Karo  people


Karo / Kara / Kerre

The Karo dwell along the banks of the Omo River (Ethiopia) (according to oral tradition, they settled at the Omo after following a red bull there almost two centuries ago) and largely rely on the river’s annual flood for sustenance – much like the ancient Egyptians who lived along the Nile thousands of years ago. The Karo predominantly practice flood retreat cultivation, growing sorghum, maize, and beans. They also fish and breed cattle and goats.

Surrounded by more powerful and wealthier tribes, they created a complex social hierarchy to thwart intermarriage and keep their lineages pure. Their neighbours include the Hamar, Bana, Bashada, Nyangatom, and Mursi. The groups have always traded amongst each other for cloth, beads, cattle, and food. The Karo are closely related to the Harmar tribe, who speak virtually identical Omotic languages. These two tribes are of the same ancestry and some of their cultural practices allude to a rich cultural history together.

The Karo are undeniably artistic by nature. Among other things, they are known for their alluring and intricate body and face painting. They decorate their bodies with locally found white chalk, yellow mineral rock, iron ore and charcoal. This is an elaborate process with designs ranging from simple and fine dots to rough but remarkable lines traced with palms or fingers

Karo people

Animal motifs such as the spotted plumage of the guinea fowl are some of the striking body painting designs they do. Both men and women practice this symbolic and ornamental expression in a bid to appear more attractive to the opposite sex. It’s also done on special occasions.

Beauty is an important aspect of the Karo’s cultural tradition, and for the women, it is literally ingrained deep in their bodies. Women inflict lacerations and cuts on their chests, stomachs, or backs to produce intricate patterns of scars. Again, all this is done for beauty reasons, as a woman with these types of scars on her torso is considered mature and attractive. The scars are cut with a knife or razor and ash is rubbed in to produce a permanent welt.

Men scarify themselves too, but for a different reason: To symbolise courageous acts. If you see a Karo man with scars across his chest, you know that he has bravely killed enemies from rival tribes or a deadly animal. A man sporting scars on his chest is held in high esteem in his community. Each scar represents a single kill. Another merit bestowed on brave Karo warriors is the right to wear a grey and red ochre clay hair bun. Ostrich feathers are inserted in the hair bun to complete the stylish look.  This coveted clay hair bun is often remade every three to six months, and can be worn for a period of up to one year.

Karo women usually don only a loincloth made from hide, and drape colourful beads around their necks. They lather their hair with ochre mixed with animal fat.

As expected, the Karo have specific rituals and ceremonies that define their culture. Like the Hamar and Bashada, they practice the Bula, or bull jumping, which signifies the coming of age for young men. An initiate has to prove his readiness for manhood by successfully jumping over rows of cattle six times in a row. Those who fail are disgraced while the successful boys qualify to marry and earn the right to appear in sacred places with elders of the clan. But there’s a catch: a young man can only marry if his older brothers have done so.

It is remarkable how, in the age of Internet revolutions and globalisation, the customs of the Omo tribes continue to survive and remain untainted. The only signs of a modern world in the Omo are plastic containers for fetching water from the river, T-shirts (which they hardly wear), and AK-47 riffles. The AK-47, which has flooded the region due to the on-going conflict in neighbouring Sudan and Somalia, has become the Omo tribes’ weapon of choice for protection against enemies and to protect their livestock from wild beasts.

The Omo Valley is truly unique. Its significance has been recognised by UNESCO, which named it a World Heritage Site in 1980. Simply put, no other place in the world boasts such a wide variety of people with such diverse cultures. Absolutely awe-inspiring stuff.


Ethnographic information from Database for Indigenous Cultural Evolution (DICE) - Mizzou University of Missouri



The Karo people are a small group of about 1000-3000 people. They considered the masters of body painting in which they engage in when preparing for a dance, feast or celebration. They are physically attractive because of their elaborate body decorations and modifications.

They belong to the Omotic language family. They speak the same language as the Hamar. They live along the east banks of the Omo River in southern Ethiopia



Neighbors include the Hamar (to the South East), Bana (to the East), Bashada (to the East), The Mursi (to the North) and Nyangatom (to the west across the Omo river). They have had no recorded missionary influences

Ecology (natural environment)

They live on the banks of the River Omo, south of the Omo-Mago junction


They are a small tribe with an estimated population between 1,000 and 3,000.


Main carbohydrate staple(s): The crops that are grown by flood retreat cultivation are sorghum, maize and beans. Only small cattle are kept because of the tsetse flies

Main protein-lipid sources: fish


The Karo men carry AK-47s. They are major weapon distributors. Few men are ever seen outside the community without them

Food storage

There is no evidence found supporting this practice

Sexual division of production

The women and girls crow the crops, do the housework, collect the water and look after the children. The men work the crops, defend the herds and plough with the oxen. 2.6 Land tenure: No information found.


The tribe does not work with ceramics. However, they do work with clay, making clay hair buns.

Life History, mating, marriage
  • Girls get married whenever the scarification process is complete. Men marry once they complete the bulljumping ceremony.
  • Divorce: Proportion of marriages ending in divorce: divorce is allowed but must be negotiated.
  • Men in the tribe may have as many wives as they want provided they can afford them. Typically, a man will marry only two or three women
  • Marriage in this tribe requires “bride wealth” – a payment made to the woman’s family – generally consisting of goats, guns and numerous cattle.
  • It is a patriarchal society so the sons inherit.
  • The women take care of the children
  • No evidence of homosexuality. Heterosexual activities are common.
  • Exogamy is often practiced. Marriage between the Karo and Kwegu tribes happens often
  • "Other fathers” are not recognized because children born of wedlock are killed and intercourse with anyone except the spouse is considered an insult and shame to one’s family.
  • Preferential category for spouse. The tribe believes that a woman scarifies her chest and stomach to be considered beautiful by the men.
  • Do females enjoy sexual freedoms? No. This is supported by the fact that children born of wedlock are considered an abomination.
  • The Karo tribe kills infants born out of wedlock as that is seen as dire abomination and an unpardonable shame to one’s family
  • If mother dies, whose raises children?: Another wife or closest kin on the mother’s side.
  • If a tribe member has a child out of wedlock, they are considered to have brought great shame upon their family and it is an unpardonable act in the tribe
  • Temporary marriages are established by oral contracts before witnesses.
  • Incest avoidance rules: No evidence found in support or against this.
  • Is there a formal marriage ceremony? Yes. However, details were not found.
  • Is marriage usually (or preferred to be) within community or outside community? The Karo people often intermarry with the Kwegu tribe
  • Are marriages arranged? Typically, the female chooses the man she wants to marry during a dance.

Warfare / homicide

Percent adult (male) deaths due to warfare: Numbers were not found but pictures depicting battle scars on men showed a high number of kills by every male photographed.

Outgroup vs ingroup cause of violent death: conflicts over grazing land, revenge killing,

Causes of out-group killing are cattle raids, conflict of grazing lands and revenge killing.


Number, diversity and relationship with neighboring societies (external relations)

They peacefully co-exist with their neighbors but at times get into conflict with the Mursi (7). 4.35 Cannibalism? Not practiced. No evidence found to prove otherwise.


Llocal residential (village) group size

A typical Kara village has 20 to 30 huts around a meeting place and also enclosures of branches to keep cattle and goats.


Mobility pattern: (seasonality)

No evidence was found to suggest the tribes travel.


Political system: (chiefs, clans etc, wealth or status classes)

Men put feathers in their clay buns when they become elders of the village.



(defined boundaries, active defense): Tribes have their own grazing land but they commonly are the cause for outgroup disputes. Villages do not have defined boundaries.


Social interaction divisions (age and sex)

As children, the boys and girls play together. It is assumed that once they obtain maturity (for which an age was not found), the girls help the women with chores and the boys help take care of the cattle.


Special friendships/joking relationships

Temporary marriages are established by oral contracts before witnesses.


Village and house organization

Every karo family own two houses-the conical shaped Ono which is the principal living room of the family and the flat roofed Gappa which is the center of several house hold activities

They have special men’s houses called “chifo” where they go to rest. They also have a ceremony house, called Marmar where married men speak of important matters to the tribe.

The men and women sleep on the ground. Men use their headdress as pillows.


Social organization, clans, moieties, lineages, etc

The society is patriarchal. 5.12 Trade: The Karo tribe is considered a weapons distributor

They also exchange grains and clay pottery with the Hamar for livestock

Each Karo village has a group of elders.


Ritual/Ceremony/Religion (RCR)

The tribe performs the bull jumping ceremony once every year

Each village has at least one midwife who also knows some basic traditional medical knowledge.

No evidence of stimulant usage was discovered

A young bride’s puberty is celebrated through scarification. Cuts are made into her abdomen and ash is then rubbed into it to promote healing. The scars enhance her desirability. (National Geographic magazine, Volume 196 V, 1999).

The bull jumping ceremony is one where the males jump over bulls. The ones who are able to do so prove they are capable of marrying


Myths (Creation)

The Karo believe that all members have to be physically perfect for the tribe to survive and that anomalies, like twins, a cleft lip or a baby’s teeth coming through the wrong way, must be dealt with by leaving the child to die. This belief is called Mingi. (Taboo, National Geographic TV, UK).

At the end of the harvest and at times of initiations and marriages, the Karo come together to enjoy dances. During the moonlight dances, the men leap joining one another in long lines towards the women, who come forward one by one to select the man they favor. Afterwards the men and women, coupling themselves, perform rhythmic and pulsating dances, thrusting their hips against one another. These dances often lead to marriage. They also have a ceremony of jumping over lined cattle, similar to that of the Hamer. A young who is able to jump over a large number of cattle proves that he is able to marry.

Only males are allowed to participate in the bull jumping.



They are mainly followers of ethnic religions. However, Christianity makes up about 4.30% of the population.



Body paint: They paint their bodies and faces with white mixed with yellow rock, red iron ore and charcoal to make its color like many other tribes in the Omo valley.

Piercings: A number of the Karo women sport a nail or nail-shaped object sticking out of their chin. Some men and children practice this too

Haircut: Men always shave their head while women plait their hair into many braids and decorate them with beads. The clay hairbun, sported by both men and women can take up to three days to construct and is usually re-made every three to six months.

Scarification: The women scar their chest believing it makes them beautiful. The men's scars represent an enemy or dangerous animal killed. The scars are cut with knives and have ash rubbed into the wounds to create a raised effect.

Adornment (beads, feathers, lip plates, etc.): Facemasks are worn at times and they have clay hair buns with feathers in them. Red clay mixed with butter is put into their hair

Ceremonial/Ritual adornment: For weddings, a bride’s beauty is enhanced by tattooing her abdomen with different symbols.

Sex differences in adornment: For women, the adornment and scarification is to enhance their beauty. For men, the hair-bun and scars signify kills made (human or animal).

Types of clothing: Men wear only a piece of cloth wound around the waist, knee high with a extra cloth slung over the shoulder. Women wear only a pleated cowskin skirt.