Daily Stone Age Life – The Sohi mother and child

The Sohi people live in the mountains, in the tropics. They are thought to have been living here for fifty thousand years, and developed agriculture about ten thousand years ago.

It’s a hot, sunny day. There’s forest around us, with a path weaving through the trees. At one point, there is a break in the tree cover, and the ground is rocky. A small stream flows across the rocks.

A mother and her baby are walking along the path. The mother is naked apart from a grass skirt formed from a band around her waist from which grasses hang at the front and back; her thighs are not covered. The baby is naked, and is being carried by the mother, slung over her back in what we might describe as a stretchy string bag, made from plant fibres twisted into a twine and knotted into an open criss-cross pattern.

The mother takes the baby out of the carrier and gently washes it in the stream; the baby enjoys the cool water on the hot day. Soon, the mother has finished washing the baby and returns it to the carrier. The Sohi babies like the movement of being carried, and the closeness of the mother, and rarely cry.

The mother returns along the bush track, and a short distance into the forest rejoins her companions – several other Sohi women who are harvesting a sago palm. The mother sets two sticks into the ground, and suspends the baby – in her sling – between them, to keep it cool.

It is the men’s responsibility to plant and nurture the sago palms, but it is the women’s job to fell them and to extract the sago starch, which is one of the Sohi people’s staple foods.

The starch is extracted by scraping out the trunk using a triangular stone seated in a notch at the end of a stong stick and bound to it with a length of twine. The scraping is hard, physical work – and that’s only the start of the process.

The starch must be separated out from the scraped sago pulp by kneading the pulp then washing the starchy bits out with warm water. A leaf from the sago palm serves to channel the water and starch into a strainer, made from the fibrous part of a coconut tree. The starchy water is allowed to settle, and the excess water is poured off before the starch is transferred to baskets made from the thick and pliable parts of palm leaves, which are then tied up neatly.

All the time, the women sing, asking the sun not to set too quickly because there is still much work to be done. From the sago palm they also harvest leaves and sticks for the construction of houses, and the nutty-flavoured sago grubs that live in the base of the palm.

Heavily laden, the women carry the grubs, sticks, leaves and baskets of sago back to their village. They dig a hole near the river bank into which they put the baskets and cover them with soil. The sago will keep for a few months, during which time it may ferment.

That’s all for today’s post. Tomorrow’s post will be about the Sohi village.

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