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Are they real?Any time you get more than a few people living together, you've got a society. For many of us, that may mean the familiar milieu of family units, local municipalities and national governments.
But there are many ways to organize a group, as the following societies show. Because of circumstance, tradition or other factors, some of these groups have self-organized in ways that might seem alien to those in the mainstream — cannibalism, underground mansions and wild tree-house dwellings are just some of the more notable features of these societies. Others have formed strikingly familiar community arrangements in extraordinary circumstances.
FIRST UP: A self-governing prison …
A tribe that lives in tree houses and practices cannibalismSlide 2 of 21
A tribe that lives in tree houses and practices cannibalism
Say you're an isolated tribe known for building elaborate tree houses … and for cannibalism. And say a bunch of weird foreigners keep showing up at your doorstep, wanting to know about your crazy flesh-eating customs. Wouldn't you feel just the slightest temptation to exaggerate?
That may be what happened when a Korowai man from the Indonesian province of Papua told a reporter for the Australian version of TV program "60 Minutes" that his 6-year-old nephew was doomed to be cannibal chow if he didn't get any help. A rival "Today Tonight" (another Australian TV news program) crew staged an elaborate rescue but ended up stuck in Jayapura over the lack of a visa. Anthropologists were skeptical of the brouhaha, especially as the boy in question turned out to be from another local tribe, not the notorious Korowai. Plus, anthropologists say the Korowai gave up cannibalism decades ago. They've also learned what tourists like to hear.
"Most of these groups have 10 years' experience in feeding this [cannibal] stuff to tourists," Australian National University anthropologist Chris Ballard told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2006.
Cannibalism aside, the Korowai are famous for their tree-house dwellings, which are often built about 40 feet (12 m) above the ground. Every decade or so, clans of the Korowai would traditionally gather to build a longhouse for a feast with neighboring clans — a ritual of renewal.Slide 3 of 21
Self-government at San Pedro PrisonSlide 4 of 21
Self-government at San Pedro Prison
San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia, isn't an ordinary prison. It's more like a mini city, with a thriving drug trade, a real-estate business and, for many years, tourism. Children live there, raised by convicted parents and the innocent spouses who can't afford to raise them alone on the outside.
A 2003 ABC documentary on San Pedro revealed a world where drug kingpins get special self-financed build-outs in which to serve their sentences. According to the BBC, prisoners work to pay rent, creating a stratified society in which the wealthiest inmates have private bathrooms and kitchens, while the poorest are crammed into small cells or are forced to sleep outside. There are about 1,500 inmates in San Pedro. They self-govern through democratically elected representatives for each section of the complex. [Criminal Minds: A Psychiatrist's View from Inside Prison]
But this isn't a peaceful society. Stabbings are common, and ABC found smokable cocaine being produced, consumed and trafficked in and out of the prison gates. Tourists could long check out the prison for the cost of a small bribe. In 2013, Bolivian officials announced the imminent closure of San Pedro after the alleged rape of a child inside; the event seems to have ended the practice of tourism at the prison, but San Pedro otherwise remains open for business.
UP NEXT: Digging undergroundSlide 5 of 21
An opal-mining underground town in AustraliaSlide 6 of 21
An opal-mining underground town in Australia
The town of Coober Pedy in southern Australia (population: approximately 1,700) is hot. Very hot. The record high temperature in January (summer in the Southern Hemisphere) is 116.8 degrees Fahrenheit (47.1 degrees Celsius). Because of this desert climate, more than half of the town's residents live underground.
Coober Pedy is an opal-mining town, so perhaps it's fitting that residents dug to beat the heat. The dugout homes of Coober Pedy aren't mole-people affairs, either. According to the town's website, some are positively mansion-like, with square footages of more than 4,800 square feet (450 square meters). Underground, the temperature stays a comfortable 77 degrees F (25 degrees C), no matter how the sun blazes above.
UP NEXT: Where walking marriages are a thingSlide 7 of 21
Tiny island in the middle of the Bering StraitSlide 8 of 21