced “flood retreat agriculture,” using silt left by floodwaters that occur during the monsoon season to fertilize their crops. They also fish and breed cattle and goats.

Basically, they rely on the natural flooding for their survival. But this isn’t their only way of ensuring survival.

Karo tribe animalsMatyas Rehak, Shutterstock

Protection

Traditionally, the Karo tribe made various tools for protection. But today, they are regularly stocked with AK-47s—which are mostly used to protect cattle, to hunt and to settle disputes. Few men are ever seen outside the community without them.

They are now major arms distributors, but how did they get them?

men from Karo tribe in body paintLuisa Puccini, Shutterstock

Introduction of the Modern World

Only recently, the modern world has begun to creep into their existence, especially with plastic water containers and automatics.

The end of the Mengistu reign in the 1990s and ongoing conflict in Sudan and Somalia have ensured a flood of AK-47′s, Kalashnikovs and G-3 rifles into the region.

That’s not all the modern world brought.

Unidentified Karo girl carries bottle of waterVlad Karavaev, Shutterstock

Income

Today, the Karo tribe earns an income that helps support their protective lifestyle. Many of them use their artistic abilities to paint their bodies and charge outsiders a fee for taking photographs of them.

Some of them have been paid quite well for official roadside photoshoots.

Karo girlAleksandra Kossowska, Shutterstock

Visiting the Karo Tribe

Aside from photographing them from the side of the road, visiting the Karo tribe is somewhat doable. People are certainly able to travel to Ethiopia and head into the direction of the tribe, however they will ensure you keep a distance.

Only outsiders who pay them, either with money or with supplies, will be allowed to get close.

Visit at Karo Tribe villageRod Waddington, Flickr

Final Thoughts

Known for their stunning body art, the Karo tribe has some dark rituals that set them apart from many other modern-day tribes.

Although has access to limited modern-day amenities, they prefer to stay put in their villages and practice their traditional lifestyle.

Karo tribe young woman with beautiful colorful necklacePiu_Piu, Shutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4


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