Rites of Passage: How Our Ancestors Handled the Teen Years
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Rites of Passage: How Our Ancestors Handled the Teen Years

In the United States we often talk about adolescence in a lighthearted way – the years parents get more gray hair and teens master social media and sleeping in. But for thousands of years that process of moving from adolescence to adulthood has been considered a major milestone often involving elaborate ceremonies.

In most African tribes, it’s one of five major rites of passage. These are: birth, adulthood, marriage, eldership for respected community leaders, and ancestorship following death.

Communities on the African continent are certainly not alone in marking these key lifetime moments. Across the world, other societies have also celebrated the adulthood phase with coming of age ceremonies.

These rituals vary tremendously across the globe. In South Korea and Japan they even have a Coming of Age Day. South Korea celebrates this day in May, and Japan holds similar festivities in January.

Young Adults gather for a Coming of Age Day celebration. Photo: Dick Johnson, Creative Commons License

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Arizona have found these rituals are particularly important in pre-industrial communities where gender roles and tasks are crucial for community survival. They are less recognized in many modern communities and when they are, they are often less formal. A Sweet Sixteen party is not nearly as elaborate as the four-day Apache Sunrise Dance for girls that involves the entire community.

How Coming of Age Ceremonies Differ

How rite of passage events proceed depends a lot on factors such as gender, religion and community needs. Here is a look at how these areas affect these rituals.


In some indigenous groups the rite of passage to adulthood is a long process that begins in childhood with various lessons and physical tests. In most of these groups, the actual coming of age ceremonies occur when children reach puberty. For them, a changing body means changing responsibilities.

Other cultures center on a particular age. One popular celebration that exemplifies this is the quinceañera, which celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday. It is commonly recognized in Mexico, Latin America, the Caribbean and Latino communities in the United States.

Teenage girls often wear gorgeous gowns for their quinceañera.
Photo: Ms. Phoenix , CC-by-2.0 License

In South Korea and Japan, their Coming of Age Day has been designed for 20-year-olds. However, Japan has lowered the age of adulthood to 18.

During this day, young people get dressed up in elaborate traditional clothes and head out for celebratory gatherings. They also often visit a local shrine to pray for health and success.

Gender Roles

In many cultures, gender roles determine what kind of ceremony a young person will undergo. Rituals for girls often center on fertility or beauty. Practices include hair pinning ceremonies in China and the donning of makeup and jewelry in Sri Lanka.

For boys, ceremonies have tended to focus on the expectation that boys will become hunters or warriors.

Physical Demands

These gender roles affect how physically demanding a ceremony may be. In a number of industrialized communities, rite of passage events are fun and take place in a party atmosphere. However, for indigenous cultures, these ceremonies are often much more physically challenging.

Anthropologists say some of the more demanding ceremonies for girls may seem to be focused on motherhood, but in actuality they also play another role –  to test to see if girls can do physical tasks like gathering food.

The Apache Sunrise Dance may be an example of this. During this ceremony girls are expected to dance for 12-plus hours straight through the night.

For boys, the physical demands during these ceremonies can be much more intense. Some of these rituals are quite brutal, forcing boys to experience intense pain. One common example is the Amazonian Sateré-Mawé tribe in Brazil that requires boys to wear woven gloves full of bullet ants. The goal is to wear them for ten minutes without crying.

A bullet ant sting is considered 30 times more painful than a bee sting. Those who have been stung say the pain is similar to that of being shot, thus the nickname ‘bullet ants.’ Aside from pain, the toxin also causes paralysis, shaking, disorientation and hallucinations. Just one sting can have lasting effects for several days.

Psychologists believe these kinds of practices evolved because undergoing painful experiences can create cognitive dissonance, which is a mental discomfort that can occur when you do something against your beliefs.

This dissonance can increase the desire to join the group, as the mind tries to understand why the body has endured such pain. The reason for the pain becomes justified since it has allowed entry into a specialized group. This level of group attraction and cohesiveness is important for warriors who will battle together.


There are a number of rituals that are centered more on religion than communal roles. Some of the more recognized ones are the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and the Christian Confirmation ceremonies. These require a young person to study their religion for some time before undergoing these special ceremonies, so they can take much more preparation than other rites of passage.

Use of Symbolism

Rite of passage ceremonies are often rich in symbolism, which will of course vary based on the culture. Sometimes the symbolism can be something simple – like having a teen change into high heel shoes for a quinceañera as they rise into womanhood.

Sometimes symbolism is more complex. Facial tattoos for women in northern Africa is an example of this. For hundreds of years, body art was a big part of their society and was added to women’s faces, hands, feet or stomach based on the stage of life.

Creative Common License; Photo by: TOUMOU/WLAf2015

For young women a common choice has been a palm tree tattoo on the chin designating the goddess Tanit, who represents beauty and fertility.

Community Involvement

In smaller indigenous groups, the whole community is often involved in a rite of passage ceremony. It is considered an important part of their culture.

Overall the number of people who witness various rituals depends on its meaning to the culture. In some religious ceremonies a whole sacred community may take part in an event. While some modern ceremonies may only involve family and friends.

Unusual Rituals Based on Legends

Amid the lists of ceremonies, there are a number that stand out for being unusual. Some of them have developed because of legends. This includes the practice of “land diving” as a coming of age ritual on the island nation of Vanuatu.

It involves young men climbing tall wooden towers, tying vines to their ankles and jumping off – somewhat like bungee jumping. This activity has been practiced for centuries as an ultimate test of masculinity and bravery. Yet, ironically historians date the practice to a legend about a woman.

It is said a woman ran away into the forest when she was upset with her husband Tamalie. He chased after her so she climbed a tree. When he followed she tied vines around her ankles and jumped. He also jumped but without the vines and died. Men are said to practice this jumping exercise now so they don’t suffer the same fate.

Originally women participated in land diving, but that changed over time, and it became an exclusively male activity. Over the years it also changed from trees to towers, and the practice has been said to bring a bountiful yam harvest.

These coming of age practices from land diving to dancing are just some of the ways various cultures have helped welcome young people into adulthood over the centuries. To learn more about cultures around the world, consider a student travel program for yourself or a teen in your family!

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer