The Early History of Bungee Jumping

Image credit: 

Talk about a serious leap of faith. The first land divers plunged head first toward hard soil, all in the name of agriculture.
The Jump and Grind
If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too? Chances are, if you're a Vanuatan male and hoping for a really spectacular yam crop this year, the answer's yes. Vanuatu, an archipelago in the Southern Pacific perhaps best known for its starring role in 2004's Survivor: Vanuatu, also has another claim to fame. Its Pentecost Island is the home of a death-defying religious ceremony known as naghol (a.k.a. land diving) that inspired modern-day bungee jumping.

To be fair, land divers don't really jump off cliffs. Instead, they construct 75-foot-tall wooden towers in their village centers, tilling the ground below the towers by removing any rocks or debris. Then, they tie long, elastic vines around their ankles. And then, on one or two days in late spring, they jump. The islanders believe that as the men's hair brushes against the ground at the nadir of their fall, it fertilizes the soil and helps ensure a bountiful yam crop.

Naghol is also a great excuse for village-wide parties; as the men line up to dive, crowds dance and sing below. Before they jump, they raise their arms in a signal that silences the cheering throng, and "“ as if acknowledging that their next act may be their last "“ they reveal their most private thoughts. Then they clap their hands, cross their arms in a corpse pose, and take the plunge. At the bottom, assuming the diver survives, male relatives untie his ankles and flip him right-side up, to the cheers of adoring crowds. (We'd like to see the well-coiffed Survivor contestants try that.) When legendary naturalist David Attenborough visited Pentecost Island with a BBC camera crew in 1950, the world got its first glimpse of land diving. Naturally, it was only a matter of years (29, to be exact) before thrill-seeking westerners followed suit.

The West Gets Roped In

bungee-jumping.jpgBelieve it or not, the West's first glimpse of a bungee jump occurred on April Fool's Day, 1979, when onlookers at the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, witnessed what appeared to be a suicide. Dressed in a top hat and tails and hugging a bottle of champagne, 33-year-old David Kirke did a back flip off the bridge, 250 feet above the River Avon. To the great surprise of horrified witnesses, Kirke never hit the water; instead, he slowed just before reaching its surface, then began a re-ascent toward the bridge. Whereupon three similarly tuxedoed friends of Kirke "“ members of what they called the "Dangerous Sports Club" "“ made the jump as well.When police arrived the four were hanging from the ends of their homemade elastic ropes. In quick succession they were each arrested, fined £100, and became overnight celebrities. Of course, Kirke didn't exactly stop there. He and his club also tried hang gliding from active volcanoes, BASE jumping and experimented with a human catapult capable of tossing a person 55 feet into the air in just 1.9 seconds. Seriously, kids, don't try this stuff at home (or anywhere, really); that last one figured prominently in a 2002 manslaughter trial.

This article was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.
* * * * *

More from mental_floss...

July 13, 2008 - 6:47pm
webby
submit to reddit