The World’s Oldest, Most Beautiful Cultures Preserved Through Photographs
According to photographer Jimmy Nelson, the Before They Pass Away project began nearly 30 years ago when he began walking from one side of Tibet to the other. That’s when he set it upon himself to document the last of the world’s ancient tribes and peoples with his 50-year-old 4×5 film camera. Nelson then spent the next four years traveling across the world to photograph 31 tribes, chosen for their geographical, traditional, and aesthetic importance. He spent two weeks with each photographing and learning a little about their traditions, mannerisms, and beliefs.
Now, each community’s images are captured between the covers of his new photography book Before They Pass Away. “My dream had always been to preserve our world’s tribes through my photography,” writes Nelson. “Not to stop change from happening—because I know I can’t—but to create a visual document reminding us, and the generations after us, of the beauty of pure and honest living.” Here, we preview of Nelson’s book and some of the people he encountered.
Photo: The Kazakhs of the westernmost province of Bayan-Ölgii, Mongolia, are a Turkic people originating from the northern parts of Central Asia and can trace their roots to the 15th century. Most Kazakhs in this remote, mountainous region are dependent on domestic animals for their livelihood and practice the ancient tradition of hunting rabbits, marmots, foxes, and wolves on horseback with the help of trained golden eagles.
The Himba are an ancient tribe of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 members located near the Kunene River in northwest Namibia and southwest Angola. They’re known for being tall, slender, and statuesque semi-nomadic herders. Most still live and dress according to ancient traditions and speak Herero—their language since the 16th century. The Himba live in scattered settlements of cone-shaped structures made of saplings bound together with palm leaves and plastered with mud and dung. If grazing is poor, the village will migrate to land with better opportunities, with young men leaving first to set up separate, temporary villages and move the cattle, while the women, children, and older men stay at the main settlement.
The history of the world’s approximately 5.5 million Tibetans can be traced to around 4,000 years ago, and religion has always played a major role in the culture.
The Nenets people are a nomadic tribe of more than 10,000 who herd more than 300,000 reindeer in the Siberian arctic, one of the most uninhabitable places on earth, where temperatures plummet to minus 58 degrees in winter and reach 95 degrees in the summer. On their annual migration of more than 600 miles, the Nenets move huge herds of reindeer from summer pastures in the north to winter pastures just south of the Arctic Circle in single-file reindeer trains that can stretch out to five miles in length. Reindeer provide a source of food, shelter, clothing, transport, spiritual fulfilment, and means of socialising though the Nenet oral history. “The Nenet believe that people and deer entered a kind of social contract, where reindeer offered themselves to humans for their subsistence and transport, and humans agreed to accompany them on their seasonal migrations and protect them from predators,” Nelson writes.
The Ni-Vanuatu are the Melanesian people who make up the population of the Republic of Vanuatu, a chain of 83 islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Each island has its own distinct languages, customs, and traditions. The three-day Toka festival on the island of Tanna is one of the most significant traditional celebrations of Vanuatu. The event, which used to mark the end of a tribal war, is nowadays a symbol of alliance and friendship between different tribal groups. During this gift-exchanging ceremony, up to 2,000 participants attempt to outdo each other with their lavish gifts, dancing skills, and ornate make-up.
Even today, most Maori people can tell which original tribe they descend from. Legend holds that each tribe arrived to islands in separate canoes from their homeland in Polynesia. These journeys established the Maori as daring and resourceful adventurers and as great navigators. Due to centuries of isolation from the rest of the world, the Maori established a distinct society with characteristic art, a distinct language, and unique mythology.” There are currently around 650,000 Maori all together in New Zealand who fully participate in modern New Zealand culture but also maintain their own traditional customs.
The people of Ladakh—meaning land of the passes—live in mountain valleys between the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. During their immigration from Tibet more than 1,000 years ago, the Ladakh largely overwhelmed the local culture and established roots in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The Ladakhi royal family can trace its lineage back to 300 B.C. and still lives in Leh, but the family’s presence as a ruling force has been mostly symbolic since India’s independence in 1947. The people of Ladakh have a rich folklore, remarkable for its songs and legends, some of which date back to the pre-Buddhist era.
The indigenous population of Papua New Guinea is one of the most heterogeneous in the world. Natives are believed to have first migrated to the island more than 45,000 years ago. One of the oldest tribes, the Asaro, cover themselves in mud, wear masks, and often brandish spears.
The Argentinian Pampas are rolling terrains of grasses, flowers, and herbs and are the home of the Gauchos. The nomadic and colorful horsemen and cowboys have wandered the prairies since as early as the 1700s, when the flatlands were overpopulated by wild cattle (cimarrón), originally brought to South America by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza in 1538. Some presume that the name “gaucho” is derived from the Mapauche cauchu, meaning “vagabond.” Gauchos were loners who were hardy and uncompromising, but famed for their kindness to fellow travellers, always sharing their food or what little shelter they had. The pastimes of the gauchos included gambling, drinking, playing the guitar, and singing about their skills in hunting, fighting and lovemaking.
The Mursi tribe lives in Africa’s Great Rift Valley in southwest Ethiopia near the Kenyan border and number about 4,000. They are a nomadic tribe of herdsmen with their own Surmic language, Mursi, and practice many distinguishing rituals. Most famously, Mursi women are known for wearing clay plates in their lower lips. At the age of 15, girls receive lip piercings, after which their lips are stretched out to create enough space to place the lip plate. It is said that the plates were invented to make Mursi women less attractive to slave traders. In the tribe today, the bigger the lip plate, the more cattle the girl is worth by the time she is traded into marriage. In order for young tribesmen to qualify for marriage, own cattle, and have children, they must face up to a unique dare, known as the “bull-leaping” ceremony. Cows are lined up in a row. Each boy, naked, has to make four clean runs over the back of the cows without falling. Success gains him the right to marry. During this impressive display, the young man is accompanied by women of his tribe who cheer for him, dance, and sing.