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The origins of bungee jumping

May 28, 2008
This is where bungee jumping began – a story which resonates with both charm and tragedy and the act is still practiced today – but only in respect of a fertility ritual for the following year’s crop. Land diving, which researchers believe dates back nearly 15 centuries, still takes place every spring on the South Pacific island of Pentecost.
It’s an offering to the gods, a test of courage, and an ancient precursor to bungee jumping. It is believed that the ritual of the N’gol began centuries, perhaps millennia ago, when a beaten woman ran away from her husband, Tamale.

He found her hiding in a tall tree and called to her that if she came down he might beat her.

Local residents believe he climbed the tree and as he made his final grab, she leaped. In anguish at her death (or anger that he had missed her) Tamale jumped after her, not realising his wife had tied liana vines around her ankles and survived the fall.

N’gol is now a fertility rite. Every year in April, when the first yam crop is ready, the islanders on the south of the island start building a huge tower for the land diving. It takes about 5 weeks to build, all materials come from the forest: lianas, branches, trunks…. Eventually a wooden tower between 20 to 30 meters high is erected.

Each diver must select his own vine. Its size is of utmost importance and if it is only 10 cm too long, the diver could hit the ground and possibly break his neck. As the vines stretch at the end of the dive, the land diver’s head must curl under their shoulders, which must themselves touch the earth, making it fertile for the following year’s yam crop.

Bungee jumping is not so different in that the leap, from a much taller structure – I believe the world’s highest bungee jump is now 233 metres – should not end with any fatal impact but I have not heard that there is still a significance of fertility in the jump?! If I am wrong and someone has had an immaculate conception we would be delighted to hear your story!!

Land diving in Vanuatu. (Tim Cayton, World Press Photo

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