Thursday, 29 May 2014

Stages of Life

Every culture has a different sense of the periods or divisions constitute a life-span.

How do we go about living our lives? At what stages do we 'grow up', get married, have kids? At various periods in their lives, people enjoy certain privileges, are burdened by other responsibilities, and must behave differently. We could think of these stages “stages of life” or “life stages” or as part of the “lifecycle”. Some of these are based around certain biological 'realities', such as birth, puberty, bearing children, and death. Other stages are not so clear.

Humoring baby on the ferry.

Residents of Home Island conceive of their lives and, indeed, live different lives to people on the Australian mainland.

Nek Sumila cradles a baby, to the delight of  some fans.


Nek Sofia recalled that, in the past, a baby's placenta had been taken in a jukung and thrown overboard from a jukung. The further out the the jukung went, the more outgoing or adventurous the child would grow up to be. (I have the impression that being outgoing or adventurous is not an especially valued trait, as it may lead to the child eventually moving away from the Cocos Islands--an undesirable result). Apparently this and other birth ritual have been interrupted by the requirement for expecting mothers to deliver in Perth. Home Islanders I spoke with regretted this. Monika said she had spoken with someone who felt that having not been born on the Cocos Islands, the new generations would never be truly Cocos in the way of preceding generations. 


Early on in life, youngsters go through several stages quickly. The first could be called, in the absence of any specific local term that I’m aware of, “newborn”. This lasts from birth to 40 days old. The main priority in this period seems to be that mother and newborn should rest at home.


At 40 days old a new lifestage, I'll call "childhood", is initiated through a hair cutting ritual. I have written on this in my blog "First Haircut".

Anthropologists call hair cutting rituals “tonsure”. I first came across the term in relation to the Thai prince. For Thai people, the ritual cutting of a tuft of a male's hair (around the age of 12-14)  is cut his a deeply meaningful event, and initiates the boy into adulthood. On Home Island, tonsure occurs earlier in life.

Men chanting for a child's 40th day celebration.In the immediate foreground is a man's white hat. In the middle were three dishes of yellow rice and whole chicken with a white towel on top. Next to these were blue bowls with rice porridge. The porridge, red and white in color, has a special name in Java--here it is simply "porridge" (bubur).

Over the next decade or so, the child will begin school, commence afternoon classes in Koranic Arabic (ngaji), start high school, and possibly continue high school on the mainland. If the child is a boy, he will be circumcised as well.

At school, reading a English book.
I’m also unsure about how to characterize these years in terms of life stages. One person told me that initially the term anak (young child) is used, then budak (child around primary school), and then anak muda (around high school age). However, anthropologists can not just go by what local people tell us. We need to understand what people say and also observe and participate in what they do. So I'll have to postpone commenting on this.


Marriage is the biggest ritual on Home Island. However, it only changes on status from single to married. This is (along with being sick or healthy, present or away, a pilgrim or not pilgrim) a different ritual status, but I don’t think we could identify it as a stage of life. Instead, marriage allows one to produce a legitimate child. Having a legitimate child allows one to progress to the next life stage: parenthood. The life stage I’m calling parenthood occurs only if one begins nurturing a child. There is no change with subsequent children: the main thing is that you have at least one child.  Infertile couples often adopt from a sibling or a cousin who has more than child. 


The final life stage is death. Death rituals are quite involved, with ritual meals being repeated in the first week after death and then at 40 days one year and 1000 days. This appropriately changes one’s ritual status from being alive to being dead. The gravestone marks this ritual status.

Nek Suma's grave stands alone, outside the cemetery. He is affectionately referred to as "baldy".
Visiting in 1836, Darwin made note of a death ritual, in very deprecating terms:
After dinner we staid to see a half superstitious scene, acted by the Malay women. They dress a large wooden spoon in garments — carry it to the grave of a dead man — & then at the full of the moon they pretend it becomes inspired & will dance & jump about. After the proper preparations the spoon held by two women became convulsed & danced in good time to the song of the surrounding children & women. It was a most foolish spectacle, but Mr Liesk maintained that many of the Malays believed in its spiritual movements. The dance did not commence till the moon had risen & it was well worth remaining to behold her bright globe so quietly shining through the long arms of the Cocoa nuts, as they waved in the evening breeze
Nevertheless, it seems the "spoon" may refer to the shape of the grave marker. Death rituals are very different currently, as I have described in "Ritual Meals on Home Island".

Mourners gathered at house of bereaved
One part of the death rituals (i.e. funeral) is the transporting of the corpse from the home of the bereaved the cemetery are, which is called "Swan Island" (Pulu Gangsa). In fact, Swan Island is no longer an island as it has merged with Home Island.
At Swan Island

Life stage and name change

The terms one uses when talking about someone (term of reference) or talking with someone (term of address) reflect these stages. 

Mak Mia, Mia, and Pak Mia

Parenthood is marked by a name change. For example, a married couple have a daughter named Mia. Mia’s father is now called "Pak Mia" and her mother is called "Mak Mia". If a child named “Abdul” is adopted by an infertile couple, and if the arrangement works, the adoptive father will become known as Pak Abdul and his wife will be Mak Abdul. I have written about this naming practice, teknonymy, as anthropologists call it, in another blog. A person who never has a legitimate child either through birth or adoption is apparently not entitled to be called Pak or Mak. 

The teknonyms on Home Island are absolute, not relative. Where I did fieldwork in East Java (2000-2002) you typically only use the term “Pak” (father) to someone who is of your father’s generation. By contrast, on Home Island it does not matter if the man you are talking to is older or younger than you, you still call him “Pak” (father), provided he has children. Similarly, in Indonesian, the term “adik” (younger brother/sister) is sometimes used to refer to someone a little younger. In Cocos Malay, the cognate “adek” is absolute. I heard, for example, today a mother address her pre-schooler son as “adek”. 

The absolute nature of these titles seems so important that it carries through into English usage on Home Island. When Anglo-Australians greet each other on West Island they might say “G’day mate”; the term “mate” indicates an equality between two men. By contrast on Home Island, the fatherhood is respected and honored. So even when talking in English, I am sometimes greeted with “G’day Pak” or "How's it goin' Pak" .

Becoming a grandparents marks the next stage of life. There is also a specific teknonym of grandparents being “Nek”. More formally, the grandfather might be addressed Nek [D]atok (the bracketed bit is mostly dropped, with people just saying "Atok") and the grandmother, Nek [Peremp]uan. 

Being a great-grandparent possibly marks a further life stage after being a grandparent, and that is. I’ve heard very old grandparents or a people who have cecet (great-grandchildren). I think a formal term of address is "Nek [B]uyut" or sometimes they are also called 'Nek Atok' or 'Nek Wan'.  

Progression through life stages

The idea of life stages seems quite simple and natural: childhood, adulthood, old age, etc. However, this is deceptive. So progression through life stages can be initiated suddenly through a biological event (birth) and through ritual (40 days’ tonsure). It can also be a combination of both (death).

In different cultures, for example, adulthood occurs when you turn 18 or 21 or earlier or later. Some cultures don’t even recognize “adulthood” but might have various other stages.

The onset of what is conceived of as a life stage can occur slowly, such as what is called "middle aged" in the West, currently. In some cultures, without a ritual you cannot progress. For example, you might have stopped breathing among the Berawan, but you cannot make the progression from living to spirit world of the dead without ritualized treatments. Or, in central Australian societies, you might be fifty years old, but if you haven't been circumcised you are still a boy, cannot socialize with men as equals, and cannot receive the knowledge that men posses. Traditionally, in the West, you could not be married unless you went through the marriage ritual known as "wedding". 

Thus, progression through life stages is not necessarily a natural, biological occurrence. 

Age set and age grade

Related to "life stage" are the concepts of "age set" and "age grade/age class". An "age set" is like the "Class of 1969"--once you are part of it you stay in that group forever--really, forever, in some cultures. 

Class of 1969--an Age Set

An "age grade" or "age class" is like being a "first-year", "Freshman", or "rookie"; you and others  or your age go through it the same time and the leave that grade for another e.g. "second-year", "sophomore", "senior player".

Age groups (Nadel calls them "age classes"). Korongo and Meskain pass through these, from Nadel "Witchcraft in Four Societies"

As Nadel notes, the Korongo of Africa recognize 6 age classes for males aged 12-50+. These are associated with different wrestling duties and places of residence. The Mesakin, by contrast, recognize only 3 throughout a similar chronological period.

In summary, you progress through an age grade, while you stay in an age set forever.

Life stages and anthropology

Life stages, sets, groups, or classes are not things cultures intrinsically possess. Rather, we should think of these as imperfect concepts that anthropologists apply to cultures. So, when we see distinct rights, responsibilities, and behaviors associated with a period of life, we might label that a "stage of life", or a "age set", or an "age group". But we must remember that, in many cases, one could interpret and debate what constitutes a stage of life in any culture. 

For more on life stages please listen to my short podcast entitled “Lifecycle” :


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