Cutting the cord
With the tying off and cutting of the umbilical cord the relations with the uterus and placenta are ended and the newborn infant is for the first time an independently living individual—Bradley Patten, Human Embryology, 1946.
Among the Mbuti of Central Africa, the cutting of the umbilical cord is an important rite. While the father is obliged to remain absent for the birth itself, it must be one of his blades, such as a leaf or wooden knife made by him, that is to cut the cord. The father keeps the blade, as well as the cord itself, until his child is old enough to make a bundle of them and bury them in a stream, “where they will get carried away by the next flood waters.”
The umbilical cord connects the fetus to the placenta, which in turn is connected to the uterine wall of the mother, providing the fetus with oxygen and nutrients and allowing it to expel waste. This system has fascinated many people across societies throughout human history. Leonardo da Vinci says in his notebooks, “note how the foetus breathes and how it is nourished through the umbilical cord and why one soul governs two bodies,” going on to add,
the soul of the mother, which first composes, in the womb, the shape of man and in due time awakens the soul which shall be the inhabitant thereof, which first remains asleep and under the tutelage of the soul of the mother which through the umbilical vein nourishes and vivifies it.
Considering the essential role it plays in sustaining the child, it is perhaps not too surprising that special treatment of the umbilical cord after birth is common across hunter-gatherer societies (Table 1).
The cord is commonly cut with a blade of some special material, although it is sometimes unclear whether this reflects a particular cultural meaning or just happens to be considered most effective for the task. Among the Auin of South Africa, “The umbilical cord is severed with the sharp edge of a reed splinter, never with any other object. Practical reasons for this could not be given: “It has always been so.””
Among the Yokuts of California, “The umbilicus was cut with a sharp bone or clamshell; flint was tabu.” The Semang of Malaysia used a splinter of bamboo because metal was considered taboo for this purpose and thought to potentially harm the child.
For the Kaska of British Columbia the blade only became meaningful after use, “An old woman cut the umbilicus with a stone knife which, because of the use that it had been put to, henceforth remained dangerous for any other purpose.” Among the Haida of British Columbia, the particular blade used would be based on the sex of the offspring, “A paternal aunt ushers the child into the world, severs the umbilical cord with a knife—one used by the father for a boy or by the mother for a girl.”
Part or all of the umbilical cord itself is often hidden away, or preserved as an ornament for the child. Among the Aranda of Australia, “The mother severs the umbilical cord with a stone knife…After a few days she makes a necklace for the infant from the remainder of the cord, and paints a black line over its eyebrow to ward off illness.” The Tiwi of Australia instead bury all the afterbirth in a shallow depression, and then cover it with dirt and ashes and some burning logs.
Among The Eyak of Alaska, “The cord was dried and tied around the child's neck as an amulet. Galushia has kept his son's cord in a bag hanging on the wall of the house. The child was supposed to wear the cord until a year before he was old enough to hunt, or in the girl's case, until a year before puberty. Then the cord was buried in the ground. [emphasis added]”
Anthropologist Frances Densmore provides an extended description of the meaning of the keeping of the umbilical cord among the Ojibwa of the Northern Great Plains,
First among the “charms” should be noted the decorated case in which the umbilical cord of the child was preserved. Gagewin stated that the chief reason for this was the securing of wisdom for the child. Another said that if it were not done the child “would become foolish,” and other informants said that if the cord were not kept the child “would always be searching for something.” One said it would poke among the ashes around the fire, and older persons would say, “He is looking for the cord.” It was desired that a child should play with this as it lay in its cradle and should keep it during its whole life, and for that reason the case in old times was sewed with sinew and hung from the hoop by nettle-stalk twine, both of which were very strong. This little case was treasured by a mother in the event of the death of a child. The writer knew a woman who had kept such a case for 25 years after the death of her infant son. A butterfly was sometimes embroidered or worked with beads on such a case, the butterfly being regarded as “the spirit of childish play.” A similar case of plainer design was obtained from a woman who had kept it many years. [emphasis added]
Among the Kutenai of Montana and Idaho, “The umbilical cord is dried and sewed into a fringed buckskin bag which will hang on the cradle board during the child's preambulatory life. At death it will be buried with his grave furniture. The reason given for this is: “This cord is part of you. You should not be cruel and destroy it.”” According to anthropologist Viktor Lebzelter, the reason given for burying the afterbirth among some South African hunter-gatherers was because, “The life of the child would be greatly endangered if an animal found it or if a feared sorcerer could appropriate a piece of it.”
Anthropologist Jules Henry describes the beliefs associated with this practice among the Xokleng of Brazil,
“The hair is thrown into the water because they are afraid to let it rot on earth. The first-born [i.e. the ancients] came out along the water, and therefore they throw the hair into the water.” Like tapir's raw food, water is a general life-symbol to the Kaingáng. In the same way the hair and nails of young children are thrown into the water “so that they will grow. Otherwise the children would dry up and die,” and the umbilical cord is placed in the water for the same reason. [emphasis added]
And, to conclude, the owl ceremony of the Selk’nam of Tierra del Fuego,
The remainder of the umbilical cord is left to dry on the newborn child, until it falls off by itself. The mother rolls it up into a little ring and carefully stores it in a small leather pouch. Only when the child can walk independently does the father catch a small wood owl. While he clasps the bird with both hands, the child takes from its mother's hand its own navel cord and places it around the neck of the animal. Then the father puts the wood owl into the child's hands. All who are standing around watch him until, after a short while, the child lets this little bird with the navel cord around its neck fly away. [emphasis added]
Ritual practices involving the umbilical cord seem to commonly involve both sympathetic magic to protect the child and help them age healthy and well-adjusted, as well as symbolic elements to represent the child’s growth and independence. Representing the last direct physical link of a mother to her child, the severing of the umbilical cord and its retention or disposal offers a dramatic arena ripe for ritual and symbolic representation.