The London Olympics will test the athletic limits of the world’s most talented sportsmen and women. To celebrate the 2012 games, Survival reveals some of the astonishing skills of the world’s tribal peoples, from the Awá archers of the Amazon to the Bajau divers of Borneo and the Tarahumara long-distance runners of northwestern Mexico. Words by Joanna Eede.
1 - A young boy with home-made wooden goggles grasps the tail of a tawny nurse shark as it pulls him through the shallow waters of the South China Sea. The Bajau people of Sabah, Sulawesi, can free-dive up to 20 metres deep when hunting for fish, pearls and sea cucumbers on the sea-bed. Known as ‘sea gypsies’, the Bajau spend most of their lives at sea; when they free-dive, they can hold their breath for up to three minutes. Scientists have discovered that the Bajau are submerged for up to 60% of the time they spend in the water, which is nearly as long as a sea-otter. (© James Morgan/Survival International)
2- Mongolians define themselves as the people of five animals: horses, sheep, goats, camel and cattle. Horses are prized above all others – one horse is traditionally worth ten goats – and are still an integral part of daily nomadic life. The national drink, airag, is made from fermented mares’ milk; strands of horse-hair are used as ties in nomads’ homes, or gers. Their equestrian skills are exceptional; boys are often taught to ride as soon as they can walk, learning on silver-engraved leather saddles that are passed down the generations. During the naadam festival, boys as young as 5 years old race bareback and shoeless across the Mongolian steppe for up to 30 kilometres. (© Joanna Eede/Survival International)
3- In southern Papua, a few degrees south of the Equator, there are no roads in the coastal homeland of the semi-nomadic Asmat people. As a result, the Asmat have long used canoes to journey along the extensive network of deep, wide rivers that run through their rainforest. Canoeists propel and steer while standing, their skill lying in maintaining their balance as they dip and sweep long tassled blades through the tidal waters; a particularly difficult and dangerous task when cross-currents are created from rivers flowing into the Arafura Sea. All Papuan tribal peoples have suffered greatly under the Indonesian occupation, which began in 1963, and is almost unparalleled in its brutality. (© Jeanne Herbert/Survival International)
4- The ocean is our universe, said Hook Suriyan Katale, a Moken man from the Surin Islands. The semi-nomadic Moken, who live in the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea, are said to be able to swim before they can walk. A recent scientific study conducted by Sweden’s Lund University showed that the eyesight of Moken children is 50% more powerful than that of European children. Over hundreds of years they have developed the unique ability to focus under water, using their visual skills to dive for food on the sea floor, thus stretching the efficacy of their eyes to the limits of what is humanly possible. (© Cat Vinton/Survival International)
5- They move through the rainforest at night, carrying torches made from resin. The Awá people of the Brazilian Amazon, Earth’s most threatened tribe, are expert archers. Awá men hunt with bows up to 1.85 metres long and carry a bundle of arrows made from bamboo, palm fibre, tree resin and bird feathers. Arrow heads vary in shape and size according to the type of prey. While waiting for howler monkeys to appear, hunters sit in the branches of trees up to 30 metres from the ground. Arrows are shot at the target from this dizzying height. Today the Awá forest is being cut down faster than that of any other tribe in the Amazon; they will only survive if their land is protected. (© Fiona Watson/Survival International)