How Land Diving Works

Origins and Experience of Land Diving

Land diving originated from a legendary tale of marital discord. Years ago, a village woman was trying to escape her abusive husband. She fled and climbed up a tall tree. Her husband Tamalie climbed up after her, intending to continue her beating. To his surprise, she jumped from the tree, presumably to her death. He followed her, in either grief or an attempt to catch her. What he didn't know was that she had tied vines to her ankles. So she survived the fall. Tamalie, on the other hand, did not.

The legend gets a little muddy at this point. Some people claim that the village men began practicing land diving in case they ever found themselves in a similar predicament. Barred from performing dives, the women instead gathered at the foot of the tree to watch. They would listen as their husbands, high up on the platforms, made speeches decrying their wives' behavior [source: Soden]. Others state that, in the beginning, the village woman who made the first jump repeated her feat every year. But the men soon took over -- to both prove to her their shame and their courage [source: AJ Hackett]. And, even after the woman died, the ritual remained. At first, the men jumped from trees. But later the ritual evolved and a handcrafted tower was erected instead.

On Pentecost Island, the first yam crop arrives in April. Around this time, the islanders begin building a huge tower with brush and wood from the surrounding jungle. They also select liana vines for the divers. The vines should have plenty of sap inside, which means they're supple and less likely to snap. It takes about five weeks to build the tower, which eventually ends up at a maximum of 98 feet (30 meters) with platforms placed at various heights. Vines secure the tower to the ground.

A trusted tribe elder supervises the entire process, even selecting each jumper's vine. He uses no mechanical calculations to cut the correct length of vine -- he bases his decision solely on years of trial and error. A vine that's cut too long can cause the diver to hit the ground at a high speed, and a vine that's cut too short can cause the diver to slam into the tower and destroy it. Islanders also till the earth below to give it a cushion and help to soften landings.

During the naghol ceremony, the first diver climbs the tower. Elders tie one vine to each foot, and he steps out onto the platform to address the crowd below. The women and men on the ground whoop, dance and clap their hands, cheering on the diver. Usually the diver will address the crowd, speaking what could be his last words. Many divers use this time to get things off their chests and make sure that all their issues are settled. A diver can change his mind at any time without fear of humiliation.

When the brave ones do make their jumps, the crowd goes momentarily silent. In a perfect jump, the diver will cross his arms over his chest. This prevents the arms from being injured or broken upon impact. As he approaches the ground, he will tuck his head in so that his shoulders touch the ground -- ensuring fertility for the next season's yam crop. A not-so-perfect jump can result in a broken neck, concussion or internal injuries. After a jump, the islanders rush to check on the well-being of the diver, cut the vines off his feet and -- depending on how he fared the fall -- send him off into the crowd to celebrate his feat of courage.